Like in Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, where the mysterious parchment that led to the construction of a labyrinthine conspiracy theory turns out to be a laundry list, Thomas Pynchon’s A Crying Lot of 49 also weaves the same web of connections and meaning where there is none. Despite this trajectory, the novel turns out to be fairly straightforward despite the reputation of Pynchon to be a difficult read (maybe this applies for his other novels then?).
What begins as an ordinary incident of middle class American spouse Oedipa Maas receiving news of her being the inheritor of her late ex-boyfriend’s estate turns into a satire of suburban life in late capitalism. Out to unlock the secrets of the underground postal company “Tristero,” the presence of which is opened up by Oedipa’s inherited estate, she commences into a playful romp into the heart of absurdity of the American condition.
All the character’s outlandish names, like that of Oedipa’s, as well as little episodes are awash with meanings and references to popular mass media culture and other everyday American realities mediated by television, extensive communications technology, addictive drugs, and unbridled consumerism: “Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth. In the songs Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard sang was either some fraction of the truth’s numinous beauty or only a power spectrum.”
The novel, as is fashionable in these “self-reflexive” times, also comes complete with a play embedded in it and commenting on the larger narrative. One of the play’s actors disuade Oedipa from inquiring into the play. It is kitsch: “You came to talk about the play. Let me discourage you. It was written to entertain people. Like horror movies. It isn’t literature, it doesn’t mean anything. Wharfinger was no Shakespeare.” Nevertheless, it seizes her as another piece in her investigation on the mystery of the Tristero.
The language, the tone of the narrator, and the style of the narrative of The Crying Lot of 49 is in many respects similar to another contemporary American novel that I read before, David Foster Wallace’s The Broom of the System. In the same way, the endless circulation of signs in late capitalist society and as replicated in the novel itself is shown as a screen preventing the awakening of the people against the oppressive system.
It is amazing how contemporary narratives conjure the most outlandish conspiracy theories but discount the more fundamental reality of exploitation and class struggle. Fashionable symbolic protests are marketed as fashionable alternatives. Resistance is not anymore located in collective solidarity but is shifted to the more anarchistic, more nihilistic side as one of the many characters that Oedipa come across in the novel suggest:
You know what a miracle is. Not what Bakunin said. But another world’s intrusion into this one. Most of the time we coexist peacefully, but when we do touch there’s cataclysm. Like the church we hate, anarchists also believe in another world. Where revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself… An anarchist miracle.
All of which, of course, the system can easily absorb into its circuits. An underlying theme in Pynchon here (following the linguistic turn just coming-of-age at the time of the novel’s writing) is the way language and communication are positioned as the decisive base determining the march of history. In a rehearsal of the classic idea over the material world dichotomy, we are given the pseudo-historical narrative of the rise of the Tristero Postal Company and its ancient rivalry with Thurn and Taxis: “The salvation of Europe depends on communication… Nobody could move troops, farm produce, anything, without us. Any prince tries to start his own courier system, we suppress it.”
But does Tristero really exist? “Has it ever occured to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?” “Every access route to the Tristero could be traced back to the Inverarity estate.” The novel ends with a mysterious dealer bidding for the stamps that might serve as proof of Tristero’s existence. The narrative trails off. The enigma remains.