The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon, 1965

I read this around age 20 or so, at the recommendation of a friend who also turned me on to Pale Fire, but all I remembered was the underground postal system and the muted post horn symbol. It was recommended for the Great Books Group (although the person who nominated it couldn’t make it) and got one of my votes—although it seemed a little minor/fringe for us, at least it’s short, and we’re reading Moby-Dick next! I enjoyed it a lot and found its depiction of paranoia and conspiracy thinking quite relevant to today’s world, although it has such an innocent perspective. If we had read it in the 90s or 2000s, I don’t think it would have felt pertinent in the same way. The California real estate developer who turns out to own or have a finger in everything also rings of-the-moment. But most of all I loved the crazy character names and the humor, starting with this multi-level gem on page 2: “the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble’s variorum recording of the Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, Boyd Beaver, soloist.” Great images as well, like palm lines described as “her fates’s furrows, the changeless salt hatchings of her identity.” But then also this crazy-awkward sentence, on purpose for sure:

Would then proceed at a KCUF record hop to look out again across the gleaming gym floor and there in one of the giant keyholes inscribed for basketball see, groping her vertical backstroke a little awkward opposite any boy heels might make her an inch taller than, a Sharon, Linda or Michele, seventeen and what is known as a hip one, whose velveted eyes ultimately, statistically would meet Mucho’s and respond, and the thing would develop then groovy as it could when you found you couldn’t get statutory rape really out of the back of your law-abiding head.

There are observations that were ahead of their time: “‘You’re so right-wing you’re left-wing,'” “the true paranoid for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself,” “the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know,” and one really eerily, upsettingly prescient: the swastika armband seller, a “spirited entrepreneur” expanding into SS uniforms for back-to-school.

I loved the meta-fictional stuff. My favorite by far is the Baby Igor submarine movie with the captain and the dog, which ends tragically even though such a film never would. Then there’s the long description of the Jacobean play The Courier’s Tragedy, including: “Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage; though it is difficult to imagine, given the excesses of the preceding acts, what these things could possibly be.” “Every mode of violent death available to Renaissance man, including a lye pit, land mines, a trained falcon with envenom’d talons, is employed. It plays, as Metzger remarked later, like a Road Runner cartoon in blank verse.” And Metzger, the lawyer who was the child actor Baby Igor, explains:

A lawyer in a courtroom, in front of any jury, becomes an actor, right? Raymond Burr is an actor, impersonating a lawyer, who in front of a jury becomes an actor. Me, I’m a former actor who became a lawyer. They’ve done the pilot film of a TV series, in fact, based loosely on my career, starring my friend Manny Di Presso, a one-time lawyer who quit his firm to become an actor. Who in this pilot plays me, an actor become a lawyer reverting periodically to being an actor.

Another beautiful passage:

She looked down a slope … 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. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.

The one aspect I really disliked were the parody rock lyrics (the Paranoids have a lot of Beatles-esque songs), of which there were way too many anyway, even if they were funny or accurately satirized, but instead they were stupid and self-indulgent.

And thank you to this book for pointing me to Remedios Varo’s Bordando el Manto Terrestre. Wow!

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