Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Back to Pynchon and All the Clues (Again)

For whatever reason, while idly looking over my bookshelves the other day, I found myself in the mood to pick up and re-read Thomas Pynchon's second and shortest novel, The Crying of Lot 49.  I first read it during my senior year in high school, when, on my own, I discovered Pynchon, and chose Lot 49 and V. to talk about for an oral presentation we had to do on an author we liked. A good part of the fun I had in choosing these two books was that I got to speak the Pynchon character names as part of my presentation - names, for example, like Stanley Koteks - though I remember my AP English teacher more rolling her eyes than getting especially upset when I mentioned these names to the class. 

I first re-read Lot 49 about seven years ago, when I had just finished reading Pynchon's Inherent Vice.  I happen to really like Inherent Vice, Pynchon's private eye novel, and after reading it, the inclination struck me to revisit the first of Pynchon's 60's era California-set novels.  As I recall about that second read, it felt a little odd as I flipped through the opening pages to read a book I'd read decades ago, when I was a teenager.  Pynchon's an author who has influenced my entire view of the world (Ah paranoia! Ah entropy!), but of course when that much time goes by, you don't remember many of the exact details of the book you're reading again.  So it was as if I came to a second reading of the novel with Pynchon in my bones, but then I had to rediscover the specifics of the surface.

The verdict then (and now, on this third read)?  Great (and great).  And each time I read it, I see the book even more than the previous time as a definite mystery novel.  There's amateur sleuth Oedipa Maas moving through a hallucinatory Sixties landscape as she tries to uncover anything she can about a shadowy sinister organization called The Trystero.  The entire novel follows the course of her improvised investigation.  But whereas a typical detective novel at some point answers the different questions it raises, tying threads together, The Crying of Lot 49 opens outward with more and more questions as it unfolds.  By the end, Oedipa Maas doesn't solve the mystery of the Trystero.  She and the reader actually have more questions at the novel's close than when it started.  A great anti-detective novel, then, no question, Lot 49 is.  Along with Paul Auster's City of Glass trilogy, it has to stand as one of the models of that particular form.  And I still don't think I've ever read a book that better exemplifies a dictum that comes from Jorge Luis Borges. Borges writes about his fondness for stories that end "with the imminence of a revelation".  Such endings can be effective and beautiful, Borges suggests.  And this is exactly how The Crying of Lot 49 ends. In the final scene, Oedipa Maas has come to the place where she stands ready to receive a probable revelation.

That this revelation is not actually produced for her or the reader? Well, that's the beauty of it.  

1 comment:

Art Taylor said...

One of my own favorites too! I first read it in college and have reread a couple of times since--including teaching it as part of detective fiction course (one where I threw the class a couple of curveballs, obviously). Love the quote from Borges too—one I'll need to remember!