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The Crying of Lot 49 | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 | Context


Historical and Cultural Allusions

Pynchon alludes to many people and organizations from history and culture, either to encode the narrative with meaning or to provide the reader with red herrings that only seem to symbolize something deeper. He also has fun mixing the real with the fictional, making the reader question reality and sort through a great number of inputs to try to arrive at essential truth.

  • Humbert Humbert: The main character in American Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955), he is an older man pursuing a teenager, and Pynchon alludes to him in Serge's song in Chapter 6 with the line "these Humbert Humbert cats." Serge is upset that Metzger, an older man, has run off with his 15-year-old girlfriend. In the 1960s sexual morals were loosening. Pynchon parodies Lolita by having his characters show a creepy sexual interest in young girls—not only Metzger but also Mucho Maas and John Nefastis. Pynchon was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell University, and like his teacher often gives his characters Dickensian names with allegorical meanings.
  • Jay Gould (1836–92): An American financier, he was one of the most notorious "robber barons." The late 19th-century robber barons acquired wealth through exploitative and manipulative tactics. The fact that stamp collector Pierce Inverarity kept Gould's bust over his bed as an "ikon" speaks to his cutthroat capitalist ways of doing business.
  • John Birch Society: An American right-wing organization founded in 1958 to combat communism, its name honors John Birch, a U.S. Army officer killed by Chinese communists in 1945 and considered by the society to be a hero. Pynchon parodies the society by creating the imaginary organization Mike Fallopian belongs to called the Peter Pinguid Society.
  • Maxwell's Demon: Hypothesized by Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831–79), Maxwell's demon is an imaginary being that can sort molecules and not expend any work, which violates the second law of thermodynamics. Pynchon's character John Nefastis builds a machine said to contain an "honest-to-God" Maxwell's demon.
  • Oedipus Rex (c. 430 BC): By Sophocles (c. 496–406 BC), the play is about the king of Thebes, who is caught up in machinations out of his control. Like Oedipa in the novel, Oedipus obsessively investigates what he thinks is a conspiracy, and both end up alienated from their original identities.
  • Remedios Varo (1908–63): A Spanish Mexican artist, she was known for her surrealist paintings. Oedipa recalls seeing the 1961 painting Bordando el Manto Terrestre (Embroidering the Earth's Mantle) and feeling like she is trapped in a tower, like the girls in the painting. The reference to the painting is, in part, a way for Pynchon to signal Oedipa's story will be played out on a surreal landscape.
  • "She Loves You" (1963): This is an early song by the British band the Beatles. Beatlemania had just begun in America while Pynchon was writing The Crying of Lot 49. Mucho says, "When those kids sing about 'She loves you' yeah well, you know, she does" and "the 'you' is everybody." This statement illustrates how Mucho believes LSD, the psychotropic drug he is taking, has expanded his mind. Pynchon also parodies the Beatles with his Paranoids, described as four teens with long hair who sing in British accents.
  • Thurn and Taxis: The long-lasting official postal service of Europe, Thurn and Taxis began in the Italian city-states in about 1290 under the name Tassis and developed into the imperial carrier under the Holy Roman emperor Maximilian I in 1489. It existed until 1867. Pynchon uses the name to represent official channels, while its shadow (imaginary) opponent, the Tristero, represents the underground. (Pynchon uses the spelling Trystero and Tristero interchangeably in the novel.) The post horn on the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms is still used as the symbol of many European postal services.

