(Post originally published on my other blog, GrogMonkey, back on Jan. 13, 2011. Still trying to figure out how to divide the work between the two blogs. I only have a couple more to cross-post in a batch after this one.)
I recently read Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Finally. Pynchon is a paragon of postmodern fiction, often named in the same breath as Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard, and Don DeLillo. In fact, reading ‘Lot 49, I was heavily reminded of Breakfast of Champions (which I read back during High School, so the memory may be tenuous).
This brief review — more like simply a response — will be minorly spoilery, but I’ll have more spoiler content toward the end, preceded by a warning.
In short, it’s about educated, bored, and possibly a little delusional to begin with, housewife, Oedipa Maas, who gets pulled into a conspiracy involving secret organizations and rival postal services. As I read it, I also was heavily reminded of Robert Anton Wilson’s The Illuminatus! Trilogy. In fact, I’m convinced ‘Lot 49, as much as The Principia Discordia, was primary inspiration and influence. In both books you have a protagonist who accidentally stumbles upon conspiracies and shadow organizations that begun centuries ago. The clues about the conspiracies are revealed in lost versions of literature (a play, in ‘Lot 49), and can be found as signs and signifiers all over the place in the most incongruous locations and ways.
And like Illuminatus!, the evidence for the conspiracy itself being a conspiracy to fake a conspiracy, is also evident. So by the end of the novel, you’re just as confused about what is real and what may be a giant ruse, as the protagonist is.
Ironically, while I love postmodern and surreal conspiracy novels, what makes them so compelling is also what frustrates me to no end. The conclusion, such as it is, of ‘Lot 49, left me incredibly unfulfilled. The buildup of events and clues and danger Pynchon crafts hits a brick wall and leaves the reader standing on the side of the road, while the story continues you in such a way as it’s certain much will be revealed and explained if only the book held four more pages.
This is what separates the good, early postmodern surreal conspiracy novels like ‘Lot 49, from the banal, late postmodern realism conspiracy novels like Dan Brown’s The daVinci Code. Pynchon is writing fully aware of how he’s toying with, manipulating, side-swiping the reader. He does it without maliciousness, perhaps, but he’s forcing the reader to look away from the details and instead focus on the Big Picture — not just in the story, but in the socio-cultural conditions in which a story like this can even take place (and its audience can live in). Pynchon, like Ballard and Vonnegut and DeLillo, and Philip K. Dick (who was a pre-postmodern master at crafting the uncomfortable conspiracy tale), is using his story to get the reader to start paying attention not to the ephemera of material existence where details have no significance outside themselves, but to look at the way they themselves, like the protagonist in the story, are manipulated and deceived by the “conspiracy” of capitalism and the culture of commodities. How nothing today has inherent significance because we no longer have any awareness of an object’s history, its creation, its conditions of creation, its provenance.
This last is pointed up in ‘Lot 49 by the theme of the stamps. Actual postage stamps in which, with the help of an expert philatelist, Oedipa learns about the lost importance of provenance (a theme heavily interlaced in P.K. Dick’s amazing The Man in the High Castle. Pynchon is commenting on the banality of modern culture.
While on the other hand, books like Dan Brown’s have fully embraced the banality and are inseparable, both in form an content, from postmodern commodification. The tropes and elements of conspiracy and shadow organizations are not used, like Pynchon, to illustrate cultural conditions with tongue firmly in cheek, but rather embraces the elements with an attempt to represent them as part of the “real” in earnest sincerity. The daVinci Code truly takes pastiche and becomes unaware parody; The Crying of Lot 49is self-aware from beginning to end.
Spoilery from here on:
Is the conspiracy real or not? Did Oedipa’s deceased former uber-rich boyfriend set the whole thing up as an elaborate practical joke? The answer is it doesn’t matter, Pynchon himself probably doesn’t know, and that’s what make the themes of the book more effective, but at the same time, the abrupt end more unfulfilling to the mind that’s used to and expecting resolution and denouement. The rich boyfriend manipulating people, exploiting labor, setting up the conditions of what people accept as “reality,” literally crafting the dominant culture from buildings to artwork all around the protagonist — if this isn’t a comment on modern capitalism and its cultural logic, I (nor Fredric Jameson) don’t know what is! Whether the conspiracies are real or a joke, either way, the absolute constant underlying everything that happens in the story is the effect that those who own the capital control what people do and believe, sometimes overtly, usually with the subtlety of a shadow organization.
When Metzger, the lawyer hired to co-execute the millionaire’s will, tells Oedipa at the beginning of the novel (after they’d had sex), that her dead former boyfriend told him she “wouldn’t be easy,” naturally we assume he’s talking about getting her in bed. But by the end of the story, when we’re left to wonder what’s real and what’s scam and what’s the result of pure paranoia and delusion, that line at the beginning of the novel carries more meaning. Was it a comment on her ability to be fooled or not?
Questions like this, the reader’s search for clues and meaning in the same way the characters are, should reveal to us that there’s only three choices — we’re surrounded by conspiracy so deep it’s endemic in the culture around us, we’re surrounded by conspiracy that turns the mundane into unintended signifiers, or we’re paranoid and delusional.
(Lacanian cultural critic Slavoj Žižek would surely say the “truth” is all three.)