THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

It's all a massive conspiracy, or it's all a giant practical joke. This is the world of The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon's darkly comic novel of ancient forces, modern silliness, musical numbers, and self-discovery.

Oedipa Maas is apparently a normal housewife who comes home one day to find that Piers Inverarity, her former lover and a huge practical joker, has died and named her the executor of his estate. She parts from her husband, disc jockey Wendell "Mucho" Maas, and her star and current lawyer who guides her through Inverarity's estate, which includes theshrink, Dr. Hilarius, and heads to San Narcisco, California. Once there she meets up with Metzger, a former child actor and lawyer for Inverarity's estate, which included the Yoyodyne Corporation and apparently majorities or large shares in everything they see. His stamp collection also includes a stamp with the word "potsmaster." And there's a secret mail pickup system called W.A.S.T.E. at a bar for Yoyodyne scientists.

A chance seeing of a Jacobean revenge play, which has parallels to a World War 2 controversy (which, of course, is related to Inverarity's estate), introduced Oedipa to the Trystero/Tristero, an postal movement from the 18th century that went underground. It seems to be behind the W.A.S.T.E. covert mail delivery, and its symbol -- a muted postal horn -- seems to appear all over the place as graffiti and by the unofficial mail drops. Oedipa decides to find out the truth behind this shadow organization and Inverarity, trying to find out what is going on, despite possible danger (one bit of graffiti, DEATH, is written out: Don't Ever Antagonize The Horn) and numerous dead ends.

Or is it a joke? Everything seems to spring from Inverarity, who had the twisted sense of humor (and plenty of resources) to run a former lover through this elaborate maze, and everything seems to connect with him and his business.

The Crying of Lot 49 is a brilliantly twisted, funny, and thoughtful novel. There's a lot of conspiracy theories floating about here, from the ancient mail system to the question of whether Inverarity is even really dead; and we're given information as Maas discovers it, leaving us no more or less certain about what's going on than she is. And while people involved with the conspiracy seem to be removed one by one, there's also a lot of silliness, from a Beatles-style pop group called the Paranoids to just about every name in the book (including the law firm Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, and lawyer Genghis Cohen) to a ridiculous strip scene to the Peter Pinguid Society. Pynchon doesn't develop any characters other than Oedipa, but our baffled heroine does grow, trying to figure out the world she never really saw before,

My favorite Pynchon novel is still Gravity's Rainbow, but The Crying of Lot 49 is a very entertaining walk in a world where mysterious patterns seem to coalesce alongside slapstick comedy.

Overall grade: A
Reviewed by James Lynch

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