Sunday, January 29, 2017

Another world's intrusion into this one

Bulgarian edition, 1990
This book is funny and messed with my mind in a most wonderful way. I have no idea what to make of it, and I loved it. The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. This is my first Pynchon.

It preys on a paranoid sense of conspiracy, both in the protagonist, Oedipa Maas, and the reader.

How strange it is to be reading the words "REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER" while standing in the metro waiting for the doors to close, and at the last moment a young man who bears a striking resemblance to Putin should jump in, squeezing in behind my shoulder. He's wearing a standard-issue Canada Post jacket. I read about the Scope bar, and upon arriving at work I'm asked to proofread an ad for a conference called SCOPE. There's bourbon everywhere. Several(!) articles I read during the week reference Stockhausen, and Bakunin.

Oedipa Maas has been named executor of the estate of an old boyfriend. As she reviews his assets, she stumbles onto a massive conspiracy regarding the American postal system extending prior to the Civil War (an alternate history of which is also presented). She finds secret signs everywhere, but she herself is not comfortable with all the coincidence, and considers that it may all be in her head.

We are treated to a Jacobean revenge play, its variant editions, and an investigation into its origins that takes Oedipa to a used bookstore, a publisher, and a university professor. There's a scheme to recover bones for the purpose of making cigarette filters. The Yoyodyne corporation. A perpetual motion machine.
"You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world's intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there's cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul's talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself. And yet, señá, if any of it should ever really happen that perfectly, I would also have to cry miracle. An anarchist miracle. Like your friend. He is too exactly and without flaw the thing we fight. In Mexico the privilegiado is always, to a finite percentage, redeemed — one of the people. Unmiraculous. But your friend, unless he's joking, is as terrifying to me as a Virgin appearing to an Indian."
There's a whole wiki devoted to this novel, and I read alongside it for a while. It was the note regarding Oedipa's shrink, Dr Hilarius, that caused me to trust in my own reading. The annotation gives a summary of Pope Saint Hilarius. But I truly don't see a need to look beyond the obvious: as a name, Hilarius is plain hilarious, only slightly more latinate and therefore doctory.

At some point I had to consciously decide not even to try to make sense of it all, let it wash over me, enjoy the ride. "Like all their inabilities to communicate, this too had a virtuous motive."

It reminds me of the best of Auster and the best of Murakami, but more self-assured, smarter. Wackier, yet in a seeming contradiction giving the impression of being more grounded in the real world. It feels loaded with possibility, and with possible interpretation.

Polish edition, 1990
There are a couple odd references to cancer. "The rest of the bones were used in the R&D phase of the filter programme, back around the early fifties, way before cancer." Did cancer not exist in the early fifties? Is it a symbol for communism? Some other sickness afflicting America? (Norman Mailer said, "Cancer is the growth of madness denied.") At another point, Oedipa lumps cancer together with things she doesn't want to think about. Is she turning a blind eye to some social responsibility? Or is she in denial about a personal, physical cancer? Is that what Maas is? Maybe it's merely her marriage that is the cancerous mass.
"There's a certain harassed style," she said, "you get to recognize. I thought only kids caused it. I guess not."
One reading of the book posits that it's one long acid trip. Dr Hilarius had wanted her to take part in a study, but she didn't trust him, and didn't take any of the pills her prescribed her (but perhaps this is a wish manifest through LSD, not reflecting reality).

The titular crying is that of an auctioneer. When lot 49, the dead man's collection of forged stamps, is put on the block, Oedipa hopes it will draw out a representative of Trystero, proving its existence once and for all. But the book ends as the auctioneer is clearing his throat. So the reader will never know. I feel Oedipa crying at this moment too, the way only a painting can make her cry.

Have you read The Crying of Lot 49? Do you have a theory?

Review in The New York Times (1966).
Review in The Quarterly Conversation.
Gallery of cover art.


Amateur Reader (Tom) said...

Lovely post - gets right at the novel as I know it.

See this Guardian column, esp. paragraph 6, for an explanation of "before cancer," especially the timing.

Stefanie said...

Oh wow! I've heard Pynchon fans says this is good but I never knew what it was about and I have not read Pynchon. But now, I think I am going to have to read this one!