Reviewed 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's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of the
Cool.
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The Crying of Lot 49
by Thomas Pynchon
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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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
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The Reading List
(with links to essays)

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Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective
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London Fields

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The New York Trilogy

Thomas Bernhard
The Lime Works

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2666

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The Third Policeman

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Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
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The Erasers
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Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
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Some of Your Blood

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Ilustrado

Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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