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Literature / The Crying of Lot 49

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"I came," she said, "hoping you could talk me out of a fantasy."

"Cherish it!" cried Hilarius, fiercely. "What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don't let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you. Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be."

The Crying of Lot 49 is a 1966 novel (or perhaps novella) by Thomas Pynchon. It is about a woman named Oedipa Maas who unravels the rivalry between two mail distribution companies, Trystero and Thurn und Taxis. Possibly. Or maybe it's an elaborate prank. Or maybe she is actually hallucinating it all.

Though it is significantly shorter than the rest of Pynchon's novels (especially Against the Day and Mason & Dixon), it has become one of Pynchon's most popular books, after Gravity's Rainbow and possibly V. Time magazine included it in its "TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005".

Pynchon's style evolve further in Lot 49 after V., which is straightforward and basic in comparison. The novel can also be seen as a bridge between Modernism and Postmodernism, which will be fully engaged in Gravity's Rainbow.

Not to be confused with "Lot No. 249", a Mummy horror story by Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

This novel contains the following tropes

  • Alternate History: Thurn und Taxis really existed. Trystero (to the best of our knowledge) did not.
  • Arc Number: 49.
  • Arc Symbol: The symbol of Trystero, the muted post horn.
  • Artistic License – History: A lot of this is more on the part of the characters than Pynchon himself (who usually knows his stuff) and the basic errors in facts probably indicate their loose grasp on history. Mike Fallopian for instance notes that the Russian Tsar who abolished serfdom (and according to him, attacked Peter Pinguid to prevent France and England intervening on behalf of the South) is Nicholas II. The Tsar who did it is actually Alexander II, while Nicholas II was the last tsar in Russian history, executed alongside his family by the Bolsheviks at Yekaterinaburg.
  • Black Comedy: Loads of it, like a passing story of a businessman debating whether or not to kill himself by setting himself on fire.
  • Bloody Hilarious: The Courier's Tragedy, a (fictional) Jacobean revenge play that features in Chapter 3.
  • Broken Masquerade: The overall thesis is that Trystero after waiting in the shadows all this time might well decide to step into the light.
  • Brown Note: Dr. Hilarius claims to have once made a silly face so terrible that it drove a man insane.
  • The Cameo: Bloody Chiclitz from V. appears briefly and sang a song.
  • Continuity Nod: Bloody Chiclitz and the Yoyodyne company from V. appears briefly to sing a song.
  • Downer Ending: A signficant plot point when Metzger and Oedipa discuss an old movie he made as a child star called Cashiered. Oedipa has to guess whether the movie has a happy or sad ending. She assumes that like any Hollywood movie in The Hays Code it had a happy ending. She eventually has sex with him anyway when the broadcast gets interrupted and Oedipa believes it had a studio-mandated happy ending. After sleeping with Metzger she wakes up and the TV shows the end of the film, which in fact ended on a downer with Metzger's character, his father and his pet dog all drowning in a sunken submarine.
  • Driven to Suicide: One of the groups whose mail Trystero handles is a support group for failed suicides.
  • Expy: Despite being from Southern California, the four members of the band The Paranoids are very similar to The Beatles. A nickname for The Beatles was "Los Paranoias"note .
  • Fun with Acronyms: Don't Ever Antagonize The Horn, We Await Silent Tristero's Empire, etc.
  • Gainax Ending: Is Oedipa onto a genuine conspiracy? Is the entire thing an elaborate practical joke planned on her by her ex-boyfriend? Is she losing her mind and hallucinating the whole thing? The narrative never tells us, and indeed acknowledges that all of these are possibilities.
    • The final moments of the novel cement this, with it ending just before the title event, the Crying of Lot 49, is to begin, an event that promises to provide some sort of answer to some of the questions that the novel holds. The reader is left without any answer in its wake.
  • Herr Doktor: Oedipa's psychiatrist reveals himself to be a former Nazi doctor who experimented on Jews. See Brown Note above.
  • Historical Domain Character: Several real people, such as William of Orange, appear in Trystero's backstory.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: Towards the end, Professor Emory Bortz notes that many anti-Trystero Germans came to America after the Revolutions of 1848 and they sought to stifle the growth of Trystero and prevent the revolution. The German immigrants who came to America in Forty-Eight were largely revolutionary exiles and many of them became vocal supporters of the Union cause and strong abolitionists and active in the American Left.
  • Interrupted by the End: Subverting The Reveal, but also endings seconds before lot 49 is cried.
  • It Was Here, I Swear!: Evidence of Trystero's activities often swiftly vanishes when Oedipa returns to them.
  • Magical Realism: Once the (possibly functional) Maxwell's demon device shows up the novel moves firmly into this territory.
  • Meaningful Name: Deliberately subverted at multiple points. Oepida fails to solve a riddle and never commits incest, Mr. Thoth isn't especially wise, and Genghis Cohen is not a barbarian overlord. Dr. Hilarius, however, is pretty funny.
  • Mind Screw: It wasn't clear what is real and what is not.
  • Mockspiracy: Trystero may be a delusion of Oedipa or an elaborate practical joke by her deceased husband. Or it may be real after all.
  • Mockstery Tale: The conspirological plot about Trystero is never resolved, and it is heavily implied to be a metaphor for the philosophical questions faced by mankind.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The central conspiracy of the novel concerns a centuries-old rivalry between two mail companies.
  • No Ending: Because it's a Pynchon novel. The novel ends just as Oedipa is making headway into her investigation, without telling us what she finds.
  • Paranoid Thriller: The protagonist Oedipa believes that she uncovered a centuries-old conspiracy involving an underground mail delivery company, Trystero. The novel implies that the whole Trystero story may be a practical joke by Oedipa's late husband or even hallucination of hers, but it might be real as well; the open ending never resolves this.
  • Patience Plot: The story ends with Oedipa waiting at an auction of Inverarity's possessions, waiting on the title bidding of Lot 49, which contains his stamp collection. Having learned that a particular person is interested in the stamps, Oedipa wants to find out if the guy is a member of the Trystero secret society (which may or may not be all in her head).
  • Pop Culture Symbology: Being a postmodern novel, it lives and breathes this trope. For example, it is implied that the villainous character dressed in black from one of the early Porky Pig cartoons was a reference to a real-life secret organization called Trystero.
  • Posthumous Character: Pierce Inverarity died before the book began.
  • Postmodernism: More strictly than V. It can be seen as a bridge between Modernism and Postmodernism, which will be fully engaged in Gravity's Rainbow.
  • The Reveal: Which makes it even worse for the reader. We get to know what the 49th lot is (which wasn't even a question In-Universe)... and pretty much nothing else.
  • Shout-Out: When Serge of The Paranoids loses his 16-year old girlfriend to a middle-aged man, he writes a song that namechecks Humbert Humbert. As you would expect from a Pynchon novel, there are dozens of others. He then contemplates hanging around playgrounds to pick up a 8-year-old girlfriend, since his own was stolen by a man twice her age. It also contains an early usage of the term "nymphet", which might have helped popularize it. Now you could tell that Pynchon was Nabokov's student at Cornell University (ironically, Nabokov himself didn't remember him at all).
  • Show Within a Show: The Courier's Tragedy, a fictional Jacobean revenge play.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: It's never explained whether the events of the novel are really happening, or if it's all a big practical joke carried out by Pierce Inverarity, or if Oedipa is simply going mad. Oedipa herself acknowledges that all of these are eminently plausible.
  • Title Drop: Was dropped by the very last line at the end.