THOMAS PYNCHON: THE CRYING OF LOT 49 (1965)

© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Thomas Pynchon (1937– ) burst on the American literary scene when his first novel, V. (1963) won a William Faulkner Foundation Award for the best first novel of the year and was a finalist for the National Book Award. Ten years later, he would publish his masterpiece, the sprawling Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is still considered one of the definitive works of literary postmodernism. In between, he published a much shorter work that is perhaps his most widely read work, The Crying of Lot 49 (1965). Lot 49 deals with some of the same issues (especially epistemological ones) that are crucial to Pynchon’s larger works, though its smaller scale makes it much more accessible. It also shows most of the stylistic characteristics for which Pynchon has since become so widely known: irreverent allusions to a variety of different forms of culture, informal and playful use of vernacular language, comically absurd character and place names, striking images and metaphors, and a general disregard for literary decorum.

But Pynchon’s playful use of language can have a serious purpose. There is, as he reminds us in Lot 49, “a high magic to low puns” (105). Indeed, despite its superficial silliness, Lot 49 is remarkable for the extent of its engagement with a number of crucial political and historical issues. Some of these are of a very specific and local kind, having to do with the unique political situation of its mid-1960s California setting, one of the central birthplaces of both the 1960s oppositional counterculture on the Left and a New Right variant of conservatism that would eventually feed into neoliberalism. Other issues in the text, however, are longer term, having to do with the entire process of capitalist modernization from the end of the Middle Ages until the present day.

The protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 is one Oedipa Maas, a twenty-eight-year-old California housewife. (Note that Pynchon himself was twenty-eight when the book was published.) Oedipa lives in the northern California town of Kinneret with her somewhat indifferent husband, radio disc jockey (and former used car salesman) Wendell “Mucho” Maas. Maas works for radio station KCUF, the name of which, spelled backwards, indicates the almost sophomoric playfulness with which Pynchon sometimes chooses names. Oedipa’s name, however, is seemingly more significant, making clear reference to the mythical Oedipus, best known through his role as the protagonist of Sophocles’ classic Greek play Oedipus Rex, one of the most important characters in Western literary history. In this this play, Oedipus unknowingly slays his own father, Laius, King of Thebes, and marries his own mother, Jocasta. When he learns that a plague on his city of Thebes has apparently been caused by the failure of the city to solve the murder of its king, Oedipus vows to find the killer, leading to his downfall. Given that he investigates and solves a murder, Oedipus has been described as the first detective in literature, which is important because Oedipa, too, will play the role of detective throughout Lot 49. Seeking to gather information that will help her to execute the will of her former (but long estranged) lover, the wealthy real-estate developer Pierce Inverarity, she discovers all sort of signs and portents that lead her into a web of unsolved mysteries.

The Crying of Lot 49 as Postmodern Detective Story

The detective-story format of The Crying of Lot 49 has been central to critical discussions of the novel, which have often focused on the way Oedipa’s struggle to interpret the information she encounters in the course of the book parallels the (similarly doomed) attempts of readers to make sense of the text. These parallel failures, then, are seen as central to the status of the novel as a postmodern artifact. In the conventional detective story (especially as practiced by British writers such as Agatha Christie), the social order is disrupted by a crime, typically a murder. A detective figure then gathers information, solves the mystery of the crime and restores order to the disrupted world. In this sense, it is the most conservative of genres. However, as such, it is also a genre that is open to subversive challenges, and The Crying of Lot 49 breaks virtually all of the rules of the detective genre. Not only is Oedipa unable to find the solutions to the various mysteries that she encounters, but the narrative also questions whether such solutions exist—or even whether the mysteries really exist in the first place. It is thus identified as a postmodern work first and foremost because of the way it uses the detective fiction format to call into question the usual assumptions that undergird that genre: that the world is a rational place that can be understood simply by gathering and analyzing a sufficient amount of data.

Of course, that the world behaves in this orderly fashion is also a central assumption of the bourgeois ideology that has driven the entire process of capitalist modernization. This assumption is also central to the worldview of Oedipa Maas in the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49. As the story begins she is essentially a bored suburban housewife whose life lacks excitement but is rife with stability and security. Indeed, one suspects that she accepts the appointment as the executrix of Inverarity’s will largely as a way to escape the boredom of her comfortable bourgeois life. She does not, of course, anticipate that attempting to unravel the complexities of Inverarity’s financial holdings will lead her into a dark and mysterious world filled with hints of conspiracy and even of the supernatural, ultimately undermining her previously complacent confidence in modern America as a clean, well-lighted place of comfort and predictability.

If Lot 49 thus subverts the rage for order that seemingly drives the detective genre, it should also be noted that Michael Holquist has identified the detective story as the structural model par excellence for postmodern fiction, precisely because it supplies a clear target for postmodern irony, which undermines the neat solutions to epistemological problems typically offered by the conventional detective story. For Holquist, modernist authors sought, through the use of myth and other devices, to restore some of the greater meaning that has been lost via the reduction of the world to total rationality, leaving a spiritual void. Postmodern authors, on the other hand, “dramatize the void” (155).

It is certainly the case that postmodern authors have often adopted the detective story format and that they have typically treated it ironically, undermining the drive for neat closure that typically characterizes the genre. Interestingly, one of the central examples of the postmodern detective story cited by Holquist is Alain Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers (1953), a text that bases its narrative on the myth of Oedipus—more extensively than does Lot 49, in fact.

