Oedipa Maas has been named executrix of her ex-lover, Pierce Inverarity’s vast estate. She leaves her normal, uninspiring life with radio DJ husband Mucho, to travel to the industrial town of San Narcisco. Here she meets a variety of strange individuals. Miles, frontman of The Paranoids, a band of young stoners and a clear parody of the Beatles. Doctor Hilarius, Oedipa’s shrink who calls her late every night to persuade her to take part in an LSD experiment on housewives. Mike Fallopian, a member of a secret mail service who Oedipa meets at electro bar The Scope.
From here on it gets real weird.
Oedipa, as she digs deeper into Pierce’s legacy, begins to uncover a trail of breadcrumbs that potentially unearths a conflict between two mail distribtion companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero.
Pynchon’s wordplay is frantic and clever, with sentences that interweave and change meaning in an instance. The feeling of paranoia, unsettling conspiracy, addiction and confusion are nailed by Pynchon. I’d find myself smirking, feeling unsettled, then confusion would kick in…all within the space of a paragraph.
I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed The Crying Of Lot 49. I found it funny, in that nauseating way that you find the strangest things funny when you’ve had too much to drink.
“I came,” she said, “hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy.”
Cherish it!” cried Hilarious, fiercely. “What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by it’s little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”
The lengthy play-within-a-play, The Courier’s Tragedy is an intriguing drama that mirrors a lot of what Oedipa is picking up in San Narcisco. I dunno, there’s something about fiction-within-fiction that really appeals to me. The Man In The High Castle had ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ which paralleled the events of the central plot and brought a foreshadowing to proceedings. Here, the events of the play, a Jacobean revenge play, is as confusing and convoluted as the actual book in which it is found, but one thing is clear; Trystero, whom in the play have conflict with Thurn und Taxis, and whose agents seem to represent a shadowy organisation that has no qualms in killing to further its unknown missions.
Suddenly, in lithe and terrible silence, with dancers’ grace, three figures, long-limbed, effeminate, dressed in black tights, leotards and gloves, black silk hose pulled over their faces, come capering onstage and stop, gazing at him. Their faces behind the stockings are shadowy and deformed. They wait. The lights all go out.
And all this tying into the postal service, a potential conflict that has been running for hundreds of years, Thurn and Taxis (which is actually a real postal service) and Trystero. It’s an interesting premise, and as the men Oedipa meets start to become silenced, there seems to be a real threat.
There is an interesting passage within the first chapter where Oedipa refers to herself as Rapunzel, trapped in an unscalable tower that is her mundane life. Among the suggestions of Inverarity creating a joke to lead her astray, could this also be the willful seeing of what is not there, in order to create something truely massive in her life that has so far left her unfulfilled?
Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?
The titled crying of Lot 49 refers to the auction that takes place in the book’s open-ended conclusion, with Inverarity’s stamp collection (filled with forged Trystero stamps) up for sale. As the auction starts we feel as exasperated as Oedipa does. Will the mystery bidder be a Trystero representative, validating all of Oedipa’s hopes and fears? Or will it have all been a game, a joke at her expense, set up by her eccentric and wealthy ex? Hell, maybe she was taking her shrink’s advice and it’s an LSD-fuelled hallucination. We don’t know, and when we leave Oedipa on the brink of insanity, for all her weeks of exhausting and at times involuntary scrutiny, she still does not know.
The Crying Of Lot 49 is touted as an exceptional piece of postmodernist fiction, and certainly the uncertainty of it all is a trait of the postmodern movement. The more scientific, theoretical ramblings of the definitions of meaning, when considering proof and paranoia, didn’t really work for me. Or maybe it did. I’m still unsure whether I enjoyed the book…and I’m OK with that. I think.
© Nicholas J. Parr, 2015