Thursday, June 13, 2013

Events that don't quite happen: Pynchon's THE CRYING OF LOT 49

I'll say this, boys and girls: It contains some fine sentences. It also contains some truly strange sentences in which the syntax has come unsprung; these pop up every few paragraphs like a nervous tic. Then there are sentences that hint beyond whatever they're ostensibly saying, sentences that point beyond the material world, lines that linger over their subject and call down holiness on the meanest scrap of earth.

However, what Thomas Pynchon's short novel The Crying of Lot 49 lacks is anything resembling a character. We follow Oedipa Maas on a journey shorter than that of Odysseus and longer than that of Leopold Bloom (how her journey is Oedipal eludes me; it's Homeric in its meandering and Joycean in its particularity); named co-executrix of a will for a man with whom she once had a fling, Oedipa, in attempting to fulfill her duty, stumbles upon the symbols, texts, and history of what may be a secret organization . . . or may not. The plot is something of a hash, a shaggy-dog story (that I'm sure accrues meaning at the symbolic level, but feels drunkenly assembled, part of the joke being its haphazardness) in which Oedipa goes from place to place picking up clues, the aimlessness of her wanderings indicative of the thinness of her character. No one ever speaks anything that sounds like real dialogue; that could be a fine stylistic choice, but Oedipa herself is deprived of any consistent style, so the words she speaks do not help us see or hear her.

This, too, is purposeful, I suppose. With a cipher for a main character, it is the reader who wanders the streets of San Francisco (among other places), banging into evidence for nothing but other evidence. The novel is meant to be funny—at several levels—and manages that, to my taste, in some of the more comedic lines and juxtapositions, but mostly it feels like the abstract idea of humor instead of a story worth a laugh.

If you're curious about the novel, it's blessedly short. I'd suggest reading it in as few sittings as possible; each time I picked it up again, I felt as if I'd stepped on word-scree, with nothing to cling to, nothing solid from the previous reading to even recollect. It does build well at the end, though the climax is—and you can see it coming from a mile off—insistently anticlimactic.

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