My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A summary of this classic 1965 short novel’s unsummarizable plot: California housewife Oedipa Maas becomes executor (“or she supposed executrix”) of the will of her late lover, real-estate magnate Pierce Inverarity. She travels from her domestic normality in Kinneret-among-Pines to a town near L.A. named San Narciso, and there Oedipa begins to glimpse a vast conspiracy involving a subterranean postal service called Tristero, which was founded by a disinherited Spanish aristocrat at the end of the Thirty Years’ War. Tristero is either a menacing and nearly omnipotent force of underground social control or else a medium of exchange for all outcast and dispossessed people. Or it is a hoax played on Oedipa by her enigmatic lover. Or Oedipa is losing her mind.
In any case, the drive of Oedipa—like that of her tragic/mythic namesake—to solve the riddle of her and her country’s suffering leads her to discover that she is inextricably entangled in a closed and indeed incestuous system of an overweening fate. And the implicit injunction in Inverarity’s bewilderingly polysemous name—pierce into the rare truth (rarity/verity)—will prove ambiguous.
Pynchon’s post-Beat stoner humor (more character names: Dr. Hilarius, Manny Di Presso, Mike Fallopian, Stanley Koteks, Randolph Driblette, Emory Bortz, Genghis Cohen, and Oedipa’s husband, Mucho Maas, who works at the radio station KCUF) is alternately amusing and irritating, but the narrative’s more sophisticated Joycean registers of parody—especially in a brilliant send-up of a Jacobean tragedy in the manner of John Webster—and still more its paranoid psychedelia, its still-relevant political acuity, and its genuine spiritual questing, delivered in a style that alternates between dialogue-heavy farce and dense, visionary prose, makes this one of the twentieth century’s greatest short novels, akin in its anxiously symbolic modernity to Heart of Darkness, Death in Venice, and The Dead, if much funnier than all three put together.
While very clearly of its time and place—the early 1960s California counterculture—The Crying of Lot 49 has never felt dated to me. (I first read it circa 1999.) If updated, it could be set entirely on the Internet, and all of its heroine’s wanderings up and down the Golden State would take place on her laptop or even phone, while she sat, growing increasingly mistrustful of her bland surroundings, in a Kinneret cafe. Today, whether our taste in omni-participatory conspiracy theorizing runs to Mensch-Garland-Abramson or to QAnon, we are now all able to have the Oedipa Maas experience all the time, an experience that begins with that mood in which America is explicable solely as the fantasia of one or another fanatic cabal.
What provokes such a desperate mood? At least three things, Pynchon implies. First, there is the mid-twentieth-century completion of our total walling-in by media, with no prospect whatever of an unmediated experience. On the novel’s first page, Oedipa is observed by “the greenish dead eye of the TV tube”—media, being dead, is a parody of nature (greenish rather than green), and its invitation to us to watch it masks its real goal of watching us. Moreover, every role a human might occupy is routed through its media portrayal, so that everyone is at least half an actor: one of the novel’s characters is an actor who became a lawyer who was then played on TV by a lawyer who became an actor. The second goad to conspiratorial thinking is the genuine poverty and suffering endemic to the western world, the vista of dispossession opened to Oedipa during an episode of nighttime wandering through San Francisco where she desperately searches for clues to the conspiracy. Finally, the secularization and spiritual impoverishment of contemporary life gives us no recourse to a higher order of meaning and metaphysics save imagining an entanglement of unseen forces behind social life. The novel’s religious theme is particularly insistent: again on the novel’s first page, Oedipa speaks the name of God, while at the beginning of her sojourn, looking down on San Narciso—the novel’s motifs of Narcissus, Echo, and Oedipus, catastrophically incestuous or autoerotic couplings all, bespeak the dangers of the closed system—senses that the town exhibits “a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning…an intent to communicate” in an “odd, religious instant.”
Pynchon’s religious investment, which seems to evade corrosion by his fiction’s cynical irony and hysterical laughter, is why I insist on associating him with T. S. Eliot as much as with Herman Melville and James Joyce, to whom he might more obviously be compared. Like Eliot, Pynchon strikes me as genuinely anguished over the “dissociation of sensibility,” the cleavage of body, spirit, and intellect, brought about by science and secularism, and he is moreover disgusted by the mounting waste of modern life that is another of this novel’s motifs. Unlike the anti-clerical materialist Joyce or the Promethean-individualist Melville, but like the Anglo-Catholic convert Eliot, Pynchon imagines the possibility of collective spiritual redemption (see Lot 49‘s passage on the “anarchist miracle” of spontaneous collective action), even if one more democratic than that envisioned by the self-proclaimed royalist Eliot. And I might add that the two Thomases notably share a class, ethnic, and religious background—the first American Pynchon sailed with Winthrop’s fleet in 1630; the Eliots emigrated to Massachusetts in the 1660s—making both men heirs to classic Puritan-American questions of predestination and privilege, even if Pynchon was raised Catholic and Eliot converted to high-church Anglicanism.
But Pynchon is not himself a reactionary. For one thing, Lot 49 is menaced and shadowed by Nazism. References to artists chased out of Europe by fascism—Remedios Varo, Béla Bartók—are obtrusive. Oedipa, possibly herself Jewish, learns in the penultimate chapter that her psychologist, Dr. Hilarius, was a Nazi doctor, and his own form of paranoia takes the form of Israeli agents bringing him in like Eichmann. An army surplus dealer Oedipa encounters imagines selling Nazi clothes to the high-end fashion market, while one of the first clues to the conspiracy comes when Oedipa learns that a cigarette company in which Inverarity was invested makes its filters from bones of U.S. soldiers killed by the Nazis and trafficked to America by the Italian mafia. These references—coming as they do only twenty years after the war’s end—remind the reader of the dangers of any totalized political system of salvation.
