The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon

Rating: ★★★

A sort of mystery. Our mildly psychotic protagonist is made the executor of an old fling's estate, and must travel down to a dingy bit of California to oversea the process (this process itself mostly elided). Starting an affair with the first man she meets, and puzzling why she might have been chosen for this task, Oedipa gets drawn into a strange chase after a set of bizarre events seem to link together. Eventually, it becomes clear that she is on the trail of an ancient underground postal system that exists for no particularly clear reason and feverishly tries to suppress knowledge about itself.

The book ends in anticlimax, with Oedipa waiting to discover what strange figure is bidding on the titular Lot 49 -- an archive of old forged stamps used by this postal system, and collected by her old fling. We are, I think, meant to find more meaning in Oedipa's journey than in any possible answer, to consider this a meditation on the value of the chase rather than a particular hunt for a given object (the postal service after all are more interested in delivery than content). Personally, a lot of this left me cold -- the concerns unearthed in Oedipa's pursuit are all too American, alien priorities and anxieties. I can see how it might resonate with some people, but I don't think I'm one of them.

The text is clever but not, I think, brilliant. The ridiculous names of all the characters (Oedipa, Hilarious, Thoth, Ghengis Cohen, probably other references I missed) are clearly bait for a neverending spiral of dubious symbolic interpretations, and no doubt quickly bitten by literature students. The sometimes discordant progress of the passages demonstrates some authorial flair, but there was nothing stunning. The one relatively gripping portion of the book was the description of the play, its primitive medieval intrigue and overblown violence somehow carrying much more urgency than the plot that framed it.