Words, Words, Words: The Crying of Lot 49

Wow, Thomas Pynchon. Wow.

The Crying of Lot 49 is an English majors’ book for sure. It’s loaded with all sorts of symbols and great sentences and all sorts of themes and things to interpret. Ambiguity abounds. This book is full of meanings to tease out. It’s almost like Pynchon put together a whole bunch of weird, strange, tantalizing allusions/symbols/what have you and said, “Have at it, guys.” Very little in The Crying of Lot 49 is actually concrete. It’s actually hard to interpret anything because there are so many different angles and avenues to pursue.

Really, this, I think, is what Pynchon is trying to do. It’s an English majors’ book that kind of pokes fun at English majors. We love to tease out these meanings and analyze and over analyze and then go back and do it all over again. The central symbol and mystery in The Crying of Lot 49 is a muted horn, supposedly the symbol of one (or several) secret anti-U.S. mail organizations that may or may not exist in the United States. The protagonist, Oedipa Maas, encounters this symbol (and the group, possibly) when she is made executor of her ex-boyfriend’s will. The boyfriend himself is ambiguous and mysterious and, apparently, at the center of an organization that ground up soldiers’ bones for filters.

Oedipa gets sidetracked from her duties as executor and from pursuing the troubling truth about the bone company by an organization of assassins/mail vagabonds (or so i call them) called the Tristero. She plays the role of detective and follows meaningless thread after meaningless thread trying to get to the center of this great conspiracy.

Like I said before, the book is loaded with symbols. It’s hard for someone like me, who loves interpreting, to even know where to begin.

I think that this book is a sort of warning to people like me, who overanalyze and focus so much on meanings. Like Oedipa, who gets distracted from real life and the importance of executing (is that the right verb form?) Pierce’s will or figuring out the bone scandal, she follows a sort of wild goose chase that may or may not lead to something. She gets sucked into the mystery of a symbol and a vague name. These things may or may not actually mean something, but Oedipa is entranced.

It’s like Driblette, the director of a play Oedipa sees says:

“You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black  costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth” (63).

When I read that passage, I thought, This is the sort of thing I did in college. I asked questions, developed theses, wrote, and analyzed, analyzed, analyzed. But did I ever get any closer to an actual truth? Sometimes, maybe? But how many times did I not touch the truth because I was too caught up in the particulars.

Second, I saw myself (or my English major-ness) when Oedipa first questions Driblette:

“You guys, you’re like Puritans are about the Bible. So hung up with words, words. You know where that play exists, not in the file cabinet, not in any paperback you’re looking for [. . .] The words, who cares? They’re rote noises to hold line bashes with, to get past the bone barriers around an actor’s memory, right? But the reality is in this head. Mine. I’m the projector at the planetarium, all the closed little universe visible in the circle of that stage is coming out of my mouth, eyes, sometimes other orifices also” (62).

Words are just words. When it comes to plays, they are just the framework that allow real life, flesh-and-blood actors to come to life. In a same way, aren’t most words and symbols, even in books just the framework that real-life authors use to give solidity and flesh to ideas? The words themselves often aren’t as important as we make them out to be. Nor are symbols.

However, I’m going to close with my absolute favorite passage from The Crying of Lot 49. The writing is beautiful, and what they say about words and connectivity and communication is even more beautiful.

“Say ‘rich, chocolaty goodness.’”

“Rich, chocolaty, goodness,” said Oedipa.

“Yes,” said Mucho, and fell silent.

“Well, what?” Oedipa asked after a couple minutes, with an edge to her voice.

“I noticed it the other night hearing Rabbit do a commercial. No matter who’s talking, the different power spectra are the same, give and take a small percentage. So you and Rabbit have something in common now. More than that. Everybody who says the same words is the same person if the spectra are the same only they happen differently in time, you dig? But time is arbitrary. You pick your zero point anywhere you want, that way you can shuffle each person’s time line sideways till they all coincide. Then you’d have this big, God, maybe a couple hundred million chorus saying ‘rich, chocolaty goodness’ together, and it would all be the same voice.”
“Mucho,” she said, impatient but also flirting with a wild suspicion. “Is that what Funch means when he says you’re coming on like a whole roomful of people?”

[. . .]

“Whenever I put on the headset now,” he’d continued, “I really do understand what I find there. When those kids sing about ‘She loves you,’ yeah well, you know, she does, she’s any number of people, all over the world, back through time, different colors, sizes, ages, shapes, distances from death, but she loves. And the ‘you’ is everybody. And herself. Oedipa, the human voice, you know, it’s a flipping miracle” (116-117).

So, I guess. Words are important. But don’t get to caught up in interpretation or books or teasing out meanings. Words, spoken words, connect us as people and allow us to act out our lives. Or something like that.

Overall, I loved this book. The writing is amazing, I loved the way Pynchon played with meanings and, I feel, made fun of me for overanalyzing and interpreting everything all the time.

Rating: *****
Up Next: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein

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