Yes, But What About E-Mail? The Crying of Lot 49


There’s paranoia and then there’s Thomas Pynchon. I don’t mean to say that when you’re feeling paranoid Thomas Pynchon will suddenly appear to spook you even moreso than you already are (though I can’t really say that doesn’t happen since no one knows what the man looks like). No, what I mean to say is that there is the paranoia that is created, or that creeps into all of our minds every so often, and then there’s Pynchon’s paranoia which all of his novels so reek of that they can be considered positively funky (and not in the groovy way). This is to serve the underlying theme in the four Pynchon novels I have read thus far (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Inherent Vice, and The Crying of Lot 49), that being that there is something bigger than each of the characters that may or may not be controlling them. In GR this is present in spades as, in the end, the world that was created by Pynchon seems to dissolve, the prose then focusing completely on the rocket (was it sentient?). M&D was a meta-historical narrative where we’re left always wondering just how expansive the Jesuits perceived control of things was. IV confronts us with the Golden Fang, a corporation/drug trader/arms dealer/money launderer/God/Political Vessel/Schooner that just repeatedly comes up, appearing to have both caused and yet not caused everything that Doc Sportello is investigating. Thus, it was expected that The Crying of Lot 49 would do something similar.

The paranoia inducing pseudo-uberbeing in 49 comes under the name of The Tristero (Trystero if you’d like). Which I can’t say that much about without spoiling a lot of what makes the book so great. Suffice to say this: This novel is an attempt at saying, “Whoever controls the flow of information controls the world.” Have you ever had a serious moment of simply thinking about the mail? If you haven’t, you will once you begin 49.

It’s the story of Oedipa Maas. Whose estranged ex-lover dies, but names her the executor of his will. In perusing through various documents and getting his remaining affairs in order, Oedipa uncovers a conspiracy that she will never really know whether or not is real or a last scheme of her ex to render her insane.

I don’t know if I would describe any of the other Pynchon novels that I have mentioned as “page turners.” They are all fantastic in their own right, but they take work to get through. The Crying of Lot 49 is not nearly as dense, nor as long (only 152 pages in my copy); and the story, while remaining Pynchon-esk (meaning convoluted at times), is thrilling. Each page puts you deeper and deeper into a massive conspiracy that is based on enough historical familiarity that it is completely fascinating. This is potentially what most Pynchon novels would be if someone stood behind him while he wrote, prodding him with a stick, perhaps even a ruler if it was a nun, and yelling at him to “get to the point.”

While the almost straightforwardness of the novel works well, perhaps what makes it go so smoothly is absolutely menacing amorality of Tristero. This is perhaps not as prevalent in other works, as sometimes the overarching being is overtly evil (the Jesuits, the Golden Fang), and other times it is almost too vague to understand on a single read through (Ahem, Gravity’s Rainbow). The Tristero, on the other hand, are so complicated, so nuanced, that you are never sure what they want or why they want it. Are they responsible for the actions that Oedipa seems to attribute to them or are they not? Are they even real? You don’t know what their purpose is. If they’re good or if they’re bad. They are utterly, almost incomprehensibly amoral. Which is an achievement for such a short novel, as there is not very much room to layer something so well.

Read this book. It’s great, but I wish it was longer. Almost works against itself.

Recommended to: Those who are feeling a touch of insanity and find themselves wanting to read Thomas Pynchon, and those who are looking for a reason to think about the mail.

Avoid as if it were Mrs. Brady and you were playing ball in the house: None. A book worth everyone’s time.



One thought on “Yes, But What About E-Mail? The Crying of Lot 49

  1. I always find your reviews to be incredibly insightful and well-presented! I’ve not read any of the books you’ve review to-date so far. However, the ending sections (Recommended to/avoid if) I find to be a very entertaining yet useful way to judge a book’s merit to be on my “to-read” list.

    I don’t understand why you use the unorthodox grading scale, but hey, it works!

    I give WittyWordPlay a 11/12.


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