Like many members of this website, I didn't even think twice about bringing books with me on a short vacation. But when people asked me what I did in New Orleans and I said, "I read The Crying of Lot 49," that got a couple raised eyebrows. Even though I am by no means a teetotaler who would ignore what New Orleans had to offer, it's not as if most people consider Thomas Pynchon party-vacation reading.
I'm glad I'd taken the time to re-read the book, because it made me feel better this Saturday when going through programs I'd TiVo'd of the 9/12 Teaparty protests. This probably seems like a nebulous association, so bear with me.
Lot 49 describes the struggle of one Oedipa Maas to understand why her recently deceased ex-boyfriend, tycoon Pierce Inverarity, named her executrix of his estate. That he'd ask this of her is bizarre, almost like a prank from beyond the grave. But instead of finding answers to his last requests, she instead finds a conspiracy called the Trystero, identified by the signs of muted trumpets drawn in bathrooms, on the streets of San Francisco and on rare historic stamps. The conspiracy may relate to the founding of the United States Postal Service and the destruction of a monopoly mail system that served the Holy Roman Empire, the Thurn and Taxis, and was dissolved in 1867. (The Thurn and Taxis was also real.) It's never certain if this conspiracy is merely Inverarity's invention — a wealthy man paying scholars and graffiti artists to elaborate from one fact (the Thurn and Taxis) to create a giant practical joke on an ex. Inverarity might well be doing with fact and fiction what Pynchon does as an author.
Pynchon's command of conspiracist facts never approaches the breadth or comprehension of something like Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum (which I reviewed here); nor does he employ myths to deconstruct communication and how it shapes reality in a way comparable with Eco's approach. But what becomes evident is a kind of doomed cycle of silence, miscommunication and non-communication, be it a silence via government program or the ineluctable boundaries between human beings never truly capable of understanding one another.
The conspiracy moves inward to personal levels of interaction and outward to encompass both "The Left" and "The Right" on a macro level: those who distrust the "government" mail system include John Bircherites and acid-heads. Pynchon writes, in one of many beautiful passages toward the end of the book:
they'll call it paranoia. They. Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed destiny of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even onto a real alternative to the exitless, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know. (p. 170)
As fellow blogger Albert Rolls can tell you, Pynchon's had a career-long focus on paranoia and America. For instance, like Lot 49, his latest book, Inherent Vice, seems to be a comic and pop-culture romp that at times arrestingly breaks into elegiac passages on the indefatigable disconnect of America, the institutional quality of ideas and comities missed, culture fragmented into what might be called commodified gangs.
Those passages are what make Pynchon so rewarding as a writer, because they are usually at once mournful to the point of heartbreak while they're also set in the middle of longer prose passages that are almost absurdly hysterical. I confess that, like a lot of people, I read Pynchon when I was younger and very eager to be seen doing things like "Reading Pynchon at My Age" and didn't understand it at all because I was taking something very seriously that often isn't.
Put simply, Pynchon is funny. Whole passages of his longer books read like a man who thought up a brilliantly comic one liner or slapstick mise en scène and thought, "I'm going to fit this somewhere. I don't care how long it takes to work around to this punchline." Take, for example, this scene where Oedipa Maas goes to meet her attorney, Roseman:
But Roseman had also spent a sleepless night, brooding over the Perry Mason television program the evening before, which his wife was fond of but toward which Roseman cherished a fierce ambivalence, wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him. (p. 18)
It not only neatly describes the joyless seriousness with which some people import fictional TV programs into their real life, but it's absolutely memorably silly. Get a load of this guy: this guy wants to destroy Perry Mason. More importantly, to him the barrier between his legal profession and the fictional one isn't strong enough anymore to preclude his writing an angry dissertation on the show. Law is real and unreal.
I realize it's not a profound epiphany, but thinking back on the book while seeing so many people so angry this Saturday made me feel better. You'd think the histories I'd read about populist anger would have brought the lesson home sooner, but really it came from this wonderfully bizarre fiction piece. I certainly have no interest in dismissing a political movement, but looking at some people carrying signs about real government programs and others carrying angry ones about stuff that doesn't really exist made me think, "People will always be frightened about national myth, identity and messaging like this."
Perhaps Lot 49's publication date, 1965, has something to do with it. Forty-four years before, and the players are still there: the far left, the far right, facts, fear and, above all, a disruption of communication so profound that those on both sides are willing to apply mysterious agency to it. Just as we now sit in endless identical bedroom communities, indistinguishable on the map, each one a collection of privatized citadels almost irretrievably apart, there is Pynchon's newly invented community of San Narciso, a post-war boomtown contrived from nothing by Inverarity into a still-fantasized exurban wasteland of undifferentiated prosperity:
San Narciso had no boundaries. No one knew yet how to draw them. She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America. (p. 178)