Similarly, the novel’s very funny early political passage about a Bircher-type group, the Peter Pinguid Society, intimates that all reactionary and radical politics converge in untenable extremity:
“But that sounds,” objected Metzger, “like he was against industrial capitalism. Wouldn’t that disqualify him as any kind of anti-Communist figure?”
“You think like a Bircher,” Fallopian said. “Good guys and bad guys. You never get to any of the underlying truth. Sure he was against industrial capitalism. So are we. Didn’t it lead, inevitably, to Marxism? Underneath, both are part of the same creeping horror.”
“Industrial anything,” hazarded Metzger.
“There you go,” nodded Fallopian.
Likewise, what is the political character of Tristero itself—aristocratic, anarchist, or some meeting point of both in a universal sense among rich and poor alike of grievance and dispossession? In these scenes where reactionaries and rebels exchange their messages, Pynchon vividly evokes what we might mischievously call, in light of recent events, the Chelsea Manning Principle, which holds that with the consolidation in the west after World War II of a “liberal consensus,” the hard left and the hard right have more to say to each other than either does to the liberal, whose politics—or anti-politics—defines the ostensible common sense (really a nefarious plan of “Them,” whoever you take “Them” to be) on behalf of which we are policed and terrorized.
Despite his own radical reputation, then, Pynchon seems rather surprisingly to come out in favor of political moderation—or not so surprisingly, when you reflect that his open-ended (so-called postmodern but really Romantic) use of symbolism, his invitation to the reader to endless interpretation, hark back to those nineteenth-century anti-Bibles of American literary liberalism, The Scarlet Letter and Moby-Dick. At the novel’s conclusion, Oedipa recalls Inverarity’s advice: “‘Keep it bouncing…that’s all the secret, keep it bouncing,'” which means, among other things, not to seek final meanings, still less final solutions. Further, the quiet reference to Gatsby (“high-bouncing lover”) reminds us of America’s promise and its defeat of that promise: “So we beat on…” Or as Oedipa further reflects, sounding now like Ellison’s Invisible Man at the end of his own novel (“diversity is the word”):
She had heard all about excluded middles; they were bad shit, to be avoided; and how had it ever happened here, with the chances once so good for diversity?
In place of a totalizing political solution, then, the novel democratically commends the lucid use and still more the ludic misuse of language. During Oedipa’s odyssey through nighttime San Francisco in quest of Tristero, she thinks:
Each clue that comes is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence. But then she wondered if the gemlike “clues” were only some kind of compensation. To make up for her having lost the direct, epileptic Word, the cry that might abolish the night.
As I’ve pointed out before—and I will quote myself a bit in what follows—”gemlike” is so flagrant an allusion it might as well be hyperlinked; it takes us to Walter Pater’s art-for-art’s-sake manifesto that concludes his classic work, The Renaissance (“To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”). This allusion to aestheticism suggests that all plots and conspiracies are aesthetic productions, valuable for the intellectual, emotional, and sensual experiences they make available to the individual rather than for any truth they might possess (as Pater had argued about all phenomena). It hardly matters if Oedipa is, like her namesake Theban/Freudian king, encountering a real but heretofore-unseen destiny or if she is imagining it or is the victim of a hoax; the point is that the gemlike clues provide the service to Oedipa that Pater claims aesthetic experience always offers the human spirit: “to rouse, to startle it to a life of constant and eager observation.” When Oedipa’s lover accuses her of involving herself in Tristero out of bleeding-heart liberalism, she replies that she is a Republican, motivated solely by curiosity. Oedipa is quite possibly, like Joan Didion and Hillary Clinton, a Goldwater girl. Yet the plot leads Oedipa to a nighttime phantasmagoria of American alienation, from dreaming children in Golden Gate Park to a desperate old sailor whom she cradles in a doorway; it allows her, and us, to listen to the sonorous score of the dreaming city, gives us passage both to the symbol-system that the city is and to the inner lives of its inhabitants, including the ignored and unloved.
The emphasis on love—in the sense of agape or caritas—is important, for Pynchon suggests that art is the same thing as the power structure without it. At the end of the novel’s first chapter, Oedipa recalls a Remedios Varo painting, Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle, that she and Inverarity once saw in Mexico. The painting shows women in a tower weaving a blanket that spills from the windows and covers the world. In the implied allegory, the princess cannot be saved by the knight from the tower because the art she creates in her captivity encompasses the world, so that the world—including the knight and all other forms of salvation—is always already the tower. There is no escape; art is no escape. We are trapped by everything we make to escape or at least palliate our entrapment: “If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?” (Pynchon alludes to Rapunzel, but I suspect this is a misdirection from the real allusion, perhaps too Victorian-corny for the pomo-hipster author, to “The Lady of Shallott.”) But Oedipa also recalls that her view of the painting had been blurred by her tears:
Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she’d wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. 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.
Are the tears also the tower? I don’t believe Pynchon is that cynical. The phrase “the crying of lot 49” ostensibly refers to the auctioneer’s sale announcement (“crying”) of Inverarity’s stamp collection (listed in the auctioneer’s catalogue as “lot 49”), but beyond that it signifies, as several critics have suggested in part, the author’s and his heroine’s tears over humanity’s “lot” after the failure of revolution (think Europe in 1849) and the reign of wealth (think California in 1849).
Pynchon poses the political and religious dilemmas of modernity—God has absconded and left in His stead the Moloch state/corporation and its immuring media emanations—and answers them with the surprisingly sentimental advice to behold everything, variably and flexibly and non-paranoically, under the enlivening sign of art, and moreover through a screen of tears at the agony everywhere evident, nowhere more evident than in art, even if the cause of it is not.