The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon

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What is "postmodern" about Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49? Especially the general features of postmodernism in literature are important.

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Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 is one of the most recognizable and essential novels in postmodern literature. Apart from the many thematic elements—paranoia, uncertainty, etc.that make The Crying of Lot 49 a postmodern text, Pynchon utilizes a unique set of stylistic devices that are common in postmodernism.

One stylistic device Pynchon utilizes is a rejection of traditional structure; Pynchon's narration is meandering, wordy, and excessively descriptive. This rejection of formal literary techniques is an essential component of postmodernism.

An excellent example of this writing style can be found in the novel's opening line:

One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

Another essential device utilized by Pynchon is a blurring of the distinction between high art and low art; in one moment, Pynchon will reference imaginary stoner-surf-rock lyrics, while later nodding to Vladimir Nabokov. Postmodernist works often aim to situate themselves between the "high" and "low" ends of the cultural spectrum. Essentially, neither one nor the other is given more inherent value in protest of the traditional opinion.

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Uncertainty is a major theme in this text. The fact that this uncertainty is derived from an epistemological stand-point makes the text "postmodern". Additionally, the notion the text explores regarding the fictive nature of constructed "knowledge" and "truth" are fully participant in a postmodern ethos of what we might call "knowledge instability". 

Oedipa Maas is engaged in a quest for the truth in this novel, searching an essential confirmation of her own perceptions. Is the W.A.S.T.E. system a real conspiracy or just a "projection" of her imagination? As she weaves a series of connections and paranoid realizations together into a tapestry of frightening coincidence, Oedipa is forced to ask whether or not what she has found is meaningful. 

Some questions that apply to her conundrum at the novel's end are: 

  • If the only way to construct meaning is to draw connections that require a leap of faith and which offer no "proof" in and of themselves, then does meaning become fancy, fantasy, or paranoia? Or does meaning resist the arbitrary nature of such a vision?
  • Is meaning only possible as a participatory, dynamic process instead of as an objective, self-existing, autonomous thing?  

In addition to these thematic concerns, Pynchon utilizes some postmodern narrative techniques, using frequent allusions, scientific language and concepts, and an open-ended conclusion.

Meta-fiction is also used here as Pynchon includes numerous passages dealing with plays within the novel and dealing with the idea (and fundamental problems) of literary interpretation.

In some instances the [postmodern] work will make a comment about itself in a critical way, making a self-reflexive comment on the whole process of writing, reading, or understanding literature. (eNotes)

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