Tuesday, April 27, 2010

THE CRYING OF LOT 49 by Thomas Pynchon

I re-read The Crying of Lot 49 recently and found it even better than I remembered. The Jacobean revenge play parody (which anticipates by 40 years the over-the-top sadism of Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ) is both more gruesome and funnier than I had recalled; and Oedipa's descent into madness and lucidity (the madness of lucidity, the lucidity of madness) is accomplished with wonderful economy in the book's brief space-time. (My only real criticism is directed at the book's prose. The Pynchon of Lot 49 wasn't yet the recklessly beautiful writer of Gravity's Rainbow. The margins of my copy of GR are studded with 'WOW's inked whenever I came across a sentence or paragraph that could simply not have been better written. There are precious few such passages in Lot 49.) I was especially impressed on this reading by something I had failed to fully appreciate when I read the book a decade ago: the beautiful and hermeneutically crucial image that ends the first chapter. Oedipa recalls a painting by Remedios Varo that figures the world as a tapestry woven by prisoners in a tower. It's an image of reality as both social construction and imaginative projection, a tapestry in which we are trapped, a cage we've built around ourselves. I call this image 'hermeneutically crucial' because the entire novella can be understood as a slow pulling back of this tapestry. Lot 49 is a game of "Strip Botticelli" that culminates (like every Freudian or Lacanian striptease) in the revelation of a void, a lack: the vast meaninglessness that the absurd surface of American reality attempts hysterically to conceal. (In this sense, James Wood's designation of Pynchon's novels as "hysterical realism" is a kind of bullseye. But Wood is only criticizing the absurd surface; he doesn't read the books closely enough to realize how right he is.) The novella's multiple images of constructed realities, radical uncertainty, textual interpretation, and a void of meaninglessness underlying and inciting all discourse--all of this encourages a contemporary hermeneut (or should we call him a 'hermeneunuch'?) to whip out his big postmodernist guns and start blasting away, riddling the Pynchonian text with Derridean bullet holes. But any attempt to assimilate the void Oedipa Maas glimpses to the linguistic aporias of Derrida and de Man only introduces another level of delusion. Such interpretation is a hasty repair job on the tapestry Pynchon so elaborately rips; it's another discourse that defangs the book so it can be safely displayed in the Postmodern Monkey House of the American Academic Zoo. This is a way of conveniently avoiding the most disturbing things the novel has to say about American life, insights that cut through the usual bullshit the way gasoline eats through the bottom of a styrofoam cup. Such is the bind Oedipa finds herself in at novel's end:

"Another mode of meaning behind the obvious, or none. Either Oedipa in the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia, or a real Tristero. For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of a legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia."

The Crying of Lot 49 was strong stuff in the mid-1960s, and the intervening 45 years have hardly diluted it. (It blows my mind to think that we will soon be marking this book's 50th birthday.) Anywhere in America today you can turn on a TV, flip to a news channel, and watch the Paranoids blow out all the lights.

No comments: