50th Anniversary: The Crying of Lot 49

We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire

Richard Lacayo introduces the novel

First edition of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

Summoned to serve as executor for the will of her ultra-rich former lover, Oedipa Maas is led into the mystery of Trystero, a shadowy band of, of — of what exactly? They have operated for centuries, connecting the dispossesed, the discontented and the strung out by way of their secret underground postal system, a network that may also serve other ends. As she wanders through California in the mid-1960’s, trying to unravel their secret, Oedipa senses for the first time a larger, weirder universe of the disinherited, a scampering, fugitive reality just beneath the placid surface of what she thinks she knows. With its slapstick paranoia and its heartbreaking metaphysical soliloquies, Lot 49 takes place in the tragicomic universe that is instantly recognizable as Pynchon-land. Is it also a mystery novel? Absolutely, so long as you remember that the mystery here is the one at the heart of everything. (Source)

“This is America, you live in it, you let it happen. Let it unfurl.”

― Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

A signed first edition of Pynchon’s novel.

Ned Beauman on the ‘thundering originality and depth’ of The Crying of Lot 49

Novelists are often asked to list their influences, and on the whole the minimal unit of literary influence is a whole book; here, I can narrow it down to 10 paragraphs, a couple of minutes’ reading. I won’t say that a whole world opened up. On the contrary, my options narrowed. There was no longer any uncertainty about what kind of fiction I had to write.

The scene in question finds Oedipa Maas, Pynchon’s protagonist, sitting in a theatre in San Narciso, California, watching an amateur production of an obscure Jacobean revenge drama, The Courier’s Tragedy. I won’t spoil anything except to say that you get an intimation of something very sinister in the historical background of the play. As the novel goes on, this intimation becomes more defined, and, consequently, defanged; but here, at the start, it sends a sub-zero shiver down your spine.

What astonished me about the scene on first encounter was that this was clearly a book of thundering originality and depth and lyricism, a book with the highest intellectual aspirations – and yet it also seemed to be concerned with creating genuine suspense. This was, and is, a completely unfamiliar combination. Yes, there are plenty of “serious” novels that withhold data, that make you feel vaguely curious, that even contrive an atmosphere of dread, albeit very mild and diffuse, three or four parts per million. But not like this. This was engineered like a rocket.

I’ve never read another novel that pulls off the same double (and I’ve never succeeded in writing one). In theory, the first place to look would be Pynchon’s other books. Well, I won’t pretend I’ve got through them all yet, but it seems as if his longer, woolier excursions are not as hospitable to this kind of knifepoint thrill. It’s subjective, what can grip you in that way, on every level at once. But from my point of view, The Crying of Lot 49 is one of a kind: in my reading life, in Pynchon’s 50-year career, and probably in the recent history of literature. [Read More]

Some consider The Crying of Lot 49 Pynchon’s most accessible novel. But Pynchon himself said of it, in his introduction to the Slow Learner collection: “[It] was marketed as a ‘novel,’ … I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.” (p.22). [Source]

The Quarterly Conversation reviews Pynchon’s second novel

Thomas Pynchon

It says something about Thomas Pynchon that The Crying of Lot 49, by all reports a straightforward book, is, by Pynchonian standards, an oddity. For a writer who has built a reputation on constructing labyrinthine tomes that endlessly branch off for pages and pages until the reader wearily abandons any attempt at deciphering a plot, Lot 49 is, well, linear. By far the most accessible of Pynchon’s works The Crying of Lot 49 is also probably his most concentrated. So short that it is often referred to as novella, Lot 49 manages to get at Pynchon’s big ideas and even contain some of his delightfully controlled chaos. [Read More]

‘Like so many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts–census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.’

― Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Richard Poirier’s 1966 review published in The New York Times

Within this description is a haunting sequence of imagined human situations, typical and pathetic ones, fused with the particularized power that shows Pynchon’s own obsession with the encoded messages of the American landscape. What is also noticeable here, and throughout the novel, is that the major character is really Pynchon himself, Pynchon’s voice with its capacity to move from the elegy to the epic catalogue. The narrator sounds like a survivor looking through the massed wreckage of his civilization, “a salad of despair.” That image, to suggest but one of the puns in the word Tristero, is typically full of sadness, terror, love, and flamboyance. But then, how else should one imagine a tryst with America? And that is what this novel is. [Read More]

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