Thomas Pynchon's amazing and hilarious The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49

  • Author:  Thomas Pynchon  (b. 1937)
  • Rank:  #43
  • Published:  1966
  • Publisher:  J.B. Lippincott Company
  • Pages:  183
  • First Line:  “One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.”
  • Last Lines:  “Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel.  The auctioneer cleared his throat.  Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Film:  none
  • Acclaim:  All-TIME List
  • First Read:  July, 2000

The Novel:  “Things then did not delay in turning curious.”  Those aren’t the opening words of The Crying of Lot 49 but they easily could have been.  Indeed, they would be fitting opening words to any of Pynchon’s novels (they in fact arrive on page 44 at the start of Chapter 3).  In a sense, it is either the best or worst novel of Pynchon’s with which to dive into his work.  It is the best because it is the most accessible, yet also indicative of his other work – full of puns and humor, strange conspiracies, intricate plotting, names that are amusing when coming from Pynchon and would just seem silly in almost any other work.  On the other hand, the fact that it is accessible, the fact that you can easily read it and even understand it without needing to consult reference guides or understand all the references leave you unprepared for just about any other Pynchon novel except Inherent Vice (which, set in similar locals, seems like a pair to this book).

I could describe the plot, the way Oedipa Maas must deal with the will left behind by her former lover Pierce, the way it drags into strange secret societies revolving around WASTE.  But the plot isn’t really the important thing here.  It’s not the destination, but rather the journey (in fact, in a sense, if you know the ending, and since I give you the last lines, you do know the ending, there is no destination and that is part of the fun).  Part of the destination is in Pynchon’s marvelous understanding of Southern California, of the desolate cultural wasteland that springs up among the cities: “Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts – census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.”  Or look at this other line and how much it echoes the later famous Joan Didion line (“It is very easy to sit at the bar in, say, La Scala in Beverly HIlls, or Ernie’s in San Francisco, and to share in the pervasive delusion that California is only five hours from New York by air. The truth is that La Scala and Ernie’s are only five hours from New York by air. California is somewhere else.”) “San Narciso was a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams became among our accumulated daylight, a moment’s squall-line or tornado’s touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnities – storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence.  There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries.  No one knew yet how to draw them.”  In those lines, Pynchon uses his trademark humor to cut right to the quick of the alienation in all of Southern California.

But it’s not all humor.  There is also Pynchon’s beautiful prose, a reminder of the kind of language that would build up to Gravity’s Rainbow:

At some indefinite passage in night’s sonorous score, it also came to her that she would be safe, that something perhaps only her linearly fading drunkenness, would protect her.  The city was her, as, made up and sleeked so with the customary words and images (cosmopolitan, culture, cable cars) it had not been before: she had safe-passage tonight to its far blood’s branchings, be they capillaries too small for more than peering into, or vessels mashed together in shameless municipal hickeys, out on the skin for all but tourists to see.

Or, perhaps it is the way all of it comes together, the humor and the sincerity.  Where else would you find this line:  “The illustrations were woodcuts, executed with crude haste to see the finished product that marks the amateur.  True pornography is given us by vastly patient professionals.” in the same novel with this one: “She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry.

I know it’s heresy among serious literary scholars to consider Crying a superior book to Gravity’s Rainbow.  But in its accessibility, in its humor, in the way it draws me in from the very first line and keeps me riveted and laughing all the way to that final fantastic finish, this is where I place it.