My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Thomas Pynchon’s 1965 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is about a woman, Oedipa Mass, who 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 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.
A Young Thomas Pynchon
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.
Other Books to Consider:
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.
CG FEWSTON is an American novelist who is a member of AWP, a member of Americans for the Arts, and a professional member and advocate of the PEN American Center, advocating for the freedom of expression around the world.
CG FEWSTON has travelled across continents and visited such places as Mexico, the island of Guam, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau, Viet Nam, Cambodia, Singapore, Thailand, Taipei and Beitou in Taiwan, Bali in Indonesia, and Guilin and Shenzhen and Beijing in China. He also enjoys studying and learning French, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin.
CG FEWSTON earned an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership and Administration (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors) from Stony Brook University, and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Fiction from Southern New Hampshire University, where he had the chance to work with wonderful and talented novelists like Richard Adams Carey (author of In the Evil Day, October 2015; and, The Philosopher Fish, 2006) and Jessica Anthony (author of Chopsticks, 2012; and, The Convalescent, 2010) as well as New York Times Best-Selling novelists Matt Bondurant (author of The Night Swimmer, 2012; and, The Wettest County in the World, 2009, made famous in the movie Lawless, 2012) and Wiley Cash (author of A Land More Kind Than Home, 2013; and, This Dark Road to Mercy, 2014).
Among many others, CG FEWSTON’S stories, photographs and essays have appeared in Sediments Literary–Arts Journal, Bohemia, Ginosko Literary Journal, GNU Journal (“Hills Like Giant Elephants”), Tendril Literary Magazine, Prachya Review (“The One Who Had It All”), Driftwood Press, The Missing Slate Literary Magazine (“Darwin Mother”), Gravel Literary Journal, Foliate Oak Magazine, The Writer’s Drawer, Moonlit Road, Nature Writing, and Travelmag: The Independent Spirit; and for several years he was a contributor to Vietnam’s national premier English newspaper, Tuoi Tre, “The Youth Newspaper.”
You can read more about CG FEWSTON and his writing at
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN won GOLD for Literary Classics’ 2015 best book in the category under ”Special Interest” for “Gender Specific – Female Audience”…
Finalist in the 2015 Chatelaine Awards for Romantic Fiction…
Finalist in the 2015 Mystery & Mayhem Novel Writing Contest…
Praise for A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN:
“Fewston delivers an atmospheric and evocative thriller in which an American government secret agent must navigate fluid allegiances and murky principles in 1970s Tehran… A cerebral, fast-paced thriller.”
“A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a thrilling adventure which takes place in pre-revolutionary Tehran. Author CG FEWSTON provides a unique glimpse into this important historical city and its rich culture during a pivotal time in its storied past. This book is so much more than a love story. Skillfully paired with a suspenseful tale of espionage, A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN is a riveting study of humanity. Replete with turns & twists and a powerful finish, FEWSTON has intimately woven a tale which creates vivid pictures of the people and places in this extraordinary novel.”
CG FEWSTON‘s new novel,
A TIME TO LOVE IN TEHRAN, was published on April 2, 2015 —
10 years to the day of the publication
of his first novella, A FATHER’S SON (April 2, 2005)
“Thus one skilled at giving rise to the extraordinary
is as boundless as Heaven and Earth,
as inexhaustible as the Yellow River and the ocean.
Ending and beginning again,
like the sun and moon. Dying and then being born,
like the four seasons.”
found in Sources of Chinese Tradition, p 5