Although The Crying of Lot 49 is filled with Pynchon's usual mind numbing accumulation of details, apparent digressions, and zany characters, it is also the most conventionally organized of Pynchon's novels, since everything is seen from the third person limited viewpoint of Oedipa Maas, unlike the other novels, in which it is often difficult to determine who is telling the story and in which one often must assume that Pynchon himself is addressing the reader directly. Perhaps this traditional form is a result of Pynchon's originally having conceived of this book as a long story, because his short stories are tighter in form and easier to comprehend than his novels.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Pynchon's novels are so packed with details and references that there is no lack of things to talk about. It may be that younger students, raised on the cascade of associations poured out by such popular entertainers as Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, and Dennis Miller, will be better able to understand Pynchon's approach to his subject and his technique than their teachers. But the teachers will be better able to identify and explain Pynchon's historical and literary allusions. Thus the best kind of discussion may take place, one in which everyone learns from everyone else.
1. What is Maxwell's Demon? Review Maxwell's hypothesis about this creature in the context of The Crying of Lot 49.
2. Why is Oedipa Maas considered to be Pynchon's most sympathetic character? Do you find that she engages your sympathy? Why or why not?
3. Identify the various forms of communication referred to in the novel. Which ones actually promote human understanding?
4. Treat the novel as a roman a clef and identify as many of the real models for such elements as the Peter Pinguid Society, and Yoyodyne Corporation, as you can.
5. Compare the novel to fairy tales such as "Rapunzel" or Elizabethan revenge tragedies such as Hamlet.
6. Is it particularly significant that the novel is set in a fictitious city in California? Could it have been set anywhere in the United States? In the world?
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In this short novel, Pynchon continues his concern with conspiracy and technological control of the society and adds a satiric dimension by setting the story in modern California. The main character yo-yos from the Bay Area to San Narciso, a stand-in for Los Angeles, where the street layout suggests to the main character the printed circuits of a transistor radio and the name suggests a city of the self-absorbed or unconscious. The California backdrop gives Pynchon the opportunity to comment on various substitutes for a spiritual center in modern life, from drugs to popular music.
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Besides the kinds of mystery and detective story parallels noted under V. above, The Crying of Lot 49 also shares points of contact with the revenge tragedy form so beloved of Elizabethan dramatists, but with an interesting twist; in the novel, the machinations of the revengers are vaguely glimpsed by the victim, unlike the point of view of the original dramas, in which the audience was allowed to see the plotters plan their attacks. The two poles of the revenge tragedy come together when Oedipa views The Courier's Tragedy, Pynchon's parody on the revenge form, so that the effect on the reader of the novel is both laugh-provoking and chilling.
Two other parallels are not strictly literary: one is artistic and literary, the other scientific. Oedipa remembers seeing a painting (which actually exists) by the Spanish artist Remedies Varo of girls imprisoned in towers letting down their long golden hair like Rapunzel of the fairy tale. This image suggests the position of Oedipa herself, trapped and trying to understand the meaning of a creepy, marchen-like world. The other parallel is a scientific hypothesis which Stanley Koteks explains to Oedipa about Maxwell's Demon (the idea was posited first by nineteenth-century Scotch physicist James Clerk Maxwell) who sits and sorts randomly moving molecules into slower and faster groups, thus defeating entropy without doing work. Critics with a scientific bent have pointed to the elaborate...
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Drafts of sections of this novel appeared as the stories "The World (This One), The Flesh (Mrs. Oedipa Maas), and The Testament of Pierce Inverarity" (1965) and "The Shrink Flips" (1966). There are also parallel themes in Pynchon's novel V., which is analyzed in this series.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Gleason, William. “The Postmodern Labyrinths of Lot 49.” CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 34 (Winter, 1993): 83-99. Gleason compares the labyrinthine structure of Pynchon’s novel to postmodernism. Addressing the issue of how labyrinths occur in the narration, symbolism, and sexual dynamics of the story, Gleason shows how language serves as an interface between the text and the reader’s sense of meaning.
Grant, J. Kerry. Companion to The Crying of Lot 49. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. An essential resource that is useful in decoding the allusions and references Pynchon employs in his novel. Grant’s detailed examination demystifies Pynchon’s text and enhances the reader’s understanding.
Hans, James S. “Emptiness and Plenitude in Bartleby the Scrivener’ and The Crying of Lot 49.” Essays in Literature 22 (Fall, 1995): 285-299. Hans’s exploration of Melville’s story and Pynchon’s novel shows the different ways in which individuals become spiritually bankrupt: Bartleby realizes the emptiness of life, while the sailor in The Crying of Lot 49 appreciates its plentitude. Yet in both works, the characters are unable to accept life as they find it, and, paradoxically, their choice of self-preservation costs them their lives.
Hawthorne, Mark D....
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