The Satirical Novel

A satirical novel offers social criticism, often couched in humor, to address perceived shortcomings. While it may point out problems, its function is to promote dialogue rather than to suggest solutions. The Crying of Lot 49 is considered a political or topical satire because it ridicules systems of power within culture. Pynchon employs the following satirical techniques in The Crying of Lot 49:

  • Exaggeration: Pynchon pushes settings and characters beyond the bounds of normalcy. In this way, they come off as ridiculous and their faults are more readily identifiable. During the fifth act of The Courier's Tragedy, the play Driblette directs, "every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man ... is employed." These include "a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom'd talons." The ridiculous nature of the "tragedy" is clear even to the characters. Metzger remarks that "it plays ... like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse" (that cartoon itself being an example of exaggerated violence). Many of the characters, too, are exaggerated caricatures of their professions. Dr. Hilarius is a psychiatrist who is clearly unhinged himself: he once claimed he "cured a case of hysterical blindness with his number 37" Rorschach inkblot test. Roseman is a lawyer so obsessed with besting fictional television lawyer Perry Mason that he is not-so-secretly writing a "Not-so-hypothetical Indictment" on him. Outlandish character names such as Mike Fallopian are also exaggerations.
  • Incongruity: To orchestrate his atmosphere of absurdity, Pynchon juxtaposes unrelated things or places things in environments where they do not belong. For example, the language used to describe the plot of The Courier's Tragedy is a curious mix of highbrow literary and modern slang. One of the characters is "hanging around the court" and "masquerading as a special courier."
  • Parody: Pynchon parodies many aspects of the culture of the 1960s, including British Invasion bands like the Beatles, which he parodies with his Paranoids. A good example is how he imitates much of the form of the detective novel, especially by having the intrepid Oedipa tirelessly track down leads and ask questions. But where a detective novel is meant to build up to a final reveal, The Crying of Lot 49 ends in ambiguity with Oedipa having solved nothing. Neither Oedipa nor the reader can properly process the information given about the mystery because it is intentionally overloaded with parodic humor to obstruct revelation.
  • Reversal: By bestowing main character status in a centuries-long global conspiracy mystery on a suburban housewife, Pynchon is subverting expectations of literary fiction in the 1960s.

Pynchon's Influences

No author writes in a cultural vacuum. Though Pynchon has developed a style recognizably his own, his novels take cues from the Beat poets and the postmodernists of mid-20th-century America. Several core values of the Beat movement, for example, are evident in his fiction.

  • Exploration of Transcendence: There is the sensibility that transcendence can be attained by escaping normal routine and consorting with exiles, as Oedipa does in The Crying of Lot 49 and Sal Paradise does in American novelist Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957).
  • Exploration of Liminality, the disorientation one experiences when on the threshold between two states: As Oedipa moves from her stifling beginning state of suburban housewife to the uncertain state of woman in exile, she suffers confusion and feels she is losing her sense of self.
  • Communitas, a situation where communities lack strict hierarchies and everyone is considered equal: This overthrowing of oppressive structures is an aim both in the political ideology of the Beat poets and in the Tristero's centuries-long campaign within The Crying of Lot 49 to interfere with the government-sanctioned Thurn and Taxis monopoly (and later, the U.S. Postal Service).

Some early postmodern works that may have influenced Pynchon are Waiting for Godot (1953) by Irish writer Samuel Beckett, Howl (1956) by American writer Allen Ginsberg, and Naked Lunch (1959) by American writer William S. Burroughs. Pynchon is often classified as a postmodern author because his work has many of the formal and stylistic characteristics of postmodernism, including:

  • Intertextuality, or the referencing of other fictional works within one's own: Pynchon does this often in The Crying of Lot 49. Examples include his allusions to Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita (1955) and his parody of the detective novel.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The expectation of a detective novel is that the main character will solve the mystery. Instead, the novel ends before Oedipa can get real answers.
  • Pastiche, the combining and juxtaposing of genres into something unique: Pynchon combines elements of the detective novel with literary fiction.
  • Paranoia and Hyperreality: Oedipa is confronted with a situation that could be a plot, a fantasy, or a joke. She is constantly bombarded by cultural "noise."

However, because his work demonstrates a trend toward political activism over insularity (a certain level of detachment from reality that often characterizes postmodernism), some critics argue he is more of a countercultural author. That is, the ideas he explores are culturally progressive and mean to challenge the real-world status quo.

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