The Crying of Lot 49 — Thomas Pynchon

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.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else’s review doesn’t

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

More on How Fiction Works and someone else's review doesn't

In The Australian, a nominal review of James Wood’s How Fiction Works is really a discussion of Wood’s work more generally. It also shows why I shirked writing a deep review of How Fiction Works, as I I have more than a few quibbles:

If Wood doesn’t “get” the overall trick of an author’s writing he tends to dismiss it. This was most evident in his notorious Guardian review (reworked in The Irresponsible Self) of “hysterical realism”, a term Wood has coined to sum up the work of a whole slew of contemporary novelists that includes Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon.

Is this an issue of not “getting” the works, or of getting them too well and not liking or caring for what they represent? To me, DeLillo and Pynchon in particular have long been overrated. I remember trying to read them in late school and early college and thinking, “why are these awful writers so highly praised?” At the time I didn’t realize that they were a reaction against earlier literary trends and that they were trying to be stylistically unusual merely for the sake of being stylistically unusual, or for obscure philosophical points without writing actual philosophy. Paul Graham seems to have had a similar experience with actual philosophy. Wood gets this, and probably better than I do, and I’m not the only one who’s noticed the overpraised and under-talented; one thing I very much appreciate about A Reader’s Manifesto is its willingness to engage with writing, rather than politics surrounding writing, or whatever propelled DeLillo to fame.

To return to the review:

While another critic might see the impulse towards jam-packed, baroquely hyperreal novels as a legitimate and thoughtful, albeit varyingly skilful, response to our postmodern world (a mimetic reflection of the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication, say, or an attempt to “wake up” a form whose traditional gestures are now the cliched staples of Hollywood cinema) […]

The problem is that these techniques aren’t mimetic: in trying to mimic the supposed techniques that they implicitly criticize, they don’t reflect information, but chaos; they aren’t hyperreal, but fake. And I’m not convinced modern life is so different in terms of “the different status of information in an age of instant and indiscriminate communication.” Information isn’t indiscriminate: I still choose what to read and what to watch most of the time; if I’m exposed to ads, it’s because I choose to be. In some essays, Umberto Eco discusses how he sees ideas and battles from the Middle Ages underlying much of everyday life, and the more I read, the more I tend to trace the lineage of intellectual and personal ideas backwards through time. Although our technological and physical world has changed enormously in the last two hundred years, I’m not sure the purposes to which we put technology and power (conquest, sex, etc.) has much. That isn’t to say literary style hasn’t evolved, as it obviously has, and my preference tends toward novels written after 1900. Ideas have shifted and evolved too. Still, techniques used by modern authors like the hyperrealists just because they can be used doesn’t make them an improvement. Furthermore, not all of Wood’s loves are mine—I just finished Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady and wouldn’t have if I didn’t need to. But I have seldom read a stronger argument for the capital-N Novel than I have in How Fiction Works, and even when I sometimes don’t find Wood persuasive, the power of his argument and depth of his reading always compels me to think more clearly and deeply about my own positions and thoughts.

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