Tuesday, September 8, 2009

'The Crying of Lot 49'

WANDA: Oh, right! To call you stupid would be an insult to stupid people! I've known sheep that could outwit you. I've worn dresses with higher IQs. But you think you're an intellectual, don't you, ape?
OTTO: Apes don't read philosophy.
WANDA: Yes they do, Otto. They just don't understand it. Now let me correct you on a couple of things, okay? Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not, "Every man for himself." And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.
I'd read every Thomas Pynchon novel either in large part or in whole by 17 — that tender age when you no longer look at the genre shelves in bookstores but aren't yet able to comprehend the full meaning of challenging literature. Intimidating words and concepts you mistakenly think you can understand via context roll past underneath your eyes. Agonies of age, work, parenthood and despair seem logical but are unresonant. You buy and read some books because you think you should, even though you suspect they won't be that satisfying. The important name on the cover tells you that you've arrived just as you hope it tells people of the opposite sex that your real-life penis is as impressive as your Book Penis.

To suggest that, in this mode, I remotely understood Pynchon is laughable. Still, I never bothered to correct my mistakes. Years went by as I discovered Russian lit and became more accustomed to reading nonfiction regularly. I glanced at my ugly old orange-sunset cover of Gravity's Rainbow that looked like it was created in a world solely made of Helvetica and solid-state computing and thought, "I should get back to that." I never did. I bought the hardcover of Against the Day and never bothered with it, thinking I shouldn't read it until I'd re-read the books I'd failed to really appreciate.

Then Inherent Vice came out, and I suppose my sense of obligation reached critical mass. While on vacation recently, I finished Lot 49 and am halfway through V, and plan to keep pushing through the rest again, work-writing and -reading permitting. And, despite what might seem like false modesty, I'm not sure I'll understand them that much this time either.

I started with The Crying of Lot 49 first because it was published in the same year as Pynchon's first novel, V (1965), and is very short, making it the easiest and probably most helpful starting point both from a context of chronology and content. Having been discouraged by my own lack of understanding in the past, dipping my toe in shallower water seemed like a logical way to go. I think I needn't have worried. Pynchon is complex and can certainly be difficult — and, to someone used to giving more self-evident texts less rigorous attention, his prose can make you do the occasional crap-I-have-to-go-back-two-pages-because-I-don't-know-where-the-fuck-I-am thing — but the intimidating reputation far exceeds the actual body text.

What I discovered, almost instantly, in a way my younger self didn't, was how funny his books are. Aside from stuff by David Foster Wallace, most people hear the words "postmodernist lit" and rightly assume that they're not going to laugh when reading anything they describe. Laughing is inimical to labor. Joyce is hysterical, but his comedy comes at such a remove and is so steeped in a specific geographical/national/cultural context that much of it is difficult to even smirk at without consulting a primer. Beckett is funny, but most people don't know that he wrote novels. Even Infinite Jest is somehow the least funny Wallace available, which seems all the more pitiable considering how achingly funny his observations can be even in non-fiction. Once you account for all that, most people's imaginations are left envisioning Don Delillo books, and apart from "Hitler Studies," the man is almost chronically un-fucking-funny.

The joy of postmodernist/hysterical realist lit is how playful and perverse it can be with English itself, yet many people, quite rightly, view it as alienatingly boring because many practitioners take that abundance of knowledge and capacity and narrow it to an absorbed self-serious narrative focus. The words might confuse, might be ambiguous and all over the place, but the eventual path they tread is straight, short and from one point to another barely distinguishable point, going torturously a few steps, like leaving A-prime to arrive at Secondar-A. The whole effect is a literary version of watching John McEnroe eschew serve-and-volley to gruntingly slam balls from the baseline, of hearing Eric Clapton crank power chords on fuzzed-out distortion—it's watching every Iron Chef winner and judge spend 12 hours crafting a sugarless poptart.

Pynchon, on the other hand, digresses for the sake of jokes: you can tell he reached a point in exposition where he thought of a punchline, said, "Screw it: I'm gonna do what I can to work toward that," and abandoned the relevant flow because there was no other place to put a gag that would otherwise disappear from his mind without being put down on the page. Consider this totally unnecessary passage appended to the introduction of a lawyer character:
But Roseman had also spent a sleepless night, brooding over the Perry Mason television program the evening before, which his wife was fond of but toward which Roseman cherished a fierce ambivalence, wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him. (p. 18)
This is hardly a startling observation, but this is the one thing I'd encourage anyone to take away from his books: that, apart from any deeper meaning about the human condition or any understanding of the plot, you can always have fun just reading the words, because they often lead to jokes, and even when they don't, the way they're put together is joyously rich.

Understanding this helps when it comes to the plot of a book like Lot 49, which, despite being his most straightforward and less reliant on digressions to round out the action, is still trim, even spartan. In brief: Oedipa Maas discovers that her ex-lover, the tycoon Pierce Inverarity, has died and inexplicably left her executrix to his will. She departs for Inverarity's hometown of San Narciso, California, leaving her nervous DJ-and-ex-car-salesman husband behind. While there, she stays in a motel, meets an American band called The Paranoids that pretend they're English like the then-invading Beatles, begins spending time with a former child star named Metzger and slowly discovers a conspiracy called the Trystero. How it relates to Inverarity's sprawling fortune is uncertain, but Oedipa travels San Narciso by day and San Francisco by night, finding a muted-trumpet symbol that may relate to an underground postal service called W.A.S.T.E. and may be a relic from conflicts over Renaissance European postal monopolies — the "Thurn and Taxis" — and the creation of the United States Postal Service.

