It says something about Thomas Pynchon that The Crying of Lot 49, by all reports a straightforward book, is, by Pynchonian standards, an oddity. For a writer who has built a reputation on constructing labyrinthine tomes that endlessly branch off for pages and pages until the reader wearily abandons any attempt at deciphering a plot, Lot 49 is, well, linear. By far the most accessible of Pynchon’s works The Crying of Lot 49 is also probably his most concentrated. So short that it is often referred to as novella, Lot 49 manages to get at Pynchon’s big ideas and even contain some of his delightfully controlled chaos.
It is the story of Oedipa Maas, summoned to California’s San Narcisco to fulfill a duty to left her by some shady inheritance, namely to oversee the execution of a rather large estate left by the
newly deceased Pierce Inverarity. Immediately Oedipa finds herself overwhelmed by the size and complexity of Inverarity’s estate, and hopelessly imagines that she will never get Inverarity’s affairs
straightneed out. No sooner does she lose hope than Oedipa meets an odd man who seems to have some ideas to help her. As the two look into the estate, coincidence after coincidence piles up until Oedipa finds herself enmeshed in what may or may not be a global conspiracy where almost every person, place, and thing she meets up with can, given enough time, be plausibly fit.
The central question to this story, does the conspiracy exist or is Oedipa making it all up, is a metaphor which Pynchon pursues over many divergent paths, each leading to a different idea. On one
level, Oedipa’s quest is a microcosm of each of our own lives: using the available information she (and we) creates a story about the way things really are and continually tests and refines it. That Oedipa finds substantial clues in the oddest and most coincidental places is part of the mystery: is it really that life is so capricious that random encounters can have profound impacts, or is life much more banal, leaving Oedipa to simply imagine connections amidst a sea of information?
On another level, Pynchon uses Opedipa’s quest to get at the concept of entropy. Pynchon likes to apply terms and ideas from the realm of physics to psychological and sociological phenomena, and his
invocation of entropy may be the most famous instance of this. Just as in a closed system individual particles will tend toward greater disorder so in Pynchon’s universe do the people and information in
our society tend toward entropy. Fighting against this decay is Oedipa, who tries to create some order out of the randomness that she encounters. Again we are met with a similar question, do Oedipa’s
actions counter entropy and point toward some transcendent truth or is she simply fighting an impossible battle and unable to create order in the world?
Once you’ve accepted that these questions are valid there’s nothing to do but follow Pynchon’s ideas to their inevitable conclusion: in Lot 49 there is no truth other than that which we
create. In a sense, all of the characters are like Oedipa; although they aren’t questing to ferret out a conspiracy, they are attempting to fit everything they come across into some kind of rational
framework. And so do we. Cause and effect only exists insofar as we pick out one certain moment to be the cause and once certain moment to be the effect (even though we could have picked out any two points on the chain of causation), things only become important once we say they are. Each of us is at the center of our own self-ordered universe.
But how do we know that the universe is really ours? Every day we are bombarded by thousands of stimuli outside of our control, each of which seeks to order our life for us. Does Oedipa see the
conspiracy as she wants to or as the system wants her to? It is here, where Pynchon examines the limits of freedom in modern life that he makes his most substantial points.
Clearly, despite Lot 49′s brevity, there is a lot at stake, and in its own way this fact makes the book appealing. Lacking the heft of Pynchon’s tomes (notably V. and
Gravity’s Rainbow) Lot 49 is pure, distilled Pynchon. This means that if you read Lot 49 you don’t exactly get the Pynchon experience, but you also don’t have to wade through miles and miles of intricate, yet beautiful, prose to see what Pynchon is trying to say. As such, think of Lot 49 as an introduction. If you like what you see, then acquire another Pynchon book and read on. If you don’t like it, then perhaps Pynchon isn’t your flavor.
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