Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon

Oeuvre rule: I tried to read V. when I was 19.  I got about 150 pages into it, and I put it down.  Vineland was recommended to me when I was 18 by an English teacher at our high school.  I bought Gravity's Rainbow when I was 18 or 19 too, but never read it.  I heard Against the Day and Inherent Vice were great, but haven't read them--ditto for Mason & Dixon.

This was the only one I could handle.  Because I couldn't get into V., and because all of his other books were so thick and intimidating, promising a huge time commitment, with what I considered might be a highly questionable payoff.  So my friend lent me this book back--a while ago.  I think it was in December.  Though it is barely over 180 pages, I didn't finish it until last night.  (Soon, soon, all this crap will be over with, and I can get back to more prolific review-writing.)

The problem with spending over 5 months with this book is that you really retain very little and it is almost impossible to understand what is going on---until  you reach a distinct point--around page 115, 120, or 130.  This happened to me in a notable way:

For some reason, a few days ago, I decided to pick up Descartes's Discourse on Method.  This may have been because something in The Crying of Lot 49 set off an alarm in my brain, or it may be because both are spare, unintimidating volumes that could potentially be read alongside each other.  And I would argue that they should be read alongside each other.  But, getting to the point--while working at the library yesterday, I crossed page 100, and read somewhere up to 140 or so.  I later went home and read two or three parts from Discourse on Method, while getting increasingly intoxicated.  Then, I returned to Lot 49, and my bookmark, in a moment of serendipity, fell from the book, and I could not tell where I had stopped.  I read, and read, for maybe an hour or two, continually thinking, "This seems familiar...." but re-reading happily, since it made no sense to me the first time around.  These scenes--for those who read the novel (it would be easy to spoil this novel and I prefer to present it at face-value and let those enter who may) included her meeting with John Nefastis and their attempt to use "Maxwell's Demon," a scene in a "fag joint" called The Greek Way, a quick description of a society called Inamorati Anonymous and its founder (which should be excerpted below), observation of a strange hopscotch game's design in San Francisco's Chinatown, a meeting with a Mexican anarchist named Jesus Arrabal, more paranoid visions of a certain symbol, previously noted in the hopscotch squares, observations of freaks or outcasts or deviants, more symbols, an alternative to the U.S. Postal System mailboxes, called W.A.S.T.E. instead, an old sailor asking her to mail a letter to his wife, a return to John Nefastis's house 24 hours later, and finally her talk-down of her psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius, who has been prescribing LSD but supposedly not taking it, who has become extremely paranoid, shooting at people, and who eventually gives himself up, at which point she is rescued by her current boyfriend, who is on the news-beat, who then goes out with her to a bar, at which point she learns that his brain has been fried by LSD.  Then you're at Chapter 6--the last in the book.

"She" is Oedipa Maas, who was involved with Pierce Inverarity, who died, and was a real estate tycoon that has a complex will to execute.  She leaves San Francisco and goes to San Narciso, which is apparently around L.A.  She meets Metzger, an attorney that is supposed to help her co-execute the will, and he meets her in her hotel room, and they watch an old movie on TV where he was apparently a child actor, and later they go to see a play called The Courier's Tragedy.  At this point, I remember, I just thought this book was a joke, and that the only point was to get as messed up as possible before reading it and to laugh at how every line appeared to be a game in and of itself.  She also meets a band called The Paranoids that are constantly hanging out at her hotel.  The book was published in 1964 and the band is supposedly a reference to Beatle-mania.  Also, it seems as if Radiohead was referencing this book when they named their mailing list W.A.S.T.E.

The book turns into something of a mystery or "potboiler" - but only around that span from page 100-140.  Before that, you can tell that something is a bit off, or that the book is about to go somewhere deeper, but it is practically impossible to comprehend (at least this was the case for me).  I have not met many other people that profess a similar difficulty with Pynchon but something about his prose can be just, oh, annoying at times.

But when he turns it on he turns it on.  I didn't put the book down again last night--I went through to the end, and the ending is fantastic.  A little bit frustrating, but upon reflection, really the only way the novel could be ended appropriately.  It's a really beautiful ending and I'm kind of surprised that this hasn't been made into a movie, because it would make a great one--but that is probably symptomatic of Pynchon, whose idiosyncrasies go beyond the scope of this review.

