The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
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Cannonball Read V: The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

By Not Prince Hamlet | Book Reviews | February 12, 2013 | Comments ()


The Crying of Lot 49 is the work of a petulant genius, someone for whom the run-of-the-mill literary formats are too simplistic. Pynchon reacts violently against convention and ordinariness, inviting the reader to look inside his overly-active mind and staggering talents as he name drops obscure historical incidents, abstruse scientific concepts, and bewildering philosophical arguments. He also composes plausible pop songs about pedophilia and an intricately plotted Jacobean drama.

All of that sounds like it might be a lot of fun, but Pynchon's genius is, in this outing, too much of the smug, superior kind that doesn't particularly care if you're having nearly as much fun as he is. Plot and character may seem like proletarian concerns to a mind like Pynchon's, but their absence from this narrative makes the whole thing jarringly pointless and rather juvenile when you come right down to it.

The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipa Maas, a bored housewife who is named co-executor of the estate of her ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. (If these names strike you as too implausible, I implore you to stay away from Pynchon.) As Oedipa strives to sort out Pierce's holdings, she becomes ensnared in a historical conspiracy with the goal of subverting governmental postal services, with roots stretching to the fifteenth century.

The conspiracy is known as the Tristero, and its symbol of a muted horn (the image on the cover above) begins to haunt Oedipa, following her all over California. The mysterious nature of the Tristero has all the makings of an intriguing tale, but Pynchon doesn't really care about the mystery, or about Oedipa, or about you. The Tristero is just a convenient vehicle for him to flaunt his extensive knowledge.

Lest you think I'm being too hard on the book, you should know that the famously reclusive Pynchon has disavowed the novel as well, saying that to him it feels like a diminished effort, as though he had unlearned the lessons of his earlier novels. Why the author's own view has not been enough to keep literary critics from overpraising this off-putting novel is a mystery much more sinister than the Tristero.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read V. Read all about it, and for more of Not Prince Hamlet's reviews, check out her blog, I Am Not Prince Hamlet.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Yossarian

    It's ok to not like something, but I'm detecting a little too much anti-intellectual backlash in these responses, as if the very fact that Pynchon wrote a difficult novel is something worthy of scorn and contempt. I also think that the reason you didn't enjoy the book might have more to do with your approach and your expectations, and these are things we can discuss.

    The first thing you need to know is that this is supposed to be funny. Pynchon IS fucking with you. He DOESN'T care about plot and character, at least not in the same way you do. He IS just showing off and trying to amuse himself, but he's trying to amuse you, too, if you give him a chance.

    You have to approach this novel like you would Dr Strangelove, Airplane! or Mel Brooks movies. It's a spoof, a comedy. A send-up of conspiracy thrillers that were popular at the time (think: The Da Vinci Code) that also pokes a lot of fun at British Invasion Rock & Roll, youth culture, drugs, California, and plenty of other targets. It's not supposed to be taken seriously. The plot is an excuse to riff, wax ironic, offer up social commentary and drop mocking pop culture & literary references. Any actual suspense and intrigue over the feuding postal services is purely incidental.

    Now, some of the references may require a comparative literature degree or a strong background in history to untangle and many others are relevant to social mores of the late 1960s obscured by the passage of time but there are plenty of low-brow gags and puns that are easy enough to pick up on and right out of Mad Magazine. Especially the names. (San Narciso, California?)

    And you don't have to get every reference and Easter egg to enjoy the writing. Don't take it too seriously. When you are faced with the many absurd and ridiculous characters and events in this novel you aren't supposed to be frustrated, you're supposed to laugh.

  • Fluffy Duvet

    "you're" not "your"; "its" not "it's"

  • mswas


  • KatSings

    I already knew Pynchon was not my thing, but this review is beautiful.

  • TheOtherGreg

    All you really need from this review: "I implore you to stay away from Pynchon"

  • Zirza

    This is the only one of his novels that I could get through and I simply adore it. It's so rich and complex and also hysterically funny.

    Seriously, if you've never read a Pynchon novel, read this one.

  • Kballs

    Some literary critics should be lauded for the ability to continue reading books with their entire heads and torsos crammed up their own asses.

  • Mr. E

    This is one of those books where about 1/4 way through it you begin to wonder, "Is this Pynchon guy fucking with me?"

    Once you get to the end you realize, "This guy was totally fucking with me!" well as every literary critic that calls this a classic.

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