Indeed, Oedipa’s name sets up certain expectations that are never fulfilled in the plot. She does not, for example, discover herself to be the center of the mystery she seeks to unravel. Indeed, the text leaves open the possibility that no real mystery exists and that numerous “clues” Oedipa uncovers are really just signs of her own paranoia. Pynchon, in fact, frequently returns to this theme in his work, which often poses questions about whether both Western religion and Western science are founded on a base of paranoia, on a sense, as he defines it in Gravity’s Rainbow, that “everything is connected.” Pynchon’s work then invites his readers to make connections, only repeatedly to undermine that effort, raising the question of whether the alternative, “anti-paranoia,” the sense that “nothing is connected to anything,” is really more in tune with the true nature of reality.

Pynchon also notes in Gravity’s Rainbow that people tend to find paranoia comforting, the idea of hidden connections everywhere being much less troubling than the idea that there are no such connections. In Lot 49, however, the connections Oedipa believes she might be detecting tend to be a bit frightening, containing suggestions of forces beyond her understanding that might be impacting our seemingly rational world. That world, perhaps especially in California, home even in 1965 of many high-tech firms, is centrally informed by technology, and Pynchon (a former technical writer for Boeing) is justifiably famous for his use of technological metaphors in his writing. At one point, for example, Pynchon draws an offbeat comparison between the “DTs” (delirium tremens) of the alcoholic and the “dt” of differential calculus (105). Perhaps more significantly, as Oedipa begins her investigations, she drives south to San Narciso. The orderly layout of the town, seen from the freeway, strikes her in way that recalls an earlier experience with technology. She looks down

“onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had” (14).

This striking visual metaphor not only suggests an unnatural orderliness in modern civilization, but also indicates the central role played by technology in the evolution of this orderliness. This particular metaphor also gives us a clue to Oedipa’s own personal desire to fit things into patterns and to make sense of them, a desire that will drive her throughout the remainder of the text. Indeed, soon afterward, as she drives along Southern California’s famous freeway system, an iconic image of modernization, constructing for herself a vision of its meaning that foreshadows her later tendency to see sinister meanings everywhere: “What the road really was, she fancied, was this hypodermic needle, inserted somewhere ahead into the vein of a freeway, a vein nourishing the mainliner L.A., keeping it happy, coherent, protected from pain, or whatever passes, with a city, for pain” (15). This metaphor thus suggests the way in which modern technological developments such as freeways have been crucial to the growth of the L.A. area, but it also suggests that these developments might be shielding the people of Southern California from an understanding of the realities of the world.

That Oedipa never finds the answers she seeks (and that the narrative suddenly ends just as she believes some crucial information is about to be revealed) is a sign of the postmodern nature of the novel. However, just because one cannot draw final conclusions about what is going on in Lot 49 does not believe that it has no meaning at all or that it does not address important themes that remain of interest today. In fact, if anything, the main interpretive challenge posed by Lot 49 is that it has so many meanings.

Routinization, Magic, and Postal Paranoia in The Crying of Lot 49

One of the crucial themes of Lot 49 has to do with the routinization of life under modern capitalism. Oedipa launches into her quest largely as a way of adding some variety and meaning to a life that has become boring and routine. But, of course, routine can also be comforting, and the evidence she uncovers that the world might be stranger and more complex than she ever imagined is both exhilarating and frightening. Importantly, though, what is at stake here involves far more than her individual experience as a bored suburban housewife.

Routinization is a key characteristic of modern capitalist society as a whole, because the efficient operation of the vast, complex capitalist system requires a great deal of coordination and standardization. But this quest for capitalist efficiency also has a tendency to reduce all of life to economic terms. The great German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), often regarded as the founder of modern sociology, was also an important historian of the role of religion in Western life. One of his most important contributions was to examine the impact of capitalist modernization on religious life in the West, especially in his landmark book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (first published in German in 1904 and 1905 and first translated into English in 1930). Here, Weber argues that, while medieval Catholicism encouraged a rejection of the lures of the secular world, certain characteristics of early Protestantism (especially Puritanism and even more especially the Calvinist form of Puritanism) encouraged its adherents to go forth into that secular world seeking wealth and success. The emergence of Protestantism thus formed an important part of an ideological climate that enabled the early growth of capitalism, and Protestantism and capitalism then moved forward hand-in-hand, each reinforcing the other, despite their seeming (but superficial) incompatibilities.

A key result of all of this emphasis on secular action is the gradual enlistment of all of the resources of the world in the interest of the generation of wealth, thus converting all aspects of life in the world into economic assets. This development, for Weber, is the culmination of a long historical process of “elimination of magic from the world which had begun with the Hebrew prophets, and in conjunction with Hellenistic scientific thought, had repudiated all magical means to salvation as superstition and sin” (Weber 105). But this Calvinist removal of magic from everyday life, while originally driven by individualist entrepreneurial zeal, and while breaking the stranglehold of the medieval Catholic Church on the minds of Europe, did not simply lead to a breakdown in all forms of institutional control:

“The Reformation meant not the elimination of the Church’s control over everyday life, but rather the substitution of a new form of control for the previous one. It meant the repudiation of a control which was very lax, at that time scarcely perceptible in practice, and hardly more than formal, in favour of a regulation of the whole of conduct which, penetrating to all departments of private and public life, was infinitely burdensome and earnestly enforced” (36).

