Summer Reading Recommendation: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon. A postmodernist novel not only about conspiracy, symbolism, and meaning but also about confusing the three. At only 152 pages, it is short enough to read during a week vacation, while in-depth enough not to make the reader feel as if they’re slumming with a Grisham.
Jean-Francois Lyotard claimed that postmodernism “allows the unpresentable to be put forward only as the missing contents; but the form, because of its recognizable consistency, continues to offer the reader or viewer matter for solace and pleasure” (337). Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49 is made in the same recognizable consistency as many novels before it, but traditional interpretation will not offer the obvious meanings to the obvious symbols – in fact, quite the contrary- the unpresentable is presented within the lines and the story outside the story. The Crying of Lot 49 embodies the spirit of postmodern literature as it exists by the “shattering of belief and without the discovery of the ‘lack of reality’ of reality, together with the invention of other realities (Lyotard 334).
If one were to describe Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 in one word, one might choose paradox. There is a metanarrative consisting of a character’s (Oedipa Maas) journey to discover meaning in a world full of clues, half-truths, and mysteries; while the reader is simultaneously trying to discover the meaning of the work through the same foggy glass that Oedipa is looking through herself. As she is awakened to a deeper secret world, the reader is also curious about another version of the truth and history but the reader, like Oedipa, can’t be sure if what they’re discovering is reality or their (mis)interpretation of it.
Characters have familiar names that could represent something higher or nothing at all. Some critics have claimed they have found difficulty with character names such as “Mike Fallopian” or “Dr. Hilarious” – neither of whom accurately fit their descriptors. Symbolism has been reduced to absurdity, while contradictorily implying that symbolism is unnoticed all around us and should be elevated.
According to Terry Eagleton, “Postmodernism, which tends to both anti-elitism and anti-universalism, thus lives a certain tension between its political and philosophical values” (343). There is a strange balance of both anti-elitism and anti-universalism in The Crying of Lot 49. Oedipa’s dead former beau, for whom she is caretaker of the last will and testament, is hinted at being (we never meet him) both an economic and esoteric elitist. He is virtually unknown and can be interpreted as playful or nefarious. As a foil, Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas, is out of touch with the elite and out of touch with the universe. The work implies greater meaning while also implying meaning is not what we think it is. It is familiar but distorted and “so becoming a mirror-image of the universalism it repudiates” (Eagleton 343). The Crying of Lot 49 is a distorted mirror. It is a mystery and a comedy. It is fearsome and it is ridiculous. It is a wild and fun ride.
Eagleton, Terry. “From Illusions of the Postmodern.” Ed. Patricia Waugh. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice. London: Arnold, 1989. 341-343. Print.
Lyotard, Jean-Francois. “From Answering the Question: What is Postmodernism? in The Post Modern Condition.” Ed. Patricia Waugh. Modern Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Philip Rice. London: Arnold, 1989. 334, 337. Print.