Date finished: April 21st 2016
Thomas Pynchon is quite possibly a raving lunatic. I mean that in the best possible way – the kind of lunatic you aspire to be when you grow up. Not much is known about the author as he’s kept himself to himself over the decades, shunning the spotlight in favour of the private life. One of his few public appearances (insofar as it can be called one) was as a guest voice on The Simpsons, twice, in fact. I can really get behind a man who only wants that kind of publicity.
Where do you start with an author like Pynchon? Well, a few years ago I attempted his first novel, V. But that didn’t work out, so here we are now, with me reading Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49. It’s probably the best way to get into Pynchon, seeing as everything else he’s written is at least 400 pages long and this is a cool 140. Although you’ve got to bear in mind with Pynchon that he writes with such density that 140 pages by him is like reading 280 pages by anyone else.
So, what’s The Crying of Lot 49 about? That’s not a rhetorical question, I mean that more as a rallying call for myself. 140 pages is limiting: China Mieville – one of my favourite authors and a fantastic world-builder – couldn’t do much in his recent novella with such limited space. I just read The Double by Dostoyevsky which is a little longer, and he rambled his arse off repetitively just to fill the word-count. What can Pynchon do with 140 pages?
The answer is: a lot. The Crying of Lot 49 centres on Oedipa Maas (Pynchon tops even J K Rowling when it comes to zany names), who comes home one day to find that she’s been made the executor of her former lover’s estate. Her former lover just happens to be a business mogul who had shares in virtually everything. In undertaking her duties, she becomes an unlikely detective spotting a pattern between everything from the deceased’s stamp collection, to a Jacobean revenge play, to the graffiti on the ladies’ room wall – and every clue she finds seems to come back to one thing: the, er, the postal service. But has she uncovered a conspiracy, or is she embroiled in one?
Pynchon is dense. His writing, that is. He himself is anything but (what little is known about him includes a stint in the Navy and a degree in engineering) and his writing shows it. Pynchon has been compared to James Joyce, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs – basically a non-exhaustive list of literature’s most lunatic innovators.
Like the work of many of these authors, The Crying of Lot 49 requires your full attention and you need to accept that you’re not going to understand everything. Pynchon is a mad recluse, well-up on pop culture, with a degree in engineering and an obvious aptitude for every other subject. He’s cleverer than you. He plays with language, science, maths and entertainment, tearing them apart and recombining them like a bored, psychopathic God. You will lose track of what’s going on. You will think ‘what the f*ck is this guy smoking?’. You will pick this book up again (if you ever put it down) and say ‘I’m determined to find out what the hell is going on’.
And that’s the thing. The Crying of Lot 49 is mad, mad, utterly mad. As much as you feel lost at times, you traipse on because you know, beneath the desolate confusion, something important is happening. Pynchon is – despite all his unhinged, contradictory, low-brow intellectualism – enjoyable. And that’s what matters. It’s avant-garde but accessible; tangential yet focused; rambling yet coherent; meaningless and meaningful. What seems like chaos is actually order, and vice versa. The ending will satisfy some, repel others and baffle all. Pynchon plays with his reader a bit like a cat plays with a mouse: he bats you around for a while, then allows you to recover – let’s you have some breathing room, gives you a bit of hope – then bats you around a bit more. But ultimately he will defeat you – there’s no question of that. After an intellectual wrestling match, I’m left exhausted, confused, and sure that I’ll be picking up a Pynchon again in the near future.