And, ultimately, this new, more pervasive form of regulation would extend far beyond religion to include, by the era of neoliberalism, the growth of complex corporate structures that would come to dominate the economy and of complex modes of social control that extend into virtually every aspect of modern life.

All of this is particularly relevant to American history, in which the New England Pilgrims (who were, in fact, Calvinist Puritans) have played such an important role. It is no accident, for example, that Weber (who visited the United States in 1904 when he was still writing The Protestant Ethic) was fascinated with America—or that he used Benjamin Franklin as his central example of a thinker whose ideas embodied what Weber calls the “spirit of capitalism.” Pynchon, though, modernizes his depiction of capitalist routinization by placing his story in California, in many ways the epitome of the modern in America, though it is also the case that many critics have pointed out the prominent echoes of Calvinist thought in the work of Pynchon, who is himself a descendant of New England Pilgrims.

In terms of Lot 49, the notion of routinization plays out primarily in the book’s central concern with the fact that there might be elements of the world that are not encompassed by the comfortable, bourgeois worldview of modern capitalism. Relevant here is Fredric Jameson’s discussion of the fact that nonrealist genres, such as romance, remain popular in a modern, routinized world stripped of magic. Referring to the work of Weber, Jameson concludes that such genres remained popular as modern capitalism tightened its grip on American society not despite this routinization, but because of it. In the imaginatively impoverished and routinized world of consumer capitalism, individuals naturally desire something different and less impoverished, making the otherworldliness of romance attractive as a sign of other possible ways of living in and viewing the world. “Romance,” Jameson concludes, “now again seems to offer the possibility of sensing other historical rhythms, and of demonic or Utopian transformations of a real now unshakably set in place” (Political Unconscious 104).

Jameson’s description of the romance here also supplies and excellent description of what happens in Lot 49, as well as providing an explanation for why Oedipa seems so intrigued by the mysteries she encounters. After all, these mysteries potentially suggest a world that is far richer and stranger than the limited, confined suburban world in which she has been living. Lot 49, though is also a postmodern text, so it leaves these mysteries unsolved, their status uncertain. It is possible that Oedipa is simply being paranoid, making connections where none actually exist. Paranoia, however, can be a complicated topic in this text.

Much of The Crying of Lot 49 focuses on the theme of paranoia, which Oedipa increasingly experiences as she accumulates vague clues to the existence of a shadowy organization known as the “Tristero” (or “Trystero”), which functions as a sort of alternative underground postal system, possibly serving a network of outcasts, of those who have been left out by mainstream America (or have intentionally opted out). As is typical of postmodern literature, the theme is not treated entirely seriously, though, and the text contains numerous whimsical references to paranoia, as in the introduction of fake British invasion rock band called “The Paranoids,” who reside in the margins of the text throughout.

In any case, if paranoia consists of a sense that everything is connected to everything else, then there is no better metaphor for paranoia than the postal system, whose pursuit is precisely to establish and maintain a network of universal interconnection. At the same time, an underground postal system such as the Tristero becomes the perfect complication that undermines the seeming universality of this network by providing reminders that the “universality” of modern thought has never really included everyone.

As Oedipa goes about her quest for knowledge about the Tristero, she is able to piece together an entire history of their existence and activities, knowing all the while that this history might be entirely spurious. According to this history, the organization arose in the late sixteenth century (in the still early days of capitalist modernity in Europe) as a sort of underground rival to the official postal system of the say, an official monopoly run by the noble Thurn and Taxis family, with the support of the Holy Roman Empire. This whole story might seem invented, but then one of the hallmarks of Pynchon’s fictions is the use of unlikely-sounding real-world historical events as a starting point for his far-fetched narratives. In this case, it turns out that the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly was a real one.

The history of the Thurn and Taxis is one that parallels the history of capitalism itself. Beginning in the late thirteenth century, with the rise of Italian Renaissance culture on the horizon, one Omodeo Tasso organized a group of his relatives in northern Italian to form a company of couriers that linked Milan with Venice and Rome. This company received both royal and papal patronage and was renowned for its unprecedented efficiency. Over the next two centuries, the company gradually extended its operations to Vienna, Brussels, and other key parts of the Holy Roman Empire. By 1516, the family had made Brussels the headquarters of their operations, which were at that time expanding throughout the Empire, with the support of Emperor Maximilien I. In 1650, the family formally adopted the German form of their name, Thurn und Taxis. They continued to expand their postal system until it was made the official postal system of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806 and remained so until 1867, by which time it had been sold off in pieces. This sale, however, made the family quite wealthy, and they remain a prominent aristocratic family until this day, occupying the stately St. Emmeram Castle in Regensburg, Germany, though many of their lands have been donated to the public and made into well-maintained parks that serve to this day as monuments to the modern drive to dominate and control nature.

The establishment of the Thurn und Taxis postal system was crucial to communication between different parts of Europe during the Early Modern and Enlightenment periods. Moreover, the availability of efficient communication was crucial to the rise of capitalism and to the historical progress of modernity. It was a key to the organization of European society in a manner that was conducive to the operation of large-scale commerce of a kind that could take advantage of the immense amount of capital flowing into Europe from the American colonies. It thus stands as a perfect symbol of the routinization of life under modern capitalism. Meanwhile, its mysterious Other, the (entirely fictional) Tristero, stands not only as an alternative to this routinization, but also as a suggestion of the possibility that modernity is either more fragile or more oppressive than it at first appears to be.

One of the keys to Lot 49 is the movement of the Tristero to America, where they supposedly relocated much of their operation in the wake of the wave of revolutions that shook Europe in 1848. According to the narrative of Lot 49, the Tristero, now operating as the W.A.S.T.E. system, then gradually grew as an alternative to the U.S. postal system as the latter extended its operations, helping America to become more and more modern and eventually to catch up with Europe. Indeed, it was during the first decades of the twentieth century that a rapidly growing consumer capitalism for the first time made America as modern as Europe, buoyed by an explosive expansion of the U.S. postal system during this period, specifically in an effort to provide support for the expanding capitalist system[1].

Within the context of 1960s California, it is also well known that effective use of the U.S. postal system was a key to the rise of the New Right, which largely built its power on the compilation and use of extensive targeted mailing lists. Mike Davis notes that “the extensive mailing lists that William S. Warner collected for Goldwater were a revolutionary step forward in … providing the resources for it to survive and grow as a network of institutionalized single-issue movements and multipurpose umbrella groups” (Prisoners of the American Dream, 168). Goldwater’s own bid for the presidency in 1964 failed, of course, but Robin Blyn notes that the same organizational principles that animated Goldwater’s campaign would soon be put to use by Ronald Reagan in California, driving him to win the governorship there by 1966 and to win the presidency by 1980.

For Blyn, this fact is important to understanding the role played by postal systems (and network organizations in general) in Lot 49, because many of the same principles of networking are central to both neoliberalism and the anarchism that hovers in the margins of Lot 49 as a vague alternative. Blyn concludes, though, that W.A.S.T.E. ultimately stands as a symbol for those elements of the counterculture that eschewed the active political resistance that once characterized the Tristero in favor of “dropping out” in pursuit of individual happiness, a strategy unlikely to strike any telling blows against the existing power structure.

The Crying of Lot 49 in the 1960s

While The Crying of Lot 49 addresses a number of crucial issues that are fundamental to the entire project of capitalist modernization, it is perhaps most striking for its engagement with specific phenomena in the California culture of the 1960s, especially as Pynchon seems to have picked up on these phenomena quite early on, well before their importance was entirely obvious to most Americans. The most often discussed of these is Pynchon’s engagement with the 1960s counterculture while it was still at a relatively early stage in its birth in California[2]. But Pynchon works in references to a variety of other California phenomena as well[3]. I will detail some of these references below, but first it is important to understand that these references are important largely because California functioned in the American imagination of the 1960s very much as an emblem of the future[4].

Pynchon engages with both the political and the cultural aspects of the counterculture in Lot 49. One early sign of his engagement with the pop culture associated with the counterculture of the 1960s has to do with his introduction of the Paranoids, whose insistence on speaking in affected English accents is clearly a reference to the prominence of English rock bands (such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, and the Who) in the American pop music scene of the 1960s. This phenomenon, generally referred to as the “British Invasion,” really began with the legendary appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, so a reference to it in a novel published in 1965 is quite timely.

Pynchon shows an awareness of contemporary musical trends in other ways as well. Informed late in the text by KCUF progam director Caesar Funch that her husband Wendell hasn’t been himself lately, Oedipa sarcastically asks whether Wendell has been Ringo Starr, Chubby Checker, or the Righteous Brothers instead[5]. “All of the above,” replies Funch, mistakenly addressing Oedipa as “Edna.” “They’re calling him the Brothers N,” he goes on. “He’s losing his identity, Edna, how else can I put it. Day by day, Wendell is less himself and more generic” (114–115).

There is, of course, more at stake here than simply dropping the names of some prominent contemporary music acts. Funch’s description of Wendell Maas sets up the general portrayal of Maas late in the text as someone whose identity has fragmented to the point that he might be fading out of existence altogether. In this sense, Maas is the direct forerunner of Tyrone Slothrop, the protagonist of Gravity’s Rainbow, whose identity becomes more and more precarious until he finally dissolves altogether into the landscape. Both Maas and Slothrop are thus classic examples of one of the most crucial phenomena associated by Jameson with postmodernism. Jameson argues that, in the postmodern era, the notion of alienation, so crucial to the modernist project, is no longer sufficient to encompass the severity of the individual’s loss of a coherent sense of how they connect to the world around them. Jameson suggests instead the notion of “psychic fragmentation” as a better description of the postmodern individual’s scattered sense of self and world (Postmodernism 90).

Lot 49 also engages with the political side of the counterculture, in the form of the student-led oppositional movements of the period. The clearest example of this engagement has to do with Oedipa’s visit to the Berkeley campus of the University of California, which was one of the birthplaces of 1960s student activism. Oedipa herself had gone to college in the 1950s, a decade in which American universities mirrored American society at large as bastions of conservatism and conformism. She finds, however, that the atmosphere on the Berkeley campus is far different than the one she had known as a college student:

“It was summer, a weekday, and midafternoon; no time for any campus Oedipa knew of to be jumping, yet this one was. She came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangling to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM’s, YAF’s, VDC’s, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue” (82–83).