As far as conspiracies go, it's poor compared to modern fare. Readers who've experienced the sybaritically lush, bizarre and delightful Illuminatus! Trilogy will be unimpressed by the scope of Pynchon's mystery. Likewise, his scholarship about the real aspects of his conspiracy tale amount to less than a shadow of Umberto Eco's superbly contrived and researched Foucault's Pendulum. Indeed, in terms of fact and the utility to which it's employed, Pynchon is barely Dan Brownesque.

But while that's true, it's a distinction without depth. Foucault's Pendulum provides the best literary analogue, because the point of Eco's novel centers on the idea of generating reality from conspiracy: the semiotic notion that our understanding of signs and symbols not only informs but creates what we experience. For Eco, the point and the plot emerges from the idea that belief in tenuous interrelation of facts not only manufactures reality but is reality. Pynchon's book pre-dates Eco's and interacts with the same ideas from the opposite conclusion: what we've experienced factually is more easily unwound by data than it is bundled into an animating causation—the thread of our understanding is more dangerously unreal than what we'd assumed.

Here it would be too easy to over-explain and over-relate the elements of the book, rendering it dull to read, but suffice to say that uncertainty of observation and conclusion is elemental to all aspects of the text and characters. Oedipa's husband suffers consuming doubt about his previous work and expands endlessly under the influence of LSD, becoming more than himself in confidence as he appreciates more than mere sensory data at work. The scholars Oedipa contacts find endless abundance in the interpretation of texts that have no authority, even to the point of not really being text in any concrete way. It's Shakespeare with more folios and even less historical record. It's a fecund garden for theses and supposition, and Oedipa can't trust interpretation of it because the garden itself seemingly has no dimensions or science.

Of course, even inability to explain the book satisfactorily serves its overriding theme, which involves pictorially and personally the muting of communication. The recurring conspiratorial symbol is a muted trumpet, describing the inhibition of postal-service communication but also describing Oedipa's uncertainty or worry about communicating with her husband, Metzger, various authorities or even the dead Inverarity. The authorities commune with a probable wavelength intended by a dead author; her husband is on an acid-wavelength with music she cannot access, and Inverarity is the most inaccessible of all — beyond the curtain of death, perhaps toying with her with a capricious desire for her executing his will, perhaps via a muted-horn conspiracy that may be real or totally fabricated.

Pynchon sets all this in front of a painfully desolate depiction of the inchoate reaching of postwar America, that endless spread away from communication with the nearby and toward an aspiration to solitude that still regretfully shames and scares us back, even a little bit, communally and melancholy, toward a middle where a person speaks across a fence or street while holding a hose or gassing a lawnmower. He writes:
Either way, they'll call it paranoia. They. Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed destiny of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even onto a real alternative to the exitless, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. (p. 170)

San Narciso was a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams became among our accumulated daylight, a moment's squall-line or tornado's touchdown among the higher more continental solemnities—storm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence. There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries. No one knew yet how to draw them. She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America. (p. 178)
Pynchon sets his novel perfectly and pointedly in postwar California, the place that has Oakland, of which Gertrude Stein famously declared, "There is no there, there."

California pioneered the Absence of There, before Florida perfected it: this uncomfortable and ineluctable knowledge that places existed solely for the purpose of making a literal "nothing" unexist. This was the original state where no-places were indifferently carved out of not-at-all to make stops between the unnecessary and the misbegotten easier for those who might eventually need to gas their cars.

Pynchon's creation of San Narciso is perfect, not the least because of the invocation of the possibly-meant word narcissism. It works because it's fake in a book that presents initially as real, establishing veracity and inveracity as coeval from the outset. Oedipa leaves Palo Alto, a real place, to investigate potential unreality in a locality totally fabricated, the non-San Narciso in non-California. She lives in a motel, the consumer illusion of home. She spends time with Metzger, an actor, all patina and no persona, someone instantly recognizable on the television and cloudily unthere as a man. She bumps into a group of Americans who all want to be moptop Brits, because being what they are has no profit. That the mail system might be a protracted falsehood is merely transit artifice on the transitory artifice that poses as a permanent place.

Though brief, The Crying of Lot 49 introduces most of Pynchon's recurring themes: paranoia, the uncertainty of measure or observation, the fragmenting of America, popular music, and the attempt to rescue something like a whole appreciation of self and fact despite all the reasons against that. Simply, it's a woman's search for sense from her ex-lover's confusing request. Textually, it's a rich — as is always the case with Pynchon — and luxuriant walk through what English can do. Conceptually, it's all doubt, wishing and wishing in a cavernous space. It hopes to find a way to relate words and desires between entities, but obviously that's been sabotaged. Whether you think that the fault of centuries-long conspiracies between opposing mail-carrying interests or the endless postwar balkanization of American homes, communities, society and even media is up to you.

Rating: 4.5
This is going to be the most particular rating I could ever give, because almost anyone who's really read and understood Pynchon is going to think him an automatic 4.5 compared to all the other stuff I've reviewed. Therefore, the 0.5 standing between the current rating and perfection demands a huuuuuge explanation. I don't have the time or the patience for that, and in any case, the comment section will take care of it. Suffice to say that I don't think anyone can go wrong by reading this book, especially if it gets them reading more Pynchon. However, I find Oedipa's stygian trip through San Francisco too heavily reliant on other authors' doing the same thing before and better — easy exemplars: Dostoyevsky and Heller — and the significance of the play too heavy-handed, almost overbearingly so, despite the comedic intent.