How do you describe the absence of coherence? It’s not easy, because you can’t really quote something only to point out what it is not. I bring up the point because The Crying of Lot 49 lacks coherence; it lacks a plot; it’s random in a way that is not random like life, but like life diced by a food processor; it’s the kind of tedious book you read primarily in order to tell others that you’ve read and understood it. I’m not the first to notice: James Wood cites Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon in “Human, All Too Inhuman: The smallness of the “big” novel.” The essay is now behind a paywall, but if you want a copy, send me an e-mail. And B.R. Myers has noticed the issue too, in A Reader’s Manifesto.
Let me try to cite an example. Chapter two of The Crying of Lot 49 conflates life and movies in something akin to parody. But it feels set nowhere—like most of the novel—and perhaps that’s intentional, because L.A. feels like nowhere; and one of the novel’s best sentences describes southern California well: “San Narciso lay further south, near L.A. Like many named places in California it was less an identifiable city than a grouping of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.”
The nowhere of L.A., however, is a very particular kind of nowhere. I would give real context to the quote if I could figure out what the context might be. But we know that Oedipa is an executrix for an estate; Mertzger is an investigator or lawyer or something. Here’s the block:
‘Maybe it’s a flashback,’ Metzger said. ‘Or maybe he gets it twice.’ Oedipa removed a bracelet. So it went: the succession of film fragments on the tube, the progressive removal of clothing that seemed to bring her no nearer nudity, the boozing, the tireless shivaree of voices and guitars from out by the pool. Now and then a commercial would come in, each time Metzger would say, ‘Inverarity’s,’ or ‘Big block of shares,’ and later settled for nodding and smiling. Oedipa would scowl back, growing more and more certain, while a headache began to flower behind her eyes, that they found among all possible combinations of new lovers had found a way to make time itself slow down. Things grew less and less clear. At some point she went into the bathroom, tried to find her image in the mirror and couldn’t. She had a moment of nearly pure terror. Then remembered that the mirror had broken and fallen in the sink. ‘Seven years’ bad luck,’ she said aloud. ‘I’ll be 35.’ She shut the door behind her and took the occasion to blunder, almost absently, into another slip and skirt, as well as a long-leg girdle and a couple pairs of knee socks. It struck her that if the sun ever came up Metzger would disappear. She wasn’t sure if she wanted him to. She came back in to find Metzger wearing only a pair of boxer shorts and fast asleep with a hardon and his head under the couch. She noticed also a fat stomach the suit had hidden. On the screen New Zealanders and Turks were impaling one another on bayonets. With a cry Oedipa rushed to him, fell on him, began kissing him to wake him up. His radiant eyes flew open, pierced her, as if she could feel the sharpness somewhere vague between her breasts. She sank with an enormous sigh that carried all rigidity like a mythical fluid from her, down next to him; so weak she couldn’t help him undress her; it took him 20 minutes, rolling, arranging her this way and that, as if she thought, he were some scaled-up, short-haired, poker-faced little girl with a Barbie doll. She may have fallen asleep once or twice. She awoke at last to find herself getting laid; she’d come in on a sexual crescendo in progress, like a cut to a scene where the camera’s already moving. Outside a fugue of guitars had begun, and she counted each electronic voice as it came in, till she reached six or so and recalled only three of the Paranoids played guitars; so others must be plugging in.
The paragraph is one giant block in the novel as well. Notice the moments where the narrative skips: we get in the bathroom, impressionistic moments there, and then a sex scene that comes from nowhere, goes nowhere, and appears to mean nothing. Is this: “It struck her that if the sun ever came up Metzger would disappear” figurative? “Maybe,” which is the answer to most questions raised by The Crying of Lot 49, except for the question of whether you should read it.
There are moments of nice writing here: “a headache bean to flower behind her eyes.” I’d never thought about a headache that way, but it makes perfect sense, with the roots reaching into the mind. But it’s isolated from a larger narrative, or at least a larger narrative. It doesn’t connect to anything. We don’t know why the headache is important, unless it’s to signal the confusion of what’s coming next. But if everything is confusion, what are we supposed to take?
I’ve heard that The Crying of Lot 49 is about the corruption of all meaning, of the impossibility of escaping the system, the difficulty of representation, or something along those lines. I think such interpretations say more about the novel than it does about anything outside the novel. Perhaps The Crying of Lot 49 is a joke, chiefly on those who read it—which is to say, people taking literature classes in universities.