Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) Review

DNF at 40%. I made some notes.

This is my first Pynchon – but it is not Pynchon’s first Pynchon, that happens to be the novel V. (1963) but The Crying was his second. It is only 140 pages long and I couldn’t even get through that. It was not an easy book to read. This book may be short but it is not his most accessible, I’ve been told. Pynchon is a fan of long, complex, run-on sentences, and he stuffs those sentences full of details. Some of those details may be relevant, others may not. I found it helpful to take a short break after every two-three-sentence paragraph and repeat to myself what I have just been told. Just keeping track of the general storyline takes a bit of effort.

Enough twaddling, what is the book about? Oedipa Maas used to have a lover, a millionaire named Pierce Inverarity. One day, she finds that Pierce passed away and in his will he appointed Oedipa as the executrix of his massive estate. It’s a bit weird to find herself so involved again in her ex-lover’s life, especially since she’s now married to Wendell “Mucho” Maas. Oedipa finds that Pierce financed everything that was going on in a small Californian town, and there she unearths a secret underground postal system. Or she might just be losing her mind. It’s also a satirical post-war novel about the US in the 1960s that looks askance at the whole capitalist system, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions

As it is impossible to remember every little detail of what Pynchon says about his characters, the details all mix together into a soup, and out of that murky broth the reader forms gestalt images of what his characters are all about. The main character of this novel, Oedipa Maas, is a bit of an emotional mess, but we aren’t told this directly; it’s just the impression you get from all the details of her life. Her interactions with her shrink Dr Hilarius and with her husband Wendell “Mucho” Maas make this clear. Mucho, by the way, is a bit much. He’s neurotic and oversensitive and has PTSD from working as a used-car salesman for five years. The details and events rush and tumble, dragging the reader through the text without any clean breaks to catch your breath.

For example, here is the opening line of the novel:

One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

This is an amount of detail in an opening line that doesn’t illuminate but obfuscates. It is throwing so much stuff at you that it becomes hard to pick out the important points. I understand that there is information hidden in the fact that Mrs Maas went to a Tupperware party and that Mr Inverarity is irresponsible with his money, but please let me follow your story. Yeah, at this rate, a 140 page novel can tell a big, complex story. But one of Pynchon’s goals with this novel, is, I think, to hide meaning. It is about a conspiracy, after all, but the text is at the same time extremely occupied with surface level details, with cultural references and the minutiae of people’s life stories in post-war America. Pynchon hints that there is stuff hiding underneath it all, but the experience of reading it is all about the rush and surface details. I think that’s deliberate. He has his main character Oedipa often feeling as if she is on the verge of a religious revelation. But he only hints at it and never lifts the veil.

Did I enjoy reading it? No, not really. It was about everything and nothing; a murky soup of words that never congealed into something that I could attach interest or emotion to. I didn’t find it funny either. Some Beatles satire didn’t do anything for me. Reading it felt like I was drunk and suffering from ADD. It felt uncomfortable. At page 50 he starts to describe an Italian stage play for ten pages in exhaustive detail and I lost all interest. I started skipping and couldn’t get back into it. I’m afraid to try another Pynchon now, which is a terrible shame because I was feeling excited for some of his other works.

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13 Responses to Thomas Pynchon – The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) Review

  1. M. says:

    Ah Pynchon. I love Pynchon. He’s great. He’s a lot of fun. Should anyone read him?
    Fuck no. Unless you watched the Hellraiser movies, saw the Cenobites and thought to yourself ‘Great Idea’. Then, sure, go for it. Pynchon looks like a lot of fun, but I live in the bad part of town and frankly, the drunks and the junkies look like they are having a good time too.
    I mention drugs a lot in my own blog, but it is particularly apropos with Pynchon. Reading Pynchon is the literary equivalent of skipping school on Wednesday, waking up at 11am, taking a massive bong rip and then sitting down to eat the whole box of CocoPuffs.
    I read ’49’ and I don’t remember a word of it. I remember chunks of Gravity’s Rainbow, and enjoy what I remember. I only remember ‘V’ and ‘Vineland’ in such a way that makes me feel like I actually read the,. I keep telling myself I will get around to reading ‘Mason & Dixon’, but frankly I am now too old, and Marijuana keeps me up all night browsing WebMD for all the various symptoms I have had over the past six months. In short, don’t get involved with Pynchon. Not even once.

