The Crying of Lot 49 Review

A welcome bit of inspired literature after reading two highly acclaimed yet disappointing novels over the last couple months. I may be biased or simply have a limited scope on what constitutes literature but when I approach a novel, poem, play, or the other written forms meant for more than simple entertainment purposes the expectation is to read something with excellent style and a graceful, expansive expression of a theme or connected themes throughout. In my short survey of more recent works of literature the style is very much present, but the themes seem to appear only in a select few.

I understand not everyone is a Shakespeare (or, with my definition of literature, a David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon) but there should be an apparent striving to reach these top players when contributing to the art. Otherwise the contributions become more noise distracting the public from gaining insight into something more than their own perceptions of reality and self. I read that Pynchon felt he failed in the writing of 49 and maybe he did in his vision of literature, but I feel he did accomplish a writer’s goal of making art.

Although 49 shares the major theme of communication with Infinite Jest they do so in a disparate enough way to enlighten different portions of the innumerable facets related to humanity’s arguably most important tool. And like its more contemporary, giant counterpart 49 consciously uses style to elevate theme. To narrow down the theme into a more approachable manner, it’s best to focus on how Pynchon explores the breaking down of communication.  From the beginning of the short novel when the protagonist Oedipa Maas (the character names are a whole other form of communication/identity break downs) receives a letter in the mail, Pynchon makes it clear that as much as the character and the reader expects concrete answers from words we won’t be getting them. On the flip side of this pessimistic view, I believe Pynchon pushes just as hard an optimistic belief in the hope that language, both spoken and written, can lead us to a happier state of being and freedom once we understand more fully the weaknesses and strengths in this most powerful tool. Take for example the abstract advice Oedipa’s psychiatrist imparts on her before his arrest that she should cherish all fantasies because they are what make us human. Although Dr. Hilarious’s (greatest psychiatrist name ever) words should be taken with caution it is the best answer Oedipa and the reader get. We should indulge in the fantasies our minds and others generate through the many forms of communication, whether it be novels, plays, songs, television, telekinesis, or very simply talking under the influence of various substances or none. Yet we need to delve into imagination with the understanding that language is a construct of man and will never fully encapsulate the abstract forms of nature/the world/existence and so on because it’s not about capturing the answers to these things but acting on and with the best of words can bring us. That’s what beautiful literature is for.