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.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy), and a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU. 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.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father’s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; A Time to Forget in East Berlin; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can also follow the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 400,000+ followers