1966 U.S. first edition
|Published||1966 (J. B. Lippincott & Co.)|
The Crying of Lot 49 is a novella by Thomas Pynchon, first published in 1966. The shortest of Pynchon's novels, it is about a woman, Oedipa Maas, possibly unearthing the centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero (or Tristero). The former actually existed and was the first firm to distribute postal mail; the latter is Pynchon's invention. The novel is often classified as a notable example of postmodern fiction. Time included the novel in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".
The novel follows Oedipa Maas, a California housewife who becomes entangled in a convoluted historical mystery, when her ex-lover dies having named her as the co-executor of his estate. The catalyst of Oedipa's adventure is a set of stamps that may have been used by a secret underground postal delivery service, the Trystero (or Tristero).
According to the narrative that Oedipa pieces together during her travels around Southern California, the Trystero was defeated by Thurn und Taxis--a real postal system--in the 18th century, but Trystero went underground and continued to exist into the present (the 1960s). Its mailboxes are disguised as regular waste bins, often displaying its slogan, W.A.S.T.E. (an acronym for "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire") and its symbol, a muted post horn. The existence and plans of this shadowy organization are revealed bit by bit, but there is always the possibility that the Trystero does not exist. Oedipa is buffeted between believing and not believing in it, without finding proof either way. The Trystero may be a conspiracy, it may be a practical joke, or it may simply be that Oedipa is hallucinating the arcane references to this underground network that she seems to be discovering on bus windows, toilet walls, and everywhere in the Bay Area.
Prominent among these references is the Trystero symbol, a muted post horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa first finds this symbol in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffito advertising a group of polyamorists. It later appears among an engineer's doodles, as part of a children's sidewalk jump rope game, amidst Chinese ideograms in a shop window, and in many other places. The post horn (in either original or Trystero versions) appears on the cover art of many TCL49 editions and in artwork created by the novel's fans.
Oedipa finds herself drawn into the intrigue when an old boyfriend, the California real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, dies. Inverarity's will names her as his executor. Soon, she learns that although Inverarity "once lost two million dollars in his spare time [he] still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary." She leaves her comfortable home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso (Spanish for "Saint Narcissus"), near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences that she uncovers while parsing Inverarity's testament, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Trystero's existence. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the Trystero and believing that it is a hoax established by Inverarity. Near the novel's conclusion, she reflects:
He might have written the testament only to harass a one-time mistress, so cynically sure of being wiped out he could throw away all hope of anything more. Bitterness could have run that deep in him. She just didn't know. He might himself have discovered The Tristero, and encrypted that in the will, buying into just enough to be sure she'd find it. Or he might even have tried to survive death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved.
Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters. Her therapist in Kinneret, Dr. Hilarius, turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane," he explains. In San Francisco, she meets a man who claims membership in the Inamorati Anonymous (IA), a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". In Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's demon, a means for defeating entropy. The book ends with Oedipa's attending an auction, waiting for bidding to begin on a set of rare postage stamps that she believes representatives of Trystero are trying to acquire. (Auction items are called "lots"; a lot is "cried" when the auctioneer is taking bids on it; the stamps are "Lot 49".)
Critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" and an outright parody of postmodernism. "Mike Fallopian cannot be a real character's name," protests one reviewer. Pynchon disparaged this book, writing in the prologue to his 1984 collection Slow Learner, "As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I'd keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a 'novel', and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until then."
As ever with Pynchon's writing, the labyrinthine plots offer myriad linked cultural references. Knowing these references allows for a much richer reading of the work. J. Kerry Grant wrote A Companion to the Crying of Lot 49 in an attempt to catalogue these references but it is neither definitive nor complete.
The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" that took place in the United States and other Western countries. Internal context clues indicate that the novel is set in the summer of 1964, the year in which A Hard Day's Night was released. Pynchon makes a wide variety of Beatles allusions. Most prominent are The Paranoids, a band composed of cheerful marijuana smokers whose lead singer, Miles, is a high-school dropout described as having a "Beatle haircut." The Paranoids all speak with American accents but sing in English ones; at one point, a guitar player is forced to relinquish control of a car to his girlfriend because he cannot see through his hair. It is not clear whether Pynchon was aware of the Beatles' own nickname for themselves, "Los Para Noias"; since the novel is replete with other references to paranoia, Pynchon may have chosen the band's name for other reasons.
Pynchon refers to a rock song, "I Want to Kiss Your Feet", an adulteration of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The song's artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, evokes the names of such historical rock groups as the El Dorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves used, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). "Sick Dick" may also refer to Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy. The song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a 3rd-century bishop of Jerusalem.
Late in the novel, Oedipa's husband, Mucho Maas, a disc jockey at Kinneret radio station KCUF, describes his experience of discovering the Beatles. Mucho refers to their early song "She Loves You", as well as hinting at the areas the Beatles were later to explore. Pynchon writes,
Whenever I put the headset on now," he'd continued, "I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about 'She loves you,' yeah well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the 'you' is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it's a flipping miracle." His eyes brimming, reflecting the color of beer. "Baby," she said, helpless, knowing of nothing she could do for this, and afraid for him. He put a little clear plastic bottle on the table between them. She stared at the pills in it, and then understood. "That's LSD?" she said.
Pynchon, like Kurt Vonnegut, was a student at Cornell University, where he probably at least audited Vladimir Nabokov's Literature 312 class. (Nabokov had no recollection of him, but Nabokov's wife Véra recalls grading Pynchon's examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, "half printing, half script".) The year before Pynchon graduated, Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in the United States. Lolita introduced the word "nymphet" to describe a girl between the ages of nine and fourteen, sexually attractive to the pedophile main character, Humbert Humbert and it was also used in the novel's adaptation to cinema in 1962 by Stanley Kubrick. In the following years, mainstream usage altered the word's meaning to apply to older girls. Perhaps appropriately, Pynchon provides an early example of the modern "nymphet" usage entering the literary canon. Serge, The Paranoids' teenage counter-tenor, loses his girlfriend to a middle-aged lawyer. At one point he expresses his angst in song:
Near the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa recalls a trip to an art museum in Mexico with Inverarity, during which she encountered a painting, Bordando el Manto Terrestre by Remedios Varo. The painting shows eight women inside a tower, where they are presumably held captive. Six maidens are weaving a tapestry that flows out of the windows. The tapestry seems to constitute the world outside of the tower. Oedipa's reaction to the tapestry gives us some insight into her difficulty in determining what is real and what is a fiction created by Inverarity for her benefit:
She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape.
Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn und Taxis and Trystero. Like "The Mousetrap", based on "The Murder of Gonzago" that Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by the fictional Richard Wharfinger) mirror those transpiring around them. In many aspects it resembles a typical revenge play, such as The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, Hamlet by William Shakespeare and plays by John Webster and Cyril Tourneur.