Thomas Pynchon’s short novel The Crying of Lot 49 puts a comic finger on the tensions that racked modern America in 1964, tensions that continue to be central to the dark comedy that defines America today. On one hand, the novel presents the rich and exotic chaos of the freest country on Earth. On the other hand, the novel probes the psyche of Americans whose longing for meaning extends in the manic directions of over-simplicity, conspiracy, and paranoia in a world that seems to be fragmenting. The story is rendered with a richness of comic invention that creates for the reader a jagged border between laughter and terror.
In form the novel qualifies as a Menippean satire, marked by being loose, digressive, and fairly corrosive. Oedipa Maas wanders through the strangeness of Northern California, and her search for the elusive Tristero and its W.A.S.T.E. postal system is frequently interrupted by vignettes of strange lives and bits of history that may or may not be connected to the central narrative. These vignettes sometimes hang on to the central narrative only by analogies that verge on the surreal; Pynchon often offers these analogies with a scientific tone. For example, Oedipa meets John Nefastis, who has invented a box he claims can separate hot and cold molecules to produce energy via heat differential. This means that information would equal power, but Oedipa cannot make the machine function any more than she can sort out the confusing and uncertain data about the Tristero....
(The entire section is 616 words.)