. . .I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist. (Joan Didion, Salvador)
wallflower: For a long time, my view of this was pretty close to Pynchon’s (this is from the Introduction to Slow Learner): “the next story I wrote was “The Crying of Lot 49,” which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.” That struck me as fair; I thought Lot 49 was too schematic, too clever, perfectly suited for academic dissection, a work that’s the successor to “Entropy” and not “The Secret Integration.” Coming back to it in 2017 was a good and dislocating experience. Like Didion, I began to see something I’d never seen before in Lot 49, something perhaps Pynchon never intended: this is a social novel about a society just about to implode.
Pynchon uses a throughline here that he buries in V. and Gravity’s Rainbow, and comes back to in Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge: straight-up detective story. Oedipa Maas, young Republican from the Bay Area (Kinneret seems to be approximately San Mateo), becomes executor (“or she supposed executrix”) of real-estate big shot Pierce Inverarity’s will. Shenanigans ensue and Oedipa stumbles across what may or may not (the key Pynchonian phrase) a secret postal service, W. A. S. T. E., the existence of which is left as a hanging question in the final line of the book, which is the only appearance of the title.
The neatness of the last line points to my major criticism of the novel when I first read it: it’s clever, and as Tyler Durden sez, “how’s that working out for you?” Pynchon goes into long digressions and meditations about mid-Sixties California, meaning, literature, calculus, drugs, psychology, all of which he does, seemingly, to show off his mad writing (especially metaphoric) skillz. (Slow Learner again: “I was more concerned with committing on paper a variety of abuses, such as overwriting.”) All the multiplicity of the language becomes (watch this metaphor, Tom) a hundred pounds of ornaments on a theme that’s an artificial tree made of cardboard. The theme, made clear at end of the novel, is “The Lady or the Tiger”: W. A. S. T. E. is real or it isn’t, and Oedipa is going to find out but we aren’t.
That’s what doesn’t work, and it’s hardly an original criticism. Before I get to what does work, Avathoir, what was your reaction to reading this, and also rereading it?
Avathoir: First, I should emphasize clearly that The Crying of Lot 49 was the first ever Pynchon I read. I was 13 years old and basically understood none of it, having succumbed quite early and quickly to the sea of density that is what happens when I read him without careful preparation. Somehow, I got through it and there were certainly ideas and images (mostly from the first 40 pages, the same with V.) that stuck with me (I still draw the W.A.S.T.E. logo every chance I get for instance) but as I remember now I got to the play that Oedipa attends and went “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh christ what the fuck is going on why are we doing this Tom this shit is bananas.” and I sort of turned my brain off. This time, I was able to get through it, which I think is one part me being almost 10 years older and one part just the simple fact that my problem is Pynchon doesn’t even bother writing things that most others would. For instance, the chapter that broke me last time was when he describes, in simultaneous elaborate detail and almost nothing at all, the Jacobean revenge play, a normal writer would include more of the play or a shorter summary, but not Pynchon. Here he simultaneously gives a summary of the play and Oedipa’s criticism of the play, which is hidden enough that most people don’t realize that’s what he’s doing: it’s defining a character through telling us nothing at all.
Which brings us to Oedipa herself. Of the Pynchon heroes I’ve encountered so far, Oedipa is by far the most interesting. You can imagine her being played by Julianne Moore or Nicole Kidman in their 30s, as a woman who seems like she perpetually is being told she needs to (and maybe actually does) lie down. Her reaction to the crazy shit that’s unfolding around her is not necessarily one of wonder or even fear, but of a strange curiosity that suggests she’s much more attuned to this kind of lifestyle then she wants people to believe. Perhaps Pierce had more of an effect on her than we thought, or maybe she was always like this, and Pynchon is suggesting inside every Goldwater conservative is a total freak waiting to get out. But perhaps I’m reading more into a slight novel Pynchon doesn’t seem to like very much then is actually there. Your thoughts?
wallflower: My thoughts are pretty close to yours about Oedipa, especially that bit about how she’s more “attuned to this” than she expected, or can be comfortable with. This is the part that I missed before, and most resonates with me now. Lot 49 was published in 1965; Oedipa is 28, which would make her an Eisenhower Republican. The Republican convention that nominated Goldwater, where he delivered the legendary and prophetic line Extremism in the pursuit of justice is no vice! to, as Senator Padmé would say, thunderous applause, was one year in the past and just up the peninsula from Oedipa in San Francisco. She’s of a time where everything seemed static, settled; a time of “nerves, blandness and retreat” in her words and a time when “the personal was all that of most of us expected to find,” in Joan Didion’s, who would have attended Berkeley at the same time as Oedipa. (She visits Berkeley at one point and finds it now “more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about.”) Goldwater would have been just as crazy to Oedipa as Mike Fallopian and the far-right Peter Pinguid Society, who consider the John Birch Society “left-leaning.”
