The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is about a woman, Oedipa Mass.
Oedipa stumbles upon a conspiracy in California which eventually leads her onto an amazing adventure, landing her by the end of the book in an auction room as she awaits the crying, or an auctioneer shouting out a sale, of a stamp collection once owned by her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, who is deceased.
Oedipa bounces around one mini-adventure sequence to the next, a comedic novel more than anything, trying to fulfill the last wishes of Pierce. When the story is finished and the book is closed, a reader must eventually ask: is this book a work of art?
John Gardner certainly had issues with Pynchon, one of the most notable recluses in America. Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, mentions the “cynical nihilism or the winking, mugging despair of Thomas Pynchon” (93).
There is much of that in The Crying of Lot 49.
But what makes this novel work? What makes it an interesting, publishable story?
I would argue two aspects: 1) Mania; 2) the Absurdity of the Lie; but both primarily dealing with the author’s intent on engaging the reader. Pynchon does these two things quite well.
In verisimilar fiction Gardner argues that an author must do one of two things to convince the reader. Gardner in The Art of Fiction writes: “In any piece of fiction the writer’s first job is to convince the reader that the events he recounts really happened, or to persuade the reader that they might have happened…or else to engage the reader’s interest in the patent absurdity of the lie” (22).
Pynchon uses the latter option, engaging the reader with such absurdities that they could possibly have happened. Just maybe. How Pynchon is able to pull such a feat as this off is by applying a technique that Charles Baxter terms as mania.
“Obsessions and manias,” Baxter writes in The Art of Subtext, “are narrative friendly, partly because maniacs draw attention to themselves” (38). Although Oedipa begins the story as normal as a character could be, by the end she fears for her sanity and has, over the course of events, become a maniac, or having “an emotional over-investment in any object that can’t possibly give back what the individual wants from it” (The Art of Subtext 38). Oedipa remarks to herself towards the end of the book about the unseen society conspiring against her:
They are stripping from me, she said subvocally—feeling like a fluttering curtain in a very high window, moving up to then out over the abyss—they are stripping away, one by one, my men. My shrink, pursued by Israelis, has gone mad; my husband, on LSD, gropes like a child further and further into the rooms and endless rooms of the elaborate candy house of himself and away, hopelessly away, from what has passed, I was hoping forever, for love; my one extra-marital fella has eloped with a depraved 15-year-old; my best guide back to the Trystero has taken a Brody. Where am I? (The Crying of Lot 49 126)
Pynchon is able to engage the reader’s interest by enlarging the actions and suspicions Oedipa Mass has throughout her adventures. She is not only lost literally but she is becoming lost to reality as well, and all can become very interesting to a reader living and working in a somewhat uneventful life. Pynchon concludes Oedipa’s adventures with this thought:
Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only was she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia (The Crying of Lot 49 151).
Baxter is correct when he claims that “mania always enlarges its object” (The Art of Subtext 39). Oedipa’s adventures become larger than herself, drawing the reader also into the paranoia, wondering if she is truly mad or the victim; either way, Pynchon has the reader tangled in the nets of his story.
Pynchon, however, fails in one respect. By the end of The Crying of Lot 49 there is no accurate solution to the character’s problems, no denouement. She waits to meet the mysterious person who is willing to purchase the fraudulent stamps at the auction.
It is as though Pynchon simply stops writing or fails to connect all the dots of the adventure into a true finale. Gardner remarks on such tactics:
The mistakes that offend in a would-be work of art are serious slips in reasoning, as when some idea or event is introduced that ought to change the outcome but then is forgotten, or never recognized for what it is, by the writer (The Art of Fiction 4).
Pynchon does this on several occasions. One, specifically, is the connections made to the army soldiers’ bones collected at the bottom of the sea and then sold back to American companies to make charcoal (The Crying of Lot 49, p. 46-47). As the story unfolds and then passes the important plot point it is then never heard of again. It is as though Pynchon simply stops writing his book and leaves the reader with as many questions as he first began on page one.
To conclude, John Gardner defines a work of art as being something that is able to teach and affirm and “if it does not teach and affirm, [the writer] refuses the denomination of art” (On Moral Fiction xviii).
In The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon ultimately neither teaches nor affirms, but does offer the reader one paranoid maniac to follow for roughly 150 pages and then leaves the reader unsatisfied, questioning the story more than learning from it.
