Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Of Pynchon’s novels, The Crying of Lot 49, his second, is the most suitable introduction to his work. Certainly it is more concise and verbally controlled than its predecessor, V. (1963), and the social satire and parody are more clearly directed at recognizable cultural idols—the California scene being in effect the metonymic representative of America itself.

The Crying of Lot 49 is also more traditional than its innovative, diffuse, almost encyclopedic successor, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). If it lacks the later novel’s exuberance and daring, The Crying of Lot 49 is also less arcane, more classically disciplined as a novel.

In spite of the book’s deceptive simplicity, or perhaps because of it, The Crying of Lot 49 is the fulcrum of Pynchon’s work—the balancing point between the diffuse experimentation of V. and the hermeneutical gigantism of Gravity’s Rainbow. At the same time, The Crying of Lot 49 deals with a central idea inherent in all of Pynchon’s work: the indeterminacy of meaning and the frightening possibility of the cosmic disorder that is at the heart of reality.

Thomas Pynchon himself has remained obsessively private. His public inaccessibility and the dearth of any personal comments about his own work have made his novels virtually the only source of understanding the artist himself. This is, perhaps, as it should be. Given the importance of Pynchon as a writer, and the hieroglyphic nature of his work, The Crying of Lot 49 may aptly be regarded as a Rosetta stone.