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The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) is a novel by the author Thomas Pynchon. The shortest of Pynchon's novels and often considered his most accessible, the book is about a woman, Oedipa Maas, possibly unearthing the centuries-old conflict between two mail distribution companies, Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero (or Tristero). The former actually existed, and was the first firm to distribute postal mail; the latter is Pynchon's invention. The novel is often classified as a notable example of postmodern fiction.

Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.

Characters

Oedipa Maas - The novel's protagonist. After her ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity, dies and she becomes co-executor of his estate, she discovers and begins to unravel a worldwide conspiracy. Oedipa functions in the novel as a type of detective, trying to find out the meaning behind Trystero in the play The Courier's Tragedy.

Pierce Inverarity - Oedipa's ex-boyfriend and a wealthy real-estate tycoon. The reader never meets him directly: all encounters are presented through Oedipa's memories. At the beginning of the novel he is already dead and is said to have been extremely rich, having owned, at one time or another, a great deal of real property and holdings in California.

Wendell "Mucho" Maas - The husband of Oedipa, Mucho once worked in a used-car lot but recently became a disc jockey for KCUF ("fuck" backwards) radio in Kinneret, California (a fictional town). Towards the end of the novel, the effects of his nascent LSD use alienate Oedipa.

Metzger - A lawyer who works for Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus law firm. He has been assigned to help Oedipa execute Pierce's estate. He and Oedipa have an affair.

Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard - The four members of the band called The Paranoids. They serve as a means of satirizing the southern Californian youth hippie culture in the mid 1960s.

Dr. Hilarius - Oedipa's psychiatrist, who prescribes LSD, which she does not take, to Oedipa as well as other housewives. He goes crazy toward the end of the story. Admitting to being a former Nazi doctor at Buchenwald where he worked in a program focused on experimentally-induced insanity to render Jews permanently catatonic. He claims to use faces as a weapon, and boasts of a face he made once that drove a subject insane. He holes up in his office, but is taken away peacefully by the police after Oedipa disarms him.

John Nefastis - A scientist obsessed with perpetual motion. He has tried to invent a type of Maxwell's demon, in an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine. Oedipa visits him to see the machine after learning about him from Stanley Koteks.

Stanley Koteks - An employee of Yoyodyne Corporation, Oedipa meets him when she wanders into his office while touring the plant. He knows something about the Trystero, but he refuses to say what he knows.

Randolph Driblette - The director of the production of Wharfinger's The Courier's Tragedy seen by Oedipa and Metzger. Driblette is a leading Wharfinger scholar, but he commits suicide before Oedipa can extract any useful information from him about Wharfinger's mention of the Tristero. Oedipa's meeting with Randolph after the play, however, sparks her to go on a quest to find the meaning behind Trystero.

Mike Fallopian - Oedipa and Metzger meet Mike Fallopian in The Scope, a bar frequented by Yoyodyne employees. He tells them about The Peter Pinguid Society. Oedipa searches him out again later.

Genghis Cohen - The most eminent philatelist in the LA area, Cohen was hired to inventory and appraise the deceased's stamp collection. Oedipa and he discuss stamps and forgeries.

Professor Bortz - Formerly of Berkeley, now teaching at San Narciso, Bortz wrote the editor's preface in a version of Wharfinger's works. Oedipa tracks him down to learn more about Trystero.

Plot summary

After being defeated by Thurn und Taxis in the 1700s, the Tristero organization goes underground and continues to exist, with its mailboxes in the least suspected places, often appearing under their slogan W.A.S.T.E., an acronym for We Await Silent Tristero's Empire, and also a smart way of hiding their post-boxes disguised as regular waste-bins. In the plot of the novel, the existence and plans of the shadowy organization are revealed bit by bit, or, then again, it is possible that the Tristero does not exist at all. The novel's main character, Oedipa Maas, is buffeted back and forth between believing and not believing in them, without ever finding firm proof either way. The Tristero may be a conspiracy, it may be a practical joke, or it may simply be that Oedipa is hallucinating all the arcane references to the underground network, that she seems to be discovering on bus windows, toilet walls, et cetera.

