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