The Crying of Lot 49

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Crying_of_lot_49.jpg
The Crying of Lot 49 book cover, featuring the Thurn und Taxis post horn

The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) is a novel by the author Thomas Pynchon.

The most accessible of Pynchon's novels, the book is about a fictional 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.

Contents

Plot

After being defeated by Thurn und Taxis in the 1700s, the Tristero organization goes underground and continues to exist, with its mailboxes in the least suspected places, often appearing under their slogan W.A.S.T.E., an acronym for We Await Silent Tristero's Empire, and also a smart way of hiding their post-boxes disguised as regular waste-bins. In the plot of the novel, the existence and plans of the shadowy organization are revealed bit by bit...

... or, then again, it is possible that the Tristero does not exist at all. The novel's main character, Oedipa Maas, is buffeted back and forth between believing and not believing in them, without ever finding firm proof either way. The Tristero may be a conspiracy, it may be a practical joke, or it may simply be that Oedipa is hallucinating all the arcane references to the underground network, that she seems to be discovering on bus windows, toilet walls, et cetera.

Prominent among these references is the "Trystero symbol", a muted horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa finds this symbol first in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffitto 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, as well as within artworks created by the novel's fans.

Oedipa finds herself drawn into this shadowy intrigue when an old boyfriend, the California real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, dies. Inverarity's will names her as his executor. Soon enough, 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 (or at least sedate) home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso, near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences she uncovers while exploring 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 all a hoax established by Inverarity himself. 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 surivive 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, a 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 IA, Inamorati Anonymous—a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". (Ironically, the anonymous inamorato wears a lapel pin shaped as the Trystero post horn, which Oedipa first saw on an advertisement for group sex.) And, in Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's Demon.

Pynchon devotes almost a fifth 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 Tristero. Like the Mousetrap which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by "Richard Wharfinger") mirror those in the larger story around them.

As in his earlier novel, V., Pynchon seems to be making a point about human beings' need for certainty, and their need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty. Also, as he had in V., Pynchon laces the book with original song lyrics and outrageously named characters—e.g., Genghis Cohen, Manny DiPresso. "Mike Fallopian cannot be a real character's name," protests one reviewer Template:Ref.

Some have hypothesized that Pynchon was influenced by the racial tensions in southern California that would later turn into riots across the country. On a more ethereal level, critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" Template:Ref and an outright parody of postmodernism Template:Ref. Pynchon himself disparaged this book, writing in 1984, "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." Template:Ref

Allusions within the book

As ever with Pynchon's writing, the labyrinthine plots offer a myriad of interconnecting cultural references. While a basic knowledge of some of these may help decipher the plot, ultimately the enjoyment of the literary games is all that is needed to understand the novel. J. Kerry Grant wrote A Companion to the Crying of Lot 49 Template:Ref in attempts to catalogue these references, but it is neither definitive nor complete, and could not possibly be.

The Beatles

The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" which took place in America and other Western countries. Indeed, internal context clues indicate that it is probably set in 1964, the year in which A Hard Day's Night was released. Pynchon, aptly, 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. 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" Template:Ref; 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", a self-abasing version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, echoes such actual groups as the Eldorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars Template:Ref (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves were forced to use, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). "Sick Dick" may also echo Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy Template:Ref. On top of all this, the song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a third-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.

Vladimir Nabokov

Pynchon, like Kurt Vonnegut, was a student at Cornell University, where he probably at least audited Vladimir Nabokov's Literature 312 class. (Nabokov himself had no recollection of him, but Nabokov's wife Vera recalls grading Pynchon's examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, "half printing, half script".) Template:Ref The year before Pynchon graduated, Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in the United States; among other things, Lolita introduced the word "nymphet" to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of nine and fourteen. In following years, mainstream usage altered the word's meaning somewhat, broadening its applicability. 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:

What chance has a lonely surfer boy
For the love of a surfer chick,
With all these Humbert Humbert cats
Coming on so big and sick?
For me, my baby was a woman,
For him she's just another nymphet.

Allusions to The Crying of Lot 49 in other works

The Yoyodyne company, which first appears in V., is also referenced in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, and it is a manufacturer of starship drives in the Star Trek universe.

Pynchon himself has made two cameo appearances on the animated television series The Simpsons. In both cameos, his face is drawn covered by a paper bag to preserve his anonymity. His second appearance, on the sixteenth-season premiere "All's Fair In Oven War", features a sequence of puns. Tasting a wasabe-flavoured chicken wing, he comments, "V.-licious", and mentions adding it to his cookbook, right after "the frying of latke 49".

On his album Fishcoteque (1988), the Jazz Butcher (aka Pat Fish) named one track "Looking for Lot 49". The Dangtrippers recorded a song entitled "Maxwell's Demon Box" on their album Days Between Stations (1989). Two bands named Lot 49 have existed, one a hardcore group from Ontario and the other an indie rock group from New York City. A Florida group, Yoyodyne, also take their name from this novel. In addition, both Radiohead and Yo La Tengo have included many Pynchonian motifs in their works, some of them hinging upon TCL49. Template:Ref

References and links

External links in the following were last verified on 21 June 2005.

Print media

  • Template:Note Pynchon, Thomas R. The Crying of Lot 49 (J. B. Lippincott, 1965): the original hardcover edition.
— Harper and Row, 1986, reissued 1990. ISBN 0-06-091307-X: Perennial Fiction Library edition.

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