This is a crucial moment in the text, one that McCann and Szalay describe as an expression of the “true heart” of the novel, as a moment that captures the sense that a new form of political activity beyond the old partisan conflicts of the past was needed (442). For McCann and Szalay, this new mode opposes not the Left to the Right, but the mysterious to the ordinary, something that they themselves find to be a weakness of 1960s countercultural politics, leading to a romanticism that has little chance against the power of late capitalism. I would also note that this mode of political thinking can be nicely glossed as resistance to vs. acceptance of capitalist routinization, though McCann and Szalay are probably right that resisting routinization by simple appeals to “mystery” is not very effective.

In any case, Oedipa’s seeming lack of awareness of the meaning of abbreviations such as FSM, YAF, and VDC clearly shows that she is out of her element here, but the fact that she is so clearly intrigued suggests that they embody something she senses has been missing from her life. All of these organizations, incidentally, were quite prominent at the time. VDC, for example, stands for “Vietnam Day Committee,” Berkeley’s leading anti–Vietnam war organization. YAF, on the other hand, stands for “Young Americans for Freedom” a conservative group that provides a reminder that student political commitment on the vibrant campus came in a variety of ideological forms. Perhaps the most important of these abbreviations, though, is FSM, which stands for “Free Speech Movement,” a massive student protest on the Berkeley campus in 1964–1965 that became one of the founding moments of 1960s student activism on the Left. This movement was led by graduate student Mario Savio, whose “Bodies Upon the Gears” speech, delivered on the steps of Sproul Hall on December 2, 1964, was a crucial moment in defining Berkeley as the heart of student protest in the 1960s, Savio delivered a call to action to students and a stern warning to the establishment:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part! You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels … upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all!”

Using techniques of nonviolent disobedience learned from the Civil Rights Movement, FSM subsequently won significant concessions from the university administration, which had previously placed severe restrictions on any student political activity on campus.

However unaware she is of exactly what is going on at Berkeley, Oedipa can tell that something important is happening here, much along the famous opening lines of one of the anthems of the 1960s counterculture, the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” composed by Stephen Stills in 1966, just a yeaer after Lot 49: “There’s something happening here. / But what it is ain’t exactly clear.” In any case, whatever it is is something that Oedipa could have never imagined in her own student days:

“For she had undergone her own educating at a time of nerves, blandness and retreat among not only her fellow students but also most of the visible structure around and ahead of them, this having been a national reflex to certain pathologies in high places only death had had the power to cure, and this Berkeley was like no somnolent Siwash out of her own past at all, but more akin to those Far Eastern or Latin American universities you read about, those autonomous culture media where the most beloved of folklores may be brought into doubt, cataclysmic of dissents voiced, suicidal of commitments chosen—the sort that bring governments down” (83).

Pynchon stops short of openly endorsing all of this political activity on the part of students, but he does deliver one quick jab at the relative disengagement of college education in the 1950s (he himself studied English at Cornell in the late 1950s) in a way that suggests that Oedipa probably studied literature college but only in the apolitical, purely formalist New Critical mode that was all the fashion on American campuses in that decade. Oedipa’s education, we are told, had rendered her “unfit perhaps for marches and sit-ins, but just a whiz at pursuing strange words in Jacobean texts” (83).

The Courier’s Tragedy

The Jacobean text in question is a revenge tragedy entitled The Courier’s Tragedy, by one Richard Wharfinger, and Oedipa is visiting the Berkeley campus in order to consult English Professor Emory Bortz, an academic expert on Wharfinger’s work. Having seen a performance of this play, Oedipa has found in it a pattern of events that seems to parallel some of her own recent experiences suspiciously closely, and she hopes that the professor can help her to make sense of it. However, she learns that Bortz has left the university and is now teaching at, of all places, San Narciso College, which happens to have been heavily endowed by Inverarity.

That this tragedy plays a prominent role in Lot 49 illustrates the typically postmodern breadth of Pynchon’s allusions to sources ranging from comic books, films, and popular music, to various forms of high culture. Of course, The Courier’s Tragedy is not a real play, just as Wharfinger is not a real playwright. Meanwhile, the convoluted plot of the play is clearly ridiculous, and Oedipa’s attempts to decipher it (and then to track down the source of an inserted reference to the “Trystero” in the performance she saw that does not seem to appear in most printed editions of the play) place her in very much the same position as the reader of Lot 49. This motif, in which a character is placed in a position that parallels that of the reader of the text in which the character appears, is quite common in postmodernist fiction. Of course, Pynchon has invented the outrageous plot of The Courier’s Tragedy so that it mirrors what Oedipa has encountered in San Narciso, and a reader unacquainted with the revenge tragedy genre might assume that Pynchon’s invention bears little relationship with real Jacobean revenge tragedies. In point of fact, though, plays such as Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy (1606) or John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi (1612–1613) really did have preposterously complex plots punctuated by extreme and spectacular violence, as in The Courier’s Tragedy. Thus, this whole motif is given an extra satirical twist in Lot 49 by the fact that The Courier’s Tragedy is actually a pretty authentic pastiche of a Jacobean revenge tragedy.

