Book Reviews by Heidi Boudro

The Crying of Lot 49

Reviewed by Heidi Boudro

When I was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin--Madison in 1980, I found college (and life in general) disorienting. Things seemed strange to me. When Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), a satire of 1960's California, was assigned in my English literature class, the novel seemed to evoke and validate my sense of dislocation. The less I understood the satire, what was being satirized, or even what was actually supposed to be happening, the more it fed the feeling, and even brought out the more entertaining aspects of disorientation. It was satire that seemed more real than real.

Is there really a Porky Pig cartoon about an anarchist? I have never been able to trace the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, the World War II-era film Cashiered, or (sadly) the Jacobean revenge play The Courier's Tragedy, but many years later I did, in Chicago, see for myself the painting by Remedios Varo that the main character, Oedipa, once saw in Mexico City. In the painting, young women imprisoned in a tower embroider a tapestry that not only falls through the windows into the world; the tapestry is the world itself. Later, Oedipa writes in her notebook, "Shall I project a world?" Much like the complete world built in this brief, cartoon-like novel.

My copy helpfully appends overwrought literary hype (from The New York Times: "a beautiful and heartbreaking reverence for the human penetration of the Thingness of this country") and a brief non-biography of the author that mentions Cornell University, California, and Mexico. In the subsequent quarter-century as I looked through university libraries for information about the novel, I never once came across any criticism that I thought made any sense. Nor have I ever read the other novels by Pynchon or learned anything substantive about him.

Thus, although it is one of the few novels that I periodically re-read, as I did recently, I am free to connect directly with the "text."

This time, however, I perceived that it was written by a very young man, probably an English literature student from Cornell. Cornell is implied as the alma mater of the heroine, Mrs. Oedipa Maas, who, in the 1960's, lives at a time when a young woman in her 20's might be married to a disc jockey and be an upper middle class housewife; complete with cocktails and homemade lasagna. When she learns that she is the executor of the estate of a Howard Hughes-like former boyfriend, she begins an odyssey into a maze of weirdness.

The novel's first half, Oedipa's encounter with the strange, works better than the second half, in which conspiracy theories unfold. In fact, this was the first time I could fully appreciate the second half, now that I have more experience with conspiracy theories and the people who propound them.

After some consideration, I've decided that the peculiar young-man voice of the novel (which is in the third person), with its run-on thoughts, over-specificity, and twisted humor, is supposed to be the internal voice of Oedipa herself. ("You're so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.") The novel almost completely lacks characterization; it is not that kind of novel.

Searching for explanations of the novel's hold over me: youthful sense of discovery; an aesthetic preference for being weirded out; the idea that the strangeness of things must mean something. Anticipation and the inexplicable; something unfolding in all its strangeness; like Oedipa waiting at the auction for the crying of lot 49.

Copyright © 2007 by Heidi Boudro