Prominent among these references is the "Trystero symbol", a muted post horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa finds this symbol first in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffitto advertising a group of polyamorists. It later appears among an engineer's doodles, as part of a children's sidewalk jump rope game, amidst Chinese ideograms in a shop window, and in many other places. The post horn (in either original or Trystero versions) appears on the cover art of many TCL49 editions, as well as within artwork created by the novel's fans.

Oedipa finds herself drawn into this shadowy intrigue when an old boyfriend, the California real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, dies. Inverarity's will names her as his executor. Soon enough, she learns that although Inverarity "once lost two million dollars in his spare time [he] still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary." She leaves her comfortable home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso (Spanish for "Saint Narcissus"), near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences she uncovers while parsing Inverarity's testament, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Trystero's existence. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the Trystero and believing that it is all a hoax established by Inverarity himself. Near the novel's conclusion, she reflects,

He might have written the testament only to harass a one-time mistress, so cynically sure of being wiped out he could throw away all hope of anything more. Bitterness could have run that deep in him. She just didn't know. He might himself have discovered The Tristero, and encrypted that in the will, buying into just enough to be sure she'd find it. Or he might even have tried to survive death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved.

Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters. Her therapist in Kinneret, a Dr. Hilarius, turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane," he explains. In San Francisco, she meets a man who claims membership in the IA, Inamorati Anonymous—a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". (Ironically, the anonymous inamorato wears a lapel pin shaped as the Trystero post horn, which Oedipa first saw on an advertisement for group sex.) And, in Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's Demon, a means for defeating entropy. The book ends with Oedipa attending an auction, waiting for bidding to begin on a set of a rare postage stamps, which she believes representatives of Tristero are trying to acquire. (Auction items are called "lots"; a lot is "cried" when the auctioneer is taking bids on it; the stamps in question are "Lot 49".)

Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn und Taxis and Tristero. Like the Mousetrap which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by "Richard Wharfinger") mirror those in the larger story around them.

As in his earlier novel, V., Pynchon seems to be making a point about human beings' need for certainty, and their need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty. Also, as he had in V., Pynchon laces the book with original song lyrics and outrageously named characters—e.g., Genghis Cohen, Manny DiPresso. "Mike Fallopian cannot be a real character's name," protests one reviewer.

Some have hypothesized that Pynchon was influenced by the racial tensions in southern California that would later turn into riots across the country. Critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" and an outright parody of postmodernism. Pynchon himself disparaged this book, writing in 1984, "As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I'd keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a 'novel,' and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until then."

Allusions within the book

As ever with Pynchon's writing, the labyrinthine plots offer myriad interconnecting cultural references. Understanding these references allows for a much richer reading of the work. J. Kerry Grant wrote A Companion to the Crying of Lot 49 in attempts to catalogue these references, but it is neither definitive nor complete.

The Beatles

The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" which took place in America and other Western countries. Indeed, internal context clues indicate that it is probably set in 1964, the year in which A Hard Day's Night was released. Pynchon, aptly, makes a wide variety of Beatles allusions. Most prominent are the Paranoids, a band composed of cheerful marijuana smokers whose lead singer, Miles, is a high-school dropout. The Paranoids all speak with American accents but sing in English ones; at one point, a guitar player is forced to relinquish control of a car to his girlfriend because he cannot see through his hair. It is not clear whether Pynchon was aware of the Beatles' own nickname for themselves, "Los Para Noias"; since the novel is replete with other references to paranoia, Pynchon may have chosen the band's name for other reasons.

Pynchon refers to a rock song, "I Want to Kiss Your Feet", a self-abasing version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, echoes such actual groups as the El Dorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves were forced to use, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). "Sick Dick" may also echo Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy. On top of all this, the song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a third-century bishop of Jerusalem.