What hit me is how much Lot 49 is a book of its moment, in a way that Pynchon has never achieved before or since (Bleeding Edge was the only attempt since, and that missed by a wide margin). Oedipa grew up in a time and a place where, to use a phrase from Vineland, history was on pause. And then suddenly the switch got thrown and all these things came crashing in: the Beatles, assassinations, the Right, the Left, riots, guns, drugs, genders, meanings. History started up again; the great wave that Hunter Thompson sez “broke and rolled back” around the time of Inherent Vice was gaining energy here and gathering up people who never expected to be part of it. That’s the feeling that Pynchon captures here, the sense that there is “more behind and inside” the world than Oedipa ever suspected; the feeling of getting caught up in a different way of being, and kind of getting into it. 1965 was also the year of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” and Oedipa knows something is happening, and she just might know what it is.
The antipode of Lot 49 is Philip K. Dick’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, written just five or six years before Pynchon (although it wasn’t published until ten years after). It has almost the same setting, just north of San Francisco rather than south, and the same level of detail of suburban life. Confessions is static where Lot 49 is in flux; the novel leads up to the big event of an apocalypse, which doesn’t happen and was never going to. (“I had never been so disappointed in my entire life,” confesses the titular character.) Confessions was despairing whereas Lot 49 is, if not exactly optimistic, at least hopeful, because Dick was all about the absence of possibility and Lot 49 is about overwhelming possibilities. What a difference six years make.
Seen this way, Pynchon’s proliferating descriptions and explanations become necessary. He’s writing a consciousness that’s continually encountering things and not “making sense” of them, because that means giving everything one single, resolvable definition. He’s showing all the possibilities of what each thing could mean–including a conspiracy of an alternate postal service going back 600 years, or a conspiracy, The Game-style, to make Oedipa think she’s come across another conspiracy. If Pynchon overwrites, it’s because the world Oedipa lives in overmeans.
Avathoir: The Didion comparison I think is a nail you’ve hit on the head, as they’re both very similar people: Conservative California women attuned to the insanity of the modern world and seeming much more comfortable with it than anything resembling the California she is “supposed” to reside in. Unlike Didion, whose refusal of empathy or mercy made her have a startling insight into human nature, Oedipa’s main problem seems that she doesn’t know what she’s supposed to do in regard to caring. Her drive to figure out if her ex boyfriend is playing a posthumous (or IS it?) prank or if a secret postal service actually exists isn’t from a particularly compelling place. She needs to be prodded, but it’s not a bad kind of prodding, as she demonstrates again that capacity for the weird America that most people don’t have.
Which of course means that now we have to talk about the paranoia. Pynchon is writing Oedipa the same way Kesey wrote Chief Bromden or Jim Thompson writes most of his narrators: as receptive to things which may or may not be real. You mentioned the element of conspiracy here but I think even more than that there’s the element of seeing what’s simultaneously real and not real, which I think is an influence as a result of Nabokov: It’s easy to forget but many of Nabokov’s books are fantasies in a way, with Lolita tellingly being the only book of his that has absolutely no elements of the fantastical (curiously enough, both Nabokov and Pynchon’s fellow student Richard Fariña each have a novel where a person in Ithaca sees a ghost in a barn represented as a ball of light, yet Pynchon does not have a scene like this to my knowledge. More on this later.) Oedipa thinks there’s a conspiracy or that it’s staged, but it doesn’t really occur to her that this could all be her imagination. I would even say she doesn’t even seem to realize it, just abandoning herself to whatever is going on with her life, which in many ways is probably the smartest strategy.
I think this is actually a good place to talk about Pynchon in regards to genre: he seems to be one of those writers who gets away with including elements of fiction that most people would not (part of it is that he just reads everything: he loves Marquez and Oakley Hall in equal measure) and that he takes the risks: it’s that Boschian element where he just puts everything in and mixes it so well that nothing feels out of place. Looking back at what we’ve read, including this as detective story, how do you think Pynchon plays with genre?
wallflower: Structurally, Pynchon stays close to the “Chandlerian” detective story: a character gets called on to investigate one mystery, and then that leads to a exfoliating series of other mysteries and characters until the initial mystery becomes more and more irrelevant; it may or may not ever get solved. The 19th-century-type detective story had a detective who was an outsider, and who solved the crime through superior rationality; Chandler’s detectives and Oedipa were drawn more and more into the events they investigated; in fact, they’re called into the investigation as part of the overall crime. The baseline difference between the two kinds of stories is that the earlier story takes place in an ultimately rational universe and the Chandlerian stories do not. Pynchon’s key insight was to take that irrationality of the universe and run all the way with it, to the point where it’s not just the mystery that’s unsolvable. The unsolvable mystery might be the size of your whole world. That’s why Lot 49 has to end as it does: there can be no answer or resolution here, we leave Oedipa just as she takes the next step. (Gravity’s Rainbow will handle this in a more elegant and moving way.)
