Thursday, May 11, 2017

Classics #10

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon

Oedipa Maas is a housewife in her late twenties in Southern California in the mid-Sixties. SoCal experiences rapid changes in population, economic activity, and infrastructure. Like many sensitive people, Oedipa feels unmoored by the speed of change in everyday life. She is seeking order:

[S]he 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 ... [T]here were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate.... [Now,] a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding ... [She] seemed parked at the center of an odd religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind rotating too slow for heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were being spoken.

She is tapped to be the co-executor of the will of a former lover who became super-rich through investments in hi-tech and land speculation – i.e., he was an agent of chaos. In her quest to fulfill her duties she meets many strange people, mainly men that let her down in both mundane and spectacular ways. For instance, her husband develops an affinity for becoming one with the universe via LSD and her psychiatrist takes her hostage in an active shooting.

During her travels, Oedipa stumbles over Tristero, an underground postal system used by marginalized people such as artists, musicians, and dabblers in fringe science. Or, she fears, it is merely a huge practical joke set up by the rich and powerful lover that died. Oedipa comes to theorize an either/or question:

[T]here either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the 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 alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.

Pynchon suggests that Americans in the last fifty years or so subject and distract themselves with an unceasing stream of impressions, from sports to Self-Empowering Slogans to LOL Cats to You Name It You Can Have It. People then assent to whatever meaning these impressions convey, half sure, half not sure if they are capturing a piece of reality or using their own irrational beliefs to impose a silly explanation of the world. Am I being hoaxed or am I deluding myself?

Oedipa concludes that she might need "the orbiting ecstasy of a true paranoia" to unconfuse herself about where she stands. This novel makes the reader think about her own sense of the importance of being “relevant to it” and living with the idea that constant flux is the default setting, not just for SoCal, but everywhere, all the time, within our own aging bodies to start (and isn’t that decay and dissolution enough to deal with?). And that she’d better keep moving because stagnating will only hasten decline.

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