The novel is ridiculous, and totally unrealistic, at least in the names of its characters.  But surprisingly, I think the story can strike a chord in everyone--and this is the reason I picked up Descartes, perhaps--like Breakfast of Champions would do later on to a much more attenuated degree, the book is about how deeply one can trust one's own senses.  But onto the excerpts.  The first, about the founder of IA, a former executive of the Yoyodyne Corporation, who finds himself "automated out of a job" at age 39, in the early 60s:

"Having been since age 7 rigidly instructed in an eschatology that pointed nowhere but to a presidency and death, trained to do absolutely nothing but sign his name to specialized memoranda he could not begin to understand and to take blame for the running-amok of specialized programs that failed for specialized reasons he had to have explained to him, the executive's first thoughts were naturally of suicide.  But previous training got the better of him: he could not make a decision without first hearing the ideas of a committee.  He placed an ad in the personal column of the L.A. Times, asking whether anyone who'd been in the same fix had ever found any good reasons for not committing suicide.  His shrewd assumption being that no suicides would reply, leaving him automatically with only valid inputs.  The assumption was false...He opened his door and found an aged bum with a knitted watch cap on his head and a hook for a hand, who presented him with a bundle of letters and loped away without a word.  Most of the letters were from suicides who had failed, either through clumsiness or last-minute cowardice.  None of them, however, could offer any compelling reasons for staying alive....He went to the garage, siphoned all the gasoline from his Buick's tank, put on his green Zachary All suit with the vest, stuffed all his letters from unsuccessful suicides into a coat pocket, went into the kitchen, sat on the flood, proceeded to douse himself good with gasoline.  He was about to make a farewell flick of the wheel on his faithful Zippo, which had seen him through the Normandy hedgerows, the Ardennes, Germany, and postwar America, when he heard a key in the front door, and voices.  It was his wife and some man, whom he soon recognized as the very efficiency expert at Yoyodyne who had caused him to be replaced by an IBM 7094.  Intrigued by the irony of it, he sat in the kitchen and listened, leaving his necktie dipped in the gasoline as a sort of wick.  From what he could gather, the efficiency expert wished to have sexual intercourse with the wife on the Moroccan rug in the living room. The wife was not unwilling.  The executive heard lewd laughter, zippers, the thump of shoes, heavy breathing, moans.  He took his tie out of the gasoline and started to snigger.  He closed the top on his Zippo.  'I hear laughing,' his wife said presently.  'I smell gasoline,' said the efficiency expert.  Hand in hand, naked, the two proceeded to the kitchen.  'I was about to do the Buddhist monk thing,' explained the executive.  'Nearly three weeks it takes him,' marvelled the efficiency expert, 'to decide.  You know how long it would have taken the IBM 7094?  Twelve microseconds.  No wonder you were replaced.'" (113-115)

The executive then declares, "My big mistake was love.  From this day I swear to stay off of love: hetero, homo, bi, dog or cat, car, every kind there is.  I will found a society of isolates, dedicated to this purpose, and this sign, revealed by the same gasoline that almost destroyed me, will be its emblem." (116)

Pynchon has a way of being incredibly good with language but at the same time being obtuse, which I think is the best description I can give of why I have found his work frustrating up to now.  Here is an excerpt from the same page that illustrates that:

"Despair came over her, as it will when nobody around has any sexual relevance to you.  She gauged the spectrum of feeling out there as running from really violent hate (an Indian-looking kid hardly out of his teens with frosted shoulder-length hair tucked behind his ears and pointed cowboy boots) to dry speculation (a hornrimmed SS type who stared at her legs, trying to figure out if she was in drag), none of which could do her any good." (116)

I had to reread this sentence a few times to get what it meant, and still am not 100% certain.

Once you get to the point between 100-140, though, The Crying of Lot 49 becomes a page-turner.  And tied in seamlessly with the "story," is a provocative philosophical inquiry.  Along the way, Jesus Arrabal describes "miracles" as "intrusions into this world from another." (124) And there are departures that I could only describe in the margin as "Burroughs-esque," another example of Pynchon losing me for a moment:

"Cammed each night out of that safe furrow the bulk of this city's waking each sunrise again set virtuously to plowing, what rich soils had he turned, what concentric planets uncovered?  What voices overheard, flinders of luminescent gods glimpsed among the wallpaper's stained foliage, candlestubs lit to rotate in the air over him, prefiguring the cigarette he or a friend must fall asleep someday smoking, thus to end among the flaming, secret salts held all those years by the insatiable stuffing of a mattress that could keep vestiges of every nightmare sweat, helpless overflowing bladder, viciously, tearfully consummated wet dream, like the memory bank to a computer of the lost?" (126)

This has been a long review that is short on substance.  But I have tried not to spoil this novel.  And while I doubt that I have made it seem very "exciting," I think I have provided a fair reflection of its virtues.  It is a very long short story, or a "novella plus," that is intricately constructed, funnier more often than not, and ultimately a bit maddening - and totally worth it.  The point is that my fear of Pynchon has been allayed, at least for now:

"For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into paranoia."  (182)

And it also had a weird effect on my reading of Descartes, as my mind became more fragmented, and I could not differentiate between texts, thinking of a line, and wondering whether Pynchon or Descartes had written it.  This sounds incredible and a huge compliment to Pynchon, but this is why I recommend reading this book in tandem with Discourse on Method.  Whether you are getting incredibly intoxicated while reading both or not, I think the similarities will jump out at you and cause the same confusion in your mind, which ultimately, leads to a clarity most pure:

"Write down what you can't deny.  Your hard intelligence.  But then write down what you've only speculated, assumed.  See what you've got."  (168)

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