Late in the novel, Oedipa's husband Mucho Maas, a disc jockey at Kinneret radio station KCUF, describes his experience of discovering the Beatles. Mucho refers to their early song "She Loves You", as well as hinting at the areas the Beatles were later to explore. Pynchon writes,

"Whenever I put the headset on now," he'd continued, "I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about 'She loves you,' yeah well, you know, she does, she's any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the 'you' is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it's a flipping miracle." His eyes brimming, reflecting the color of beer.
"Baby," she said, helpless, knowing of nothing she could do for this, and afraid for him.
He put a little clear plastic bottle on the table between them. She stared at the pills in it, and then understood. "That's LSD?" she said.

Vladimir Nabokov

Pynchon, like Kurt Vonnegut, was a student at Cornell University, where he probably at least audited Vladimir Nabokov's Literature 312 class. (Nabokov himself had no recollection of him, but Nabokov's wife Véra recalls grading Pynchon's examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, "half printing, half script".) The year before Pynchon graduated, Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in the United States; among other things, including the novel's adaptation to cinema in 1961 by Stanley Kubrick, Lolita introduced the word "nymphet" to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of nine and fourteen. In following years, mainstream usage altered the word's meaning somewhat, broadening its applicability. Perhaps appropriately, Pynchon provides an early example of the modern "nymphet" usage entering the canon. Serge, the Paranoids' teenage counter-tenor, loses his girlfriend to a middle-aged lawyer. At one point he expresses his angst in song:

What chance has a lonely surfer boy
For the love of a surfer chick,
With all these Humbert Humbert cats
Coming on so big and sick?
For me, my baby was a woman,
For him she's just another nymphet.

Remedios Varo

Near the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa recalls a trip to an art museum in Mexico with Inverarity during which she encounters a painting: Bordando el Manto Terrestre by Remedios Varo. The painting shows eight women inside a tower, where they are presumably held captive. Six maidens are weaving a tapestry that flows out of the windows. The tapestry seems to constitute the world outside of the tower. Oedipa's reaction to the tapestry gives us some insight into her difficulty in determining what is real and what is a fiction created by Inverarity for her benefit.

She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape.

California Gold Rush

The significance of the number 49 within the novel cannot be placed for sure, but, as the book is preoccupied with the theme of communications, the year 1849 would seem to be a possible reason for the title's choice. In 1849, the second year of the California Gold Rush, vast quantities of telecommunications equipment, including a private mail system, were rolled out to support those rushing to California.

The Courier's Tragedy

Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn und Taxis and Tristero. Like the "The Mousetrap", based on "The Murder of Gonzago" which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by the fictional Richard Wharfinger) mirror those in the larger story around them.

In many aspects it resembles a typical revenge play, such as The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, Hamlet by William Shakespeare and plays by John Webster.

Response

The Crying of Lot 49 was widely read at its release. In fact, the symbol of the Trystero, a muted postal horn, was found scribbled on walls and on necklaces following the success of the book.

Allusions to The Crying of Lot 49 in other works

"These wings are V.-licious! I'll put this recipe in my Gravity's Rainbow Cookbook, right next to The Frying of Latke 49.

