After being made the executor of a former lover’s will, Oedipa Mas stumbles across a postal conspiracy. Because of the grand conspiracy/mystery/journey of discovery I couldn’t help but be reminded on some levels of Umberto Eco’s In the Name of the Rose, but Pynchon plunges the reader into much less stable ground. In The Crying of Lot 49, the world Mas inhabits is a little bit off. With character names reminiscent of hygiene products (Emory Bortz) and historical figures (Genghis Cohen) and characters and interactions that border on the surreal (although Pynchon’s deft use of language prevents them from seeming shallow or stereotypical), the atmosphere very much resembles a waking dream.
At one point, as the depth of the conspiracy appears to expand and Mas finally finds herself alone, she convinces herself to go out into the night and simply go where the story takes her. I was all too happy to follow along. I suspect individuals who need to have signposts in books (Where have I been? Where am I going? Where am I right now?) would be rather frustrated by The Crying of Lot 49. It is one of those novels not so much about plot or character, but about a meandering journey. There is no neat conclusion, not even a massive character revelation. Is this really a conspiracy? Is it delusion? Is it an ex-lover’s practical joke? Knowing what Mas takes away towards the end might depend in part on “What comes next,” but if Pynchon had any opinions on the matter, he deliberately chooses to withhold that information from the reader.
When it comes down to it, I’m not even entirely sure that I consider this a wholly satisfying book, although I immensely enjoyed Pynchon’s incredibly vivid prose and sense of humor and play. Reading it, I felt a bit like I was watching a Goddard film . . . appreciating it, but skimming along the surface of it just the same. But I’ve found this to be the case with a number of postmodern novels, and I can’t say that there’s a huge trend as to which ones I really dig into and which I do not. By the time I started to sink into The Crying of Lot 49 just a little bit, it was over. I do, however, feel this is one of those books that must be read more than once so I’ll surely be back again.
Genre: Literary fiction