The advantage of this kind of the story is that your protagonist can run into lots of interesting people and things along the way, and you’re right, it’s a Boschian level of detail and, occasionally, horror. (Oedipa’s long day and night in San Francisco is a strong example of the latter. It’s where I really felt that she was losing her mind.) One way in which Lot 49 improves on V. is that it’s all one narrative, rather than the twin tracks of the earlier novel, so we get more of a sense of a single consciousness transformed by all she experiences. Also, and going back to your point about how Pynchon reads everything, it’s all so damn fun to see how he riffs on all forms of culture: the Yoyodyne engineers’ bar that features Stockhausen’s music (WHY IS THIS NOT A THING); the increasingly zany plotting of The Courier’s Tragedy (Pynchon riffs here on the Jacobean classic The Revenger’s Tragedy, which is just a bit less insane); Randolph Metzger’s earlier career as a child actor (Baby Igor!); the antics of Mucho Maas’ radio station, KCUF. (Pynchon doesn’t waste an opportunity for a cheap joke any more than Shakespeare does–if I may speak of country matters.) He has a real need to reflect and comment on everything he sees, and he’s about 75% successful at integrating it into a story.
One of the things I got from the introduction to Slow Learner, and it’s a point of connection between Pynchon and Didion (and a lot of other writers of their generation and the one that came before them; you see this in Norman Mailer and Kurt Vonnegut, too): these writers were born into a stable, hierarchical society, and they lived to see that society, if not collapse, then at least transform. Oedipa’s San Francisco feels like the same city that Didion describes in her essay “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and I wonder if she’s headed towards the nervous breakdown that Didion would experience a few years after Lot 49 was published. (She wrote “I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968,” a very Oedipa-like sentence.) This is what a lot of Pynchon’s early writing, all the way through Gravity’s Rainbow, feels like: a long expression of astonishment, horror, and laughter that the world is a lot crazier than he ever thought it could be, and maybe, like Oedipa, that he’s crazier than he thought he was. Lot 49 may not be the best of these early works, but it may be the purest of them on this point.
Going back to the question of the details: what were some of your favorites? There’s sadly no Pig Bodine in this novel, but Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems comes back. What are some of your favorite places in the world of Pynchon?
Avathoir: To wrap this up, my favorite stuff in PynchonLand are the things that are the strange combination of real and unreal, the almost magical realism elements but not quite. Magical realism in many ways can be affected, what with the weird sex and the magic animals (that’s right Murakami and Junot Diaz among many others I’m CALLING YOU OUT), while Pynchon seems to operate on the idea that his universe is animated in every sense of the term. If there are any films that are truly Pynchonian, the only one I can say is one without reservation is The Emperor’s New Groove, to give you an idea what I mean: something Chuck Jonesish and in which reality in every situation is negotiable. From the incestuous mother and son who are going to negotiate with the dolphins (which come on Tom, I know it makes a better joke, but Octopi would be a more accurate choice) to the flying around aerosol can, to the Beatles parody that won’t leave the hotel Oedipa stays at, it’s these little things that feel like they came from the same world but are not supposed to be seen, or even exist, appear. Maybe you could have someone else write a scene where incestuous hippies think the dolphins are the future and can talk, but it’s that Secret Sauce of Pynchon to imply that actually might be the case. Likewise, it you just see Pynchon in the tradition of Jones, Ralph Bakshi, and Frank Tashlin an enormous amount of how his world works makes a lot more sense. He’s writing animation novels. It’s an exciting realization to have, especially for when I get back to you after finally (finally), reading Gravity’s Rainbow.
wallflower: Ya know, I’ve usually heard comparisons to the Marx brothers with Pynchon (and Groucho has a cameo in Against the Day), but yeah, animation works a lot better. (Pynchon is also as quotable as The Emperor’s New Groove; Metzger or Genghis Cohen could easily say “well, ya got me. Logically, it doesn’t make sense.”) The way he leaps between genres, characters, places, tones, even epochs and can do so in a single line goes beyond cinematic and into the space of Disney and Bakshi. Pynchon has also cited Spike Jones as an influence, and you hear in his music the same kind of jumping between incompatible realities in an instant. No wonder Adam Spiegel renamed himself Spike Jonze, and if Jonze adapts one of Pynchon’s crazier works, the circle will be complete.
After reading a Pynchon novel, it’s a slightly dislocating experience to go back and find out how much he doesn’t make up. (If you want, dig up Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion, which gives an astonishing amount of detail that Pynchon dug up for the book’s texture. It’s gone to a second edition already.) That’s what gives his novels the sense, as you say, that it could be real; a lot of it already is real. He’s a historical writer but not in the usual sense of the term: he’s not writing about past events that have been well-documented; he’s not even speculating about what happened in the past or what might happen in the future. Pynchon shows us the possible futures that are contained in every moment, writing science fiction set in the present. What would this world look like if all its possibilities became real?
That could be the definition of paranoia, almost Pynchon’s singular mode of character: the refusal to see only one reality. Herbert Stencil, “Entropy”’s Callisto, and now Oedipa are all variations on this paranoid character, and she’s the most successful one. James Ellroy once said that most novelists were “misguided humanists,” and at his best Pynchon drops the misguided part. What he’s trying to do, and I now see Oedipa as his earliest success at this, is to show how humans can live in a world that’s larger and stranger than they thought it could ever be. Fiction as a guide to living in reality: that’s some old-school purpose-of-art.