Pastiche, according to Jameson, is the central compositional strategy employed by postmodern artists[6]. By pastiche, Jameson means the tendency of postmodern artists to borrow liberally from both the style and content of earlier works, treating the entire cultural tradition as a sort of aesthetic cafeteria from whose menu they can nostalgically pick and choose without critical engagement with the works being borrowed from or concern for the historical context in which those styles originally arose. Referring to this practice as the “random cannibalization of all the styles of the past,” Jameson, argues that this form of pastiche is,

“like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language. But it is a neutral practice of such mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of any laughter and of any conviction that alongside the abnormal tongue you have momentarily borrowed, some healthy linguistic normality still exists” (Postmodernism 17).

David Harvey observes a similar tendency in postmodern culture when he notes that

“postmodernists simply make gestures towards historical legitimacy by extensive and often eclectic quotation of past styles. Through films, books, and the like, history and past experience are turned into a seemingly vast archive ‘instantly retrievable and capable of being consumed over and over again at the push of a button.’ … The postmodern penchant for jumbling together all manner of references to past styles is one of its more pervasive characteristics” (85).

Both Harvey and Jameson, I should point out, are skeptical of postmodernism because they see it as being thoroughly aligned with capitalism. For Jameson, in particular, postmodern culture is the sort that arises when the historical process of capitalist modernization is complete and when everything (including culture) has been thoroughly subsumed within the capitalist system. One could argue, however, that The Crying of Lot 49 attempts to resist complete incorporation within the capitalist system through its gestures toward a reality beyond the thoroughly routinized realm of capitalism and through its depiction of the ways in which modern capitalism has made Oedipa’s life so boring and empty, while shattering the psyche of her husband altogether.

In addition, the Tristero itself functions as a sort of counterculture, so that its existence in the text suggests ongoing resistance to capitalist domination. Then again, this organization is treated quite ambivalently in the text, where it functions as a champion of the downtrodden but also carries some sinister undertones. Futhermore, as Bose points out, the Tristero employs the techniques of consumer capitalism to further its agenda, which is anti-authority, even if not explicitly anti-capitalist. She argues that

“by merging the Trystero’s political motifs with the representational practices of brand management (indexed by the Trystero’s extensive cultivation of symbolic assets such as a logo, slogan, mascot, and chant), … Pynchon develops the Trystero as an image for political authorship within commercial culture, an image that simultaneously endorses and resists branding as both a compensatory vehicle for counterculture’s political organization, and as a new model for postmodern and contemporary authorial self-construction” (73).

Bose goes on to conclude that Pynchon’s use of the Tristero “expresses ambivalence about how authors, like brand managers, might sympathize with counterculture’s political aspirations while transmuting these aspirations into political commodities for mainstream culture’s consumption” (74). In short, the ambivalent situation of the Tristero within Lot 49 parallels the situation of the writer who seeks to support countercultural goals but must do so within the confines of a publishing industry that is very much a part of the capitalist establishment.

The Crying of Lot 49, Politics, and Postmodernism

Lot 49’s relationship with the political Left is clearly an important aspect of the novel, even if the text seems ambivalent in its stance toward the Left. What most critics have found less obvious is the importance of the novel’s location in a mid-1960s California that was also the birthplace of a New Right that would help Richard Nixon take the presidency in 1968 and eventually emerge in its full form with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. Casey Shoop, though, argues that the rise of the New Right in California (and especially the rise of Reagan) is a “vital and virtually unexamined aspect of postmodernism’s conceptualization, especially during its formative years in the sixties” (52). Shoop also notes that the Berkeley activism that plays an important role in Lot 49 emerged as a sort of hated Other against which the New Right sought to define itself. Thus, “Berkeley” became a key buzzword in Reagan’s successful 1966 California gubernatorial campaign, symbolizing a certain kind of leftist intellectualism that became as much anathema to the Right as were communists or militant blacks.

This demonization of Berkeley intellectuals was specifically related to the rise of the student Left there at the time, but it was also part of a long-standing anti-intellectualism that had been part of conservative American politics from the very beginning. Richard Hofstadter notes that this tradition was, in fact, already a long one (however undistinguished) when he was writing his classic study of American anti-intellectualism in the early 1960s. On the other hand, he emphasizes that there was a particular flareup of American anti-intellectualism in the 1950s, when distrust of intellectuals played a key role in the anti-communist hysteria of the decade. Indeed, in much of the rhetoric of the Cold War, there was a virtual equation of intellectualism with communism—though communists (and Russians in general) were also often depicted as naïve bumpkins too stupid and/or ignorant to see through communism’s presumably obvious flaws. Cold War propaganda did not observe the rules of Aristotelian logic.

Hofstadter notes that this particular anti-intellectual tendency momentarily subsided after the launch of the first Russian Sputnik in 1957, when Americans suddenly decided that they needed the intelligence and thinking of egghead scientists to figure out a way to close the missile gap suggested by this launch. As Hofstadter puts it, “Suddenly, the national distaste for intellect appeared to be not just a disgrace but a hazard to survival” (Anti-Intellectualism 5).