    Wait, what was I doing here again?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sounds like I’m dodging a bullet! But honestly I am disappointed by my own reaction to this book. I’ve read a lot of weird and difficult things in my life, but I just couldn’t work up any energy to keep going. Have you read his book Against the Day? Because that one sounded very interesting to me but now I am afraid to pick it up.

      Liked by 1 person

      • M. says:

        De Gustibus.
        No, I missed ‘Against the Day’.
        I’d say give yourself some time off and then dive in to the first chapter of it. Worse comes, you put it down. You mentioned having read V. Did you like it? Did anything from it stick? I read it almost 20 years ago and I remember it pretty vividly. If you liked that, give Pynchon another whirl. If you are looking for Pynchon with less challenge, I can vouch for Vineland as being relatively easier.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Paul Connelly says:

        Against the Day was my second least favorite Pynchon (Gravity’ Rainbow was my least favorite). But I think you have to be somewhat in tune with the ’60s zeitgeist to withstand his writing style, similar to appreciating Tom Wolfe’s writing style. He wants to hit you with all kinds of historical oddities that he has researched and will devote whole chapters to them that seem only peripheral to whatever the main cast of characters is doing. He loves long lists, long sentences, snippets of comic opera inserted in the text, corny jokes and kinky sex and narratives of atrocities, all of it coming at you with headlights flashing and horns honking. It’s as far from literary minimalism as you can get, and also in no way high-brow literature as the high-brow types conceive of it.

        I read V. at 14 (soon after it first made it to paperback) and probably imprinted on it, so his style is like an old friend at this point, but I can see how it can be taxing if you are just coming to his novels now. I still think V. is brilliant, but certainly a collection of chapters that jump around in time and nation and can veer from low comedy to real (human, not supernatural) horror. I loved Mason & Dixon also, and Bleeding Edge was pretty interesting. and Vineland and Inherent Vice are worth reading if you have gotten any enjoyment out of the others. If he somehow manages to publish another novel I will read it as soon as I can lay hands on it. But, definitely, YMMV.


  2. Bookstooge says:

    Don’t buy into the lie that he’s somehow important.
    Glad you dnf’d this. I will say that sometimes an author does deserve a second chance, but for me, that almost NEVER happens. Doctor Lord Bookstooge has almost no mercy….

    Liked by 2 people

    • M. says:

      Books, fiction books in particular, are never ‘important’. Solving climate change is. Homer, and his yawnfest where Achilles gets all butthurt over not being able to have his rightfully won slave (you know the story, The Iliad) isn’t important either. It sure as shit isn’t relevant. You shouldn’t read any fiction book on some stupid 17th century notion of importance. You should read things based on to what extent you will enjoy them. Literature is, after all, a form of entertainment. And Pynchon is enjoyable – but in the same way that anal sex is enjoyable, if you are going into it without a good understanding of what the hell is about to happen, your mileage may vary greatly, and painfully. I have, somewhere, a whole host of great (and frequently very funny) sentences I got from reading Pynchon. But again, it all depends on your stances on drug use, were-beavers, the reframing of the American founding fathers as potheads, weird 60s countercultre sex, conspiracy theories, and prison sentences described in the same language as the prize list from ‘The Price is Right.”
      Some would call this ‘acquired taste’.
      I’m not sure I acquired it either.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe one day I will try him again but it takes me like 10 years to make a book feel completely new to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. bormgans says:

    I only tried Gravity’s Rainbow, and dropped out of it. Too dense and obfuscated for my taste. Maybe the fact that English isn’t my mother tongue also makes him harder to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not even going to touch Gravity’s Rainbow. I’m ok with dense text, I mean, if we can read academic books like Contingency and Convergence, then our English is good enough in reading comprehension, I’d say. I just want to have the feeling that it is worth it. That it is there with a good reason, for theme perhaps, and that it builds up to something worthwhile, but I didn’t get that feeling.


  4. Ola G says:

    I really liked Mason and Dixon, but I read it in Polish 😉 I might try something by him in English to see if it’s as enjoyable 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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