  • On his album Fishcoteque (1988), the Jazz Butcher (a.k.a. Pat Fish) named one track "Looking for Lot 49".
  • Three bands named Lot 49 have existed: a "hardcore" group from Ontario, an indie rock group from New York City and a progressive rock group from London.
  • The Florida group, Yoyodyne, takes their name from the novel.
  • Both Radiohead and Yo La Tengo have included Pynchonian motifs in their works, some of them hinging upon TCL49. Yo La Tengo named a song "The Crying of Lot G" on their album "...And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out". Radiohead also references the novel in the name of their online merchandise shop and mailing list, W.A.S.T.E. (which originally sent out physical mail, making the reference more apt)
  • Nicholas Meyer's 1993 novel The Canary Trainer describes a fictional painting by the famous Impressionist Degas, a painting which happens to show Sherlock Holmes playing violin in the Opera Garnier. To explain why this work is not prominently displayed in an art gallery, Meyer adds a tongue-in-cheek footnote, explaining that it was bought by the late "Marquis de Tour et Tassis", then auctioned off by the Marquis's widow. Both the aristocrat's name (a clear variant of "Thurn and Taxis") and the auction are wry nods to Pynchon.
  • The sixth book in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events sequence also contains a TCL49 reference. The middle child, Klaus, is reading an auction catalogue and mentions that he has "read up to Lot #49, which is a valuable postage stamp". Later on they attend the auction, but delays force the auctioneer to skip Lot 49.
  • In the novel Count Zero (1986) by William Gibson (who has often stated his admiration of Thomas Pynchon), the multinational corporation Maas Neotek is named in honor of Oedipa Maas.
  • In Lawrence Norfolk's novel Lemprière's Dictionary (1991), a mysterious Mr. O'Tristero suddenly appears out of nowhere to tell the protagonist and writer Lemprière that he is his "rival," after which he disappears again.
  • Although Pynchon himself disparaged this book somewhat (see above), he reused characters from it. Clayton "Bloody" Chiclitz, the Yoyodyne founder who originated in V., returns in Gravity's Rainbow, and Mucho Maas has a cameo in Vineland.
  • In 2003, the peer-to-peer program WASTE briefly appeared, designed by Justin Frankel as a reference to the book's dark postal service W.A.S.T.E. It uses encryption to maintain privacy, while also requiring encryption keys on both sides to get into the network in the first place, maintaining its shadowy namesake. Ironically, it was disavowed by Nullsoft's parent company, AOL, and considered all subsequent downloads unauthorized. Development of this darknet still continues as of 2006.
  • In Frank Portman's novel King Dork, The Crying of Lot 49 is one of the books Tom Henderson finds in his house basement.
  • A muted post horn can be seen in the graffiti in the background of one shot in the 1980 film, Rude Boy, starring the Clash.
  • The song Dr Hubris and His Vile of Turpentine by indie singer-songwriter Emily Wells contains the lyrics "In the middle of your pride, a crying hole the size of Lot 49" as well as references to San Narciso.
  • In Ken Kesey's novel Sailor Song the boat bought by Michael Carmody is originally named Lot 49 and then re-christened Cobra.
  • In the 2007 film Cthulhu, one of the pivotal scenes is that of an auction of the hero's mother's estate; the auctioneer, a woman, is introduced as "Lauren Passerine", as the hero's lawyer points out that "an auctioneer cries a sale". When the object of the hero's curiosity, his mother's house, comes up for bids it is classified as Lot 49.
  • The entire text of the book is the message encoded within the dynamic art installation San Jose Semaphore, located on the top of the Adobe Systems headquarters building in San Jose, California. The winners of the challenge to decode the message and the answer were Bob Mayo and Mark Snesrud of Silicon Valley.
  • In the 2003 novel The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams, the main character, Theo, wants to read The Crying of Lot 49 as his ex-girlfriend suggested (on page 108).
  • In the 2007 TV series Gossip Girl, Dan Humphrey's former girlfriend Vanessa Abrams returns and states that she wants her copy of The Crying of Lot 49 returned (in Episode 6: "The Handmaiden's Tale").
  • In Molly Weatherfield's 1995 book, "Carrie's Story "the heroine complains when she is being sold at auction as Lot 14 that "..you could wish to be Lot 49 in the auction, but you really couldn't insist upon it..."
  • The music video for Pagan Wanderer Lu's song 'The Tree of Knowledge' includes a teacher character called 'Mr Fallopian'.

Notes

External links in the following were last verified on 9 July 2005, unless otherwise noted.

References

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