‘Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up altogether, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit … Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward pattern a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she’d tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.‘
This summer I had my first encounter with Thomas Pynchon, a writer who, according to the New York Times, writes in the tradition ‘of Melville, Conrad, and Joyce, of Faulkner, Nathanael West, and Nabokov‘. So, not intimidating at all.
I like to think I was smart; given the pressure of expectation suggested by the list of names above, I decided to begin my Pynchon reading with ‘The Crying of Lot 49’. To those who really want to get to grips with this intimidating American author, I do recommend starting light, and ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ is really a novella at only 160 pages long. To put this into context, Pynchon’s most famous major novels are ‘V’, which makes up for its impressively short title with the nearly 500 pages of text the book contains. Then there’s ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’, a literally heavy text at over 900 pages long.
So excited was I at the prospect of a relatively easy read, I forgot to take the title into consideration. That is, I didn’t pause to realise that I had no idea what it meant. Hardly a great start to decoding a Joycean text. The title is confusing, the passive construction, the ambiguity of the word ‘lot.’ My advice to readers is to ignore the title until you get to the last line of the novel at which point it may, possibly, make sense.
And this is kind of the point. The whole book is about a quest for meaning, with the ironic understanding that the ultimate answer may not quite be worth it. The heroine, Oedipa Maas has been named executor of her ex-lover’s will. While the reader tries to untangle what on earth is meant by her name, she’s on her way to San Narciso in an attempt to work through her lover’s insanely convoluted holdings, how these relate to American history and how she herself can deal with death, love and her place in the mad modern world.
The novel is funny, paranoid and densely packed with meaning. At the time, it seemed a bit too ambiguous to be satisfying; in retrospect however, it was rewarding, not least because I now feel like I’m a member of the Pynchon gang. Certainly, I finally understand that there’s more to Californian literature than Steinbeck’s archetypes or hardboiled LA noir. Arguably, I could have learned this from the equally dazed and confused searchings in Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls,’ but some patterns are difficult to decode and some things take a long time to comprehend. I’m sure Pynchon would have agreed.