Baxter, Charles. The Art of Subtext. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2007. Print.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction (1984). New York: Vintage Books, 1991. Print.
—. On Moral Fiction (1978). New York: Basic Books, 2000. Print.
Forster, E.M. Aspects of the Novel (1927). New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1985. Print.
Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.
The American novelist CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, & he’s a been member of the Hemingway Society, Americans for the Arts, PEN America, Club Med, & the Royal Society of Literature. He’s also a been Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) based in London.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), The Mystic’s Smile ~ A Play in 3 Acts (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), Little Hometown, America (2020); A Time to Forget in East Berlin (2022), and Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being (2023).
He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979.
A TIME TO FORGET IN EAST BERLIN
BREW Book Excellence Award Winner
BREW Readers’ Choice Award Winner
“A spellbinding tale of love and espionage set under the looming shadow of the Berlin Wall in 1975… A mesmerising read full of charged eroticism.”
~ Ian Skewis, Associate Editor for Bloodhound Books, & author of best-selling novel A Murder of Crows (2017)
“An engrossing story of clandestine espionage… a testament to the lifestyle encountered in East Berlin at the height of the Cold War.”
~ Lone Star Literary Life Magazine
“There is no better way for readers interested in Germany’s history and the dilemma and cultures of the two Berlins to absorb this information than in a novel such as this, which captures the microcosm of two individuals’ love, relationship, and options and expands them against the blossoming dilemmas of a nation divided.”
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“A Time to Forget in East Berlin is a dream-like interlude of love and passion in the paranoid and violent life of a Cold War spy. The meticulous research is evident on every page, and Fewston’s elegant prose, reminiscent of novels from a bygone era, enhances the sensation that this is a book firmly rooted in another time.”
~ Matthew Harffy, prolific writer & best-selling historical fiction author of the “Bernicia Chronicles” series
“Vivid, nuanced, and poetic…”
“Fewston avoids familiar plot elements of espionage fiction, and he is excellent when it comes to emotional precision and form while crafting his varied cast of characters.”
“There’s a lot to absorb in this book of hefty psychological and philosophical observations and insights, but the reader who stays committed will be greatly rewarded.”
“Readers of The Catcher in the Rye and similar stories will relish the astute, critical inspection of life that makes Little Hometown, America a compelling snapshot of contemporary American life and culture.”
“Fewston employs a literary device called a ‘frame narrative’ which may be less familiar to some, but allows for a picture-in-picture result (to use a photographic term). Snapshots of stories appear as parts of other stories, with the introductory story serving as a backdrop for a series of shorter stories that lead readers into each, dovetailing and connecting in intricate ways.”
~ D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review
“The American novelist CG FEWSTON tells a satisfying tale, bolstered by psychology and far-ranging philosophy, calling upon Joseph Campbell, J. D. Salinger, the King James Bible, and Othello.”
“In this way, the author lends intellectual heft to a family story, exploring the ‘purity’ of art, the ‘corrupting’ influences of publishing, the solitary artist, and the messy interconnectedness of human relationships.”
~ Lone Star Literary Life Magazine
GOLD Winner in the 2020 Human Relations Indie Book Awards for Contemporary Realistic Fiction
FINALIST in the SOUTHWEST REGIONAL FICTION category of the 14th Annual National Indie Excellence 2020 Awards (NIEA)
“Fewston’s lyrical, nostalgia-steeped story is told from the perspective of a 40-year-old man gazing back on events from his 1980s Texas childhood…. the narrator movingly conveys and interprets the greater meanings behind childhood memories.”
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American Novelist CG FEWSTON
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“This is a wellness movement,” Nico explains. The wellness movement is focused on three specific areas: information, encouragement, & accountability.
In these stressful & unprecedented times, it makes good sense to promote & encourage the state or condition of being in good physical & mental health.
To learn more you can visit: Americans For Safe Access & Texans for Safe Access, ASA (if you are in Texas).
The mission of Americans for Safe Access (ASA) is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research.
TEXANS FOR SAFE ACCESS ~ share the mission of their national organization, Americans for Safe Access (ASA), which is to ensure safe and legal access to cannabis (marijuana) for therapeutic use and research, for all Texans.
Stay safe & stay happy. God bless.
Nico Murillo Bio ~ Americans & Texans for Safe Access ~ Medical Cannabis
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