My reading of Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 was an unexpected surprise. I found myself in a different part of town needing to wait about an hour before meeting my girlfriend. I decided to check out a used book store and get something to bring with me to a coffee shop. I wanted something that would be a quick read so that I wouldn’t be too distracted from the other books I had already started. I spotted Lot 49 and knew that would be ideal. Because I had read it before, I had the option of reading it to keep myself entertained while waiting with no obligation to finish. I read about a third of it while waiting and then completed it over the next few days. Although I have read it before and more than once, it had been many years since the last time I picked it up.
It is a minor Pynchon work published in 1966 between the releases of V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). Along with Vineland (1990) and Inherent Vice (2009), The Crying of Lot 49 is set in California. Like those two titles, it is shorter and more accessible than Pynchon’s historical novels.
Lot 49 opens with Oedipa Maas finding out that she’s been named the executor of the will of an ex-boy friend, Pierce Inverarity. As she ventures off to meet her co-executor, Metzger, she discovers–or, at least, thinks she has discovered–a vast conspiracy involving a subversive mail delivery service that perhaps dates back hundreds of years. Pynchon doesn’t provide any easy answers about the conspiracy, focusing more on what Oedipa finds out about herself and her relationships in the process of trying to uncover the truth.
Lot 49 features many standard Pynchon techniques: painful puns, wacky names, allusions to high and low culture, a suspicion of the commonly accepted historical record and plenty of paranoia. In some ways, it feels like a warm up exercise for Gravity’s Rainbow which exploits these techniques in much more fascinating ways.
Because it is the shortest of Pynchon’s novels, The Crying of Lot 49 is often taught in high school or undergraduate classes, which is a shame as it really is Pynchon-lite and doesn’t offer anything more than a superficial introduction to his work. As with his other California novels, it is an enjoyable romp but isn’t nearly as satisfying as his other books.