Saturday, April 25, 2009

Review: The Biggest Hoax of All


Maybe I’ve been nostalgic for college recently, as I’ve been (re-)reading Cornellian authors – Vladimir Nabokov and Thomas Pynchon, most intently. I was in need of a comedy recently; and in my apartment, one of the few straightforward comic novels I own is The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon’s sophomore work which I believe he has disowned at this point. Too bad, because it’s stellar. And gets better with each reading.

The Crying of Lot 49 is the story of Oedipa Maas (her given name should suggest Oedipus; her surname translated from the Dutch means ‘loop’, an infinity of sorts) who is named executrix of a former lover’s [Pierce Inverarity’s] will. Confused by the situation she tries to understand why this has happened, which eventually leads into a tale of drugs, death, madness, mail-carriers, miscommunication, and ‘the shortest line ever written in blank verse: “T-t-t-t-t . . .”’. Oedipa tries to tie together all these clues that seem to be thrust at her as to why she’s executrix, what underground mail services are really doing, if there is some truth to mail conspiracy theories, and why there’s suspicious activity behind every person she comes across. Because it seems like everything is somehow connected. Because everyone seems to have an ulterior motive.

Unfortunately, think Dan Brown. But unlike Dan Brown, which makes Pynchon brilliant, there are no easy answers. The hysteria that is built up around Oedipa’s plight will remain without any definitive answers – which is in essence one of the major differences between literary and commercial fiction. Mike Fallopian, a man that Oedipa meets at a bar, asks her a pivotal question that we ourselves should be asking the whole time: ‘Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?’

In essence the book asks whether we should really should be searching for these clues in life, in literature. Because what if it is all a hoax in the end? Isn’t the novel the biggest hoax of all: something that suggests truth but which is based upon lies, is fictive? We get caught up in these worlds. As literary students, we begin to care about these ‘people’ (aka characters) and discuss their decisions as if they were real. And sometimes we forget that they don’t exist, that their decisions in the end don’t really matter.

The Crying of Lot 49 runs on the edge of being allegory, with characters’ names that include Dr Hilarius (a former Nazi doctor), Randolph Driblette, Genghis Cohen, the pop-rock band The Paranoids, and the radio station KCUF. And allegory tries to teach us a lesson – think back to the medieval play Everyman. So like any talented writer, Pynchon is able to create a world that resides on many thresholds, upon a fine balance. And that creates a reason for a reader to return to such works with relish.


Kari said…

Your fourth paragraph did it for me…I need to read this now.

colin said…

I love this book as well. Pynchon’s briefest and most accessible work comes with myriad tricks and deceptions.

I still flirt with the idea of getting the muted horn tattooed on my shoulder.