The Sputnik-fueled uptick in the Space Race was, as Hofstadter notes, a boon to American scientists, many of whom suddenly not only found research funding easier to come by but also found that they got more respect in society at large than perhaps ever before. Meanwhile, Hofstadter was looking back on the anti-intellectualism of the early and mid-1950s from the halcyon days of the early 1960s, when the Kennedy Administration’s New Camelot was heavily populated with Ivy League intellectuals, such as the esteemed Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. As Hofstadter notes, with a certain sigh of relief, if it was possible to see the Eisenhower years as a time of apocalyptic troubles for intellectuals, “it is no longer possible, now that Washington has again become so hospitable to Harvard professors and ex-Rhodes scholars” (5).

What Hofstadter didn’t know at the time was that things were about to get much, much worse for American intellectuals again, beginning roughly with Reagan crusade against Berkeley in 1966, then buoyed in 1969, when the Apollo 11 Moon Landing effectively signaled an American “victory” in the Space Race and thus removed a main impetus behind the popular support for science that had arisen with Sputnik. Meanwhile, 1969 was also the first year of the Nixon presidency, which was overtly hostile to intellectuals, as when Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew famously labeled certain anti-war protestors in 1969 as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” while otherwise declaring the Eastern academic establishment to be dominated by “pointy-headed intellectuals,” whose lack of common sense or appreciation of real-world politics explained their unmitigated hostility to the policies of the Nixon administration. This class-based strategy of characterizing intellectuals as arrogant elitists who thought themselves superior to “ordinary” people would continue unabated for decades, except for a brief, vague respite during the Clinton Administration, which brought numerous intellectuals to Washington as part of a seeming desire to emulate the Kennedy years. It would then erupt again with unprecedented force during the Trump era.

One of the reasons why American anti-intellectualism was making such a comeback by the end of the 1960s was that the New Right actively sought to revive hostility toward intellectuals through its resurrection of the old tradition of anti-intellectual rhetoric. And they did so largely as a reaction against the relatively pro-intellectual attitudes of the Kennedy administration, which many on the Right saw as a clear threat to their cause. Lot 49 thus takes place at a crucial point in American history when both political activism by intellectuals and anti-intellectual political activism were on the rise.

This complex situation might explain why different theorists have seen the political implications of the rise of postmodernism in the 1960s so differently. Noting the seeming disrespect for literary decorum—and in particular the challenge to the notion that all texts should have a clear and definitive interpretation—early theorists of postmodernism, such as Jean-François Lyotard and Ihab Hassan, saw it as a subversive anti-authoritarian movement. Jameson, though, has since argued, quite compellingly, that postmodernism is perfectly in line with mainstream late capitalism, which also tends to undermine final interpretations and to break down the boundary between fiction and reality. The challenges to final truths and fixed interpretations that earlier theorists rightly saw as key characteristics of postmodern art are also, Jameson has argued, key characteristics of late capitalism itself[7].

I believe Jameson is correct about the complicity between postmodernism and capitalism. One could argue, then, that the ambivalence and uncertainty that reign in The Crying of Lot 49 are not simple celebrations of anarchic indeterminacy. Instead, I believe they should be attributed to the quandary in which Pynchon finds himself as a postmodern novelist, wishing to conduct a critique of capitalism but attempting to do so from within an artistic form that is fundamentally pro-capitalist and thus leaves him with very little critical leverage. Or, as Blyn puts it, Lot 49 “recognizes and is insistently troubled by its politically regressive and anachronistic implications” (583). Put more concretely, Shoop sees the doubleness of Lot 49 as a sign of the complex situation in which postmodernism itself arose in the 1960s in conjunction with New Right Reaganism:

“On the one hand, the novel offers a parable of the postmodern condition in which hermeneutic uncertainty is valued as the sign of an irreducible Difference (“other orders beyond the visible”) within the world; on the other, the novel offers us an account of the Reaganomic condition in which the play of dispersed differences is beginning to articulate and consolidate the hegemonic field of neoliberalism” (80).

Invoking another work by Hofstadter (first published in 1964, just a year after his study of American anti-intellectualism—and a year before the publication of Lot 49), Shoop also provides a useful historical context within which to view the political implications of Pynchon’s emphasis on paranoia in Lot 49 (and elsewhere). Studying what he calls the “paranoid style” in American conservative politics of the late 1970s, Hofstadter relates this style to a sense by those on the Right of having been on the outside looking in ever since the spectacular successes of the New Deal.

“The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade. The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of this conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values” (Paranoid Style 29).

Hofstadter’s description of American political paranoia is aimed at fringe elements in the Republican Party of the early 1960s, such as the notoriously extremist and fervently anti-communist John Birch Society, though these elements had gained unprecedented power in the failed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964. In addition, the California-based New Right embraced many of these ideas, and by the time of Reagan’s ascent to the presidency they were fast becoming the Republican mainstream—directly leading to today’s world of Right-Wing illogic and crazy conspiracy theories. Shoop notes that Reagan was the personification of a particularly Californian style of American politics, in which “paranoia is less a style belonging to a lunatic fringe than the pandemic condition of living in a postmodern world saturated with competing image projections” (62).

It is worth noting that, while many critics have discussed the significance of the fact that Lot 49 is set amid the genesis of the leftist student political movements of the 1960s, the book contains at least as many references to contemporary right-wing politics, as when the “eminent philatelist” Genghis Cohen greets Oedipa wearing a Barry Goldwater T-shirt (76). In addition, as Shoop also notes, the Yoyodyne, Inc., an aerospace firm with clear right-wing intonations, plays a prominent role in the text, just as the aerospace industry played a prominent role in the rise of California as a center of American capitalism[8] (73). Finally, while the Tristero can be seen to have certain leftist intonations as a system that helps the downtrodden resist their exploitation by the powers-that-be, Lot 49 also contains a fictional ultra-right-wing alternative mail system operated by the “Peter Pinguid Society,” an organization so extreme that they can refer to “our more left-leaning friends over in the Birch Society” (36). Indeed, the members of the Pinguid Society are so far right that they even regard capitalism as “part of the same creeping horror” as communism (37).

That creeping horror, of course, is modernity itself, which began to congeal in its full form in California in the 1960s. Lot 49 captures both the promise and the threat of that particular moment quite well, and one could summarize its political landscape as consisting of everything from left-wingers who are disappointed that modernity has not fulfilled its original utopian promise to right-wingers who are disgusted that modernity happened at all. Of course, there is room for middle ground, and, looking back from our perspective of more than half a century later, we can see that Lot 49 seems informed by a suspicion that modernity did not simply fail: it was hijacked. Indeed, what is perhaps most impressive about the novel is how thoroughly we can now see that Pynchon prefigured the 1960s as the birthplace of phenomena that are still with us in the neoliberal world of today. Late in the book, Oedipa encounters the racist and fascist Winthrop Tremaine, who runs a government surplus store that specializes in paraphernalia (such as guns and swastika armbands) that would make it a shopping wonderland for today’s white supremacist militias. Then, after she leaves, Oedipa castigates herself for not having called Tremaine on his openly racist rhetoric, and in a way that seems even more relevant in today’s troubled America than it did in 1965: “You’re chicken, she told herself, snapping her seat belt. This is America, you live in it, you let it happen” (123).

WORKS CITED

Anderson, Perry. The Origins of Postmodernity. Verso, 1998.

Blyn, Robin. “Beyond Anarchist Miracles: The Crying of Lot 49 and Network Aesthetics.” MODERNISM/modernity, Vol. 27, No. 3, 2020, pp. 583–99.

Booker, M. Keith. “America and Its Discontents: The Failure of Leftist Politics in Pynchon’s Vineland.” Lit: Literature, Interpretation, Theory, Vol. 4, 1993, pp. 87–99.

Bose, Maria. “Branding Counterculture in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49.” Studies in American Fiction, Vol. 43, No. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 73-96.

Hofstadter, Richard. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Vintage-Random House, 1963.

———. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays.

University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Holquist, Michael. “Whodunit and Other Questions: Metaphysical Detective Stories in Post-War Fiction.” New Literary History, Vol. 3, 1971, pp. 135–56.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1981.

———. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke University Press, 1991.

Leach, William. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. Vintage-Random House, 1993.

McCann, Sean, and Michael Szalay. “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking after the New Left.” The Yale Journal of Criticism, Vol. 18, No. 2, Fall 2005, pp. 435-468.

McClintock, Scott, and John Miller, eds. Pynchon’s California. University of Iowa Press, 2014.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49. 1965. HarperPerennial, 1999.

Shoop, Casey. “Thomas Pynchon, Postmodernism, and the Rise of the New Right in California.” Contemporary Literature, Vol. 53, No. 1, Spring 2012, pp. 51-86.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. 1904–1905. Trans. Talcott Parsons. 1930. Routledge, 1995.

NOTES


[1] This phenomenon, along with the rise of American consumer capitalism in general, is compellingly described by Leach.

[2] Pynchon engages with the counterculture much more extensively, but after the fact, in his novel Vineland (1990). See my discussion of this novel in my essay “America and Its Discontents.”

[3] On Pynchon’s overall engagement with California in his fiction, see the collection of essays edited by McClintock and Miller.

[4] This view of California is captured very well in several episodes of the recent Mad Men television series, which (set in the 1960s) envisions New York as the established land of the capitalist status quo and Los Angeles as the land of capitalist innovation and movement into the future.

[5] Starr, of course, was the drummer for the Beatles. Chubby Checker was an American singer who had been propelled to stardom with his recording of “The Twist” in 1960; he was still a top star in 1965. The Righteous Brothers were a prominent American singing duo formed in 1963; they achieved major stardom in late 1964 with the megahit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.”

[6] There are other examples of pastiche in Lot 49 as well. For example, the novel includes a song (“Serge’s Song”) by the Paranoids that is constructed largely of allusions to the 1955 novel Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov, who apparently taught Pynchon in a literature course at Cornel.

[7] Note also Perry Anderson’s Jameson-influenced argument that earlier (seemingly anti-capitalist) theorizations of postmodernism as opposed to authority were generally, in reality, disguised diatribes against Marxism.

[8] Pynchon’s vivid description of the fictional Yoyodyne obviously owes a great deal to his time working at the real-world Boeing. Yoyodyne was introduced, incidentally, in his first novel, V. Moreover, it has rippled through American popular culture since its appearance in Lot 49. For example, the 1984 cult science fiction film The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension features a defense contractor called “Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems,” which functions as a front for an evil alien invasion of earth. In addition, “Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems” functions as a manufacturer of starships in the Star Trek franchise. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the firm even has an office on the promenade of the eponymous space station.