Books on Tap read The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon at Champion Brewery on July 8. This episodic, discursive novella, examining the making of meanings and reflecting the paranoia of 1960s California, paired with recent book club selections by David Foster Wallace and James Joyce, although some readers found those choices more accessible. It follows the adventures of Oedipa Maas, a young suburban housewife tasked with settling the estate of developer Pierce Inverarity, her former lover. What starts out as a straightforward tasks quickly brings Maas into contact with a computer firm, a punk band, a former child actor, a stamp collector, Jacobean revenge plays, lakes full of bones and a possible underground postal system. The book’s title isn’t explained until the final pages and itself becomes a cliff hanger. Pynchon drew on his experience living in California and working for Boeing and perhaps classes he took from Nabokov at Cornell. The themes he develops in this story appear in his later work.
The conspiracies that twist through the tale reminded some of a more-complicated Dan Brown plot. Others thought of non-plot driven movies like The Big Lebowski. The set-pieces in the novella both reflect and heighten the weirdness of 1960s California, both in the mainstream and the counterculture. The references do not date the novel (although one younger reader asked “who still sends mail?”) so much as presage current issues, such as alternative communication streams like Twitter, revelations of possible conspiracies in the Panama Papers and WikiLeaks and the fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg covers the camera on his laptop. As one reader said, it is both timely and timeless.
All participants, whether they liked the book or not, found beautifully written passages to enjoy, even if Pynchon’s metaphors piled up beyond understanding. The names Pynchon creates such as Mike Fallopian, Manny di Presso and Dr. Hilarius were both evocative and exhausting. The struggles Oedipa (named in a nod to the Oedipus myth) had assigning meaning to the symbols and stories she ran across mirror our society’s difficulties in interpreting myths we no longer fully know. Like all humans, she coalesces her clues into a narrative but the source material is missing (for Oedipa, the original Jacobean play, for us the history driving local events). In the end, Oedipa cannot decide if her detective work pointing to an underground postal network is a node in a web of conspiracies (a web that would necessitate the bribing of librarians to accomplish), a hoax by a powerful industrialist or indicative of her descent into madness. At it’s best, The Crying of Lot 49 is a beautiful, relevant mess.
How to read a Pynchon novel
On the 50th anniversary of publication
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August 4: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
September 1: Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift
October 6: The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami