Essay by Ted Gioia

Who turned paranoia into a literary style? The term
itself possesses a distinguished cultural pedigree, going
back to the ancient Greek dramatists, who used it to
describe the affair of Oedipus and Jocasta as well as
the mindset of Orestes after he murders his mother
Clytemnestra.  But paranoia didn't
take center stage in literature until
the first half of the 20th Century,
when Kafka, Lovecraft, Orwell and
others exploited it in their stories,
partly as a plot device but even more
as an emotional tone to create a
sense of uncertainty and anxiety.   
Sometimes a political message ar-
rived encoded in these books—and
as the Cold War set in, paranoia
must have seemed an increasingly
appropriate response to the Dr. Strangelovian tone
that seeped out of the news reports and into our high
culture. But even genre writers—of mystery, suspense,
horror—embraced the neurotic tenor of the times, a
metaphorical looking over the shoulder at something
shadowy and indefinable in pursuit, finding it suitable
for achieving their own ends.  

These precedents eventually led us to the work of Philip
K. Dick where, in many of his book but perhaps most
purely in his unsettling novel
VALIS, the reader begins to
fear that the paranoia creates the fiction rather than the other
way round. On the other extreme, we have the metaphysical
mysteries of
Leonardo Sciascia, where the claustrophobic
sense of latent evil permeating the landscape may be merely
a realistic appraisal of the state of justice (or the lack thereof)
in the author’s native Sicily.   Much of the beauty of literary
paranoia, it seems, resides in its adaptability to a wide range
of worldviews and sociopolitical settings.  Still other twists
on paranoia can be found in the writings of
Don DeLillo,
Paul Auster, Joan Didion, Mark Z. Danielewski, Toni
Morrison,
Umberto Eco and other distinctive contemporary
novelists, where despite differences in overarching concerns
and stylistic quirks, each sprinkles generous doses of this
unsavory ingredient on the stories at hand. No matter who
you are, it seems, there is always someone out to get you.  

Pride of place in this destabilizing process, however,
belongs clearly to Thomas Pynchon, whose insight was to
remove paranoia from the elaborate scenarios of Kafka and
Orwell, Dick and Sciascia, and insert it into the banalities of
everyday suburban life. The fact that Pynchon the author
always seemed on the run himself, hiding from imaginary
pursuers, keeping his locations secret and even his personal
appearance a mystery, added a certain a piquancy to the
process.   Readers could readily assume that, for Pynchon
himself as well as his characters, paranoia had become
quotidian, part of the atmosphere of modern America.  

Certainly this is the ambiance that permeates Pynchon’s
1966 novel
The Crying of Lot 49, that short strange book
lodged between
V (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) in the
oeuvre of this often prolix author. I suspect many readers
tackle this brief novel—or in Pynchon’s enigmatic description,
a work "marketed as a novel"—with the thought that
something so compact, a mere 45,000 words, will make for
an easy introduction to a sometimes elliptical writer. Ah,
the joke is on them. A walk through a house of mirrors
may be short when measured in steps, but if you keep on
slamming your face into your own reflection, the effect is
anything but that of a leisurely stroll.  

And that’s precisely the right metaphor to convey the act
of reading
The Crying of Lot 49, a constant circling in on
reflections that may be reality, or a simulacrum of reality,
or just a dead end where you will bang your head.  You may
have encountered books on conspiracies before, but even
that fringe literature at least tells you what the conspiracy
aimed to achieve—kill the President, poison Marilyn Monroe,
bring down the Twin Towers, stage the Apollo 11 landing
in an Arizona desert, convince fans that Elvis is dead, etc.  
Only Pynchon grasped that the deepest psychological
terror resides in the conspiracy that is everywhere, but
with no obvious goal beyond self-preservation and
propagation.

The Crying of Lot 49 starts with stock elements associated
with the mystery genre.  A rich man, Pierce Inverarity, has
died, and his former girlfriend, Oedipa Maas, steps in to
settle his estate—but then stumbles upon a number of
puzzling facts and circumstances.  In time, she begins to
distrust the people around her, even those who seem most
ostensibly helpful on the surface, and fears that something
strange, and possibly dangerous, may be lurking behind the
scenes.

You will have dealt with set-ups of this sort before in films,
books and TV shows.  As a result, you will expect that,
as Pynchon's tale proceeds, uncertainties will be cleared
up, mysteries solved, perpetrators apprehended, and day-
to-day life ultimately return to normal.  But instead, the
exact opposite takes place in
The Crying of Lot 49.  The
mystery expands, involving more and more people, and
eventually swallowing up all of America, Europe and
hundreds of years of hidden history.   Instead of a tightening
of the plot as we proceed toward the conclusion, Pynchon
gets looser and looser.   Eventually, the dead man and his
estate are the least of our concerns.  This conspiracy
seems to involve everything.

But here's the most banal twist of all.   These conspirators don’t
seem concerned about murder, or money, or power, or fomenting
revolution.  Instead, they want to
deliver the mail.  Maas finds
increasing evidence of an alternative postal system run by a
shadowy group known as the Tristero.    The tell-tale sign of the
organization is its use of a drawing of muted post horn in the
place of your usual postage stamp.   Our heroine first notices this
symbol on a lavatory wall, and soon starts seeing it everywhere—
as a doodle in office cubicle, chalked into a city sidewalk, in a
store window, on an anarchist newspaper from 1904, etc. —but
still can’t grasp exactly what it signifies.  In time, she traces the
post horn’s history back to the sixteenth century, when the
secretive Tristero attempted to wrest control of European courier
service from the dominant Thurn und Taxis company, a real
historical entity borrowed by Pynchon for his cryptic tale.  

Instead of a solution, Maas eventually comes up with four
possible—but mutually exclusive—explanations. As she
muses to herself late in the course of
The Crying of Lot 49,
these are her options:

Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD
or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed
density of dream; onto a network by which X number of
Americans are truly communicating….Or you are
hallucinating it.  Or a plot has been mounted against
you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the
forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance
of your movements, planting of post horn images all over
San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional
actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what else besides,
all financed out of the estate in a way either too secret or
too involved for your non-legal mind to know about....Or
you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a
nut, Oedipa, out of your skull.  

Oedipa's preferred answer is that she is mad. What
Pynchon himself prefers is more problematic. Think of
him as a doctor who doesn't offer a cure or even a precise
diagnosis, but can list off plenty of symptoms and
disturbing test results.  Back in 1966, when this book
came out, that alone must have been appealing to readers
who, in the three years since the JFK assassination, had
grown increasingly cynical and were starting to hear
plenty of juicy conspiracy theories.   As I see it,
The Crying
of Lot 49
stands as the anti-Warren Report, as the book that
doesn't tie all the facts and evidence together into a neat
solution, but just lets them hang out there in all their
ugly unwieldiness.  

But I doubt that first time readers delving into this novel
today will find this messiness quite so appealing in a post-
millennial light.  Your typical paranoid conspiracy theory
comes across as pretty thin gruel nowadays.  And if you
haven’t already digested your fill of them, just tune into
talk radio—I know of one prominent host who devotes
an entire afternoon each week just to allow listeners to
vent their favorite conspiracy theory
du jour;  in the course
of any given year he must deal with hundreds of them.  
Perhaps if Pynchon were more clearly parodying this
über-paranoia or transforming it into something clever
or unexpected, a modern day reader might have more
patience with his meandering theories.  But that kind of
twist won’t be found in this novel.  Remember, after all,
this is the author who was running away from imaginary
adversaries back in the 1960s, and was still doing the
same some five decades later.   And that may tell you
more about the mystery embedded in
The Crying of Lot
49
than anything actually stated in its pages.


Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His
latest book is
Love Songs: The Hidden History, published by
Oxford University Press.

Essay published August 23, 2011
.
The Crying of Lot 49
by Thomas Pynchon
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Further Clues:

Dr. Irwin Corey's Acceptance Speech on Behalf of
Thomas Pynchon at the 1974 National Book Award
Ceremony

Thomas Pynchon Home Page at San Narciso
Community College

Thomas Pynchon on The Simpsons and here (note
the author's pronunciation of his name as pinch-AWN
instead of the frequently heard PINCH-un)

Review of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow

The Unofficial Thomas Pynchon Guide to Los Angeles
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia
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Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

Jedediah Berry
The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
The Demolished Man

Roberto Bolaño
2666

Jorge Luis Borges
Ficciones

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Agatha Christie
The A.B.C. Murders

Robert Coover
Noir

Friedrich Dürrenmatt
The Pledge

Umberto Eco
Foucault's Pendulum
The Name of the Rose

David Gordon
The Serialist

Witold Gombrowicz
Cosmos

Mark Haddon
The Curious Incident of
the Dog in the Night-Time

Elizabeth Hand
Generation Loss

Patricia Highsmith
The Talented Mr. Ripley

Norman N. Holland
Death in a Delphi Seminar

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The Trial

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Gun, with Occasional Music
Motherless Brooklyn

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Chronicle of a Death Foretold

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The Face on the Cutting-Room
Floor

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The Rynox Murder

China Miéville
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Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

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Missing Person

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Kafka on the Shore
A Wild Sheep Chase

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Pale Fire

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Mysteries of Winterthurn

Flann O'Brien
The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

Gilbert Sorrentino
Mulligan Stew

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Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco
Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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Waggish
He's been in hiding so long, we’ve forgotten
what the original charges were. The photo
on the wanted poster
down at the post office
is so old, stamps were
only four cents back
when it was taken—not
that Pynchon would
know, since he was al-
legedly connected to an
underground alternative
mail system, the dreaded
Tristero, in which a quick sketch of Miles
Davis’s trumpet replaced your usual postage.  
How cool is that? When bounty hunters are
in pursuit, he has been known to leap out of
second story windows to avoid capture or
requests for a quick snapshot. For a while,
some speculated the Pynchon was actually
J.D. Salinger, the Unabomber, D.B. Cooper,
or maybe all three. Who knows? He has lived
a life so reclusive that Emily Dickinson looks
like a party animal by comparison, and when
Dick Cheney went into hiding at an
“undisclosed location” following the 9/11
attacks, his hideout was, according to some
insiders, the spare bedroom at Tom’s
apartment. Some of us hope that Pynchon
will receive the Nobel Prize in literature, if
only in anticipation that it will lure him into
the open, where he can be arrested by His
Majesty the King of Sweden and extradited
back to the States to face charges. But given
this sly fugitive’s gamesmanship, we probably
won’t get anything better than a handcuffed
Professor Irwin Corey, who impersonated the
author at the National Book Award ceremony
in 1974.  In the meantime, you can search
the books for clues, of which you will find no
shortage.
ROGUES GALLERY:
THOMAS PYNCHON
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