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The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

What was it that defined the 1960s and made it one of the most important decades of the 20th century?  This question is often asked, even by those who lived through its tumultuous events. Many classic novels portrayed and influenced the counterculture of the 1960s, including Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Another classic novel indelibly linked the culture of the 1960s was The Crying of Lot 49, one of Thomas Pynchon’s earliest works.  Supposedly the story of a woman seeking to sort out the estate of her dead boyfriend’s will, The Crying of Lot 49 is a kaleidoscopic narrative that ventures through centuries-spanning conspiracies, bizarre characters, and an American rock band desperately pretending to be part of the British Invasion.  One of Pynchon’s earliest and shortest novels, The Crying of Lot 49 is a surreal whirlwind of 1960s literature.

The Crying of Lot 49 begins as Oedipa Maas learns that her former boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity, has died and she has been named executor of his estate.  She leaves her home and begins a massive search to try to understand the extent of Inverarity’s real estate holdings, traveling across San Francisco and encountering many unusual people in her quest for the truth.  Among the recurring characters she encounters are Metzger, a lawyer obsessed with films from his former career as a child star, Mike Fallopian, a member of the secretive right-wing group, The Peter Pinguid Society, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius.  She encounters a number of repeated clues to the mystery as she continues her search: a trumpet-like symbol; repeated references to the word “Trystero;” and the acronym WASTE.  Her attempts to piece together the elaborate symbols and acronyms and solve the mystery result in not a brilliant revelation, but a sad and rather anticlimactic discovery at the novel’s end. 

The Crying of Lot 49 was one of the first postmodern novels, with deliberately absurd character names, intricate references to 1960s popular culture, and extensive use of dark comedy and irony.  It can be a difficult work to read at times, with lengthy descriptions of things as a Jacobean revenge play that appear to have little connection to the main plot but are later revealed to be integral to the story line.  The Crying of Lot 49 is also a relatively early example of alternate history, with mentions of real events and places such as the U.S. Postal Service’s post-Civil War expansion and the House of Thurn und Taxis, both of which play crucial roles in the mystery of the solution to the will.  Although a very short novel at only 183 pages, The Crying of Lot 49 is dense and requires an attention to detail and a capacity for analysis in the reader. 

Although it can be a difficult novel to read and interpret, The Crying of Lot 49 is ultimately a rewarding work of the 1960s zeitgeist.  Reading it is a brilliant introduction to the panorama of cultural trends and the feeling of uncertainty and paranoia that the changes of the 1960s brought to America.  Much shorter than other Pynchon works, it also makes a good introduction to his distinctive writing style.  For readers seeking a brilliant snapshot of a decade’s linguistic and mental distinctions, The Crying of Lot 49 is an excellent novel.