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31 January 2011

MeTa Book Club! Here's the discussion thread for The Crying of Lot 49. And, of course, of the accompanying Prof. Hungerford lecture.
What did everyone think? I found this novel terribly frustrating, because it was clear I was missing so many references. There are hidden references all the way down! I also found it very funny and very touching. So much of life seems to echo this novel -- a constant and usually unrewarded quest for true communication and meaning.
posted by bearwife 31 January | 11:56
We Await Silent Tristero's Empire.
...Either you have stumbled indeed, without the aid of LSD or other indole alkaloids, onto a secret richness and concealed density of dream; onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system; maybe even onto a real alternative to the exitlessness, to the absence of surprise to life, that harrows the head of everybody American you know, and you too, sweetie. Or you are hallucinating it. Or a plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides...

a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system

I remember wishing there was such a secret postal system when I read the book in high school. 'S funny how things turn out -- the world wide web turned out anything but a place for truly communicating things other than lies, recitations of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty. Apart from LOLcats, that is...

And point of order: I, myself, prefer anything but another lazy Amazon link. Here, for instance, is the book transcribed chapter by chapter for all six chapters. All one need do is change the number in the URL.

Amazon links are like Wikipedia links -- one can always do better with a minimum of time or effort.
posted by y2karl 31 January | 13:02
The Amazon link is for people like me that wanted to buy and own the book in actual physical form. I still don't read books online (unless ereader/Kindle/Android phone format counts.)

What did you think of Hungerford's lecture, y2karl?
posted by bearwife 31 January | 13:23
Sigh, I feel like I'm back in 12th grade and didn't read the assignment. I managed to read the first three chapters last week but haven't gotten any further since then. I suck.
posted by octothorpe 31 January | 13:39
I was daunted myself by the levels of meaning I knew I was missing right off the bat. There are so many puns in this book, some truly delicious. The references feel as dense as Nabakov's, though. I even think the book plays on that . . . Oedipa is after all chasing down some truly obscure references to shed light on a single couplet in a very obscure play. And she never really gets her questions answered either . . . she just learns to live with the unknowability.
posted by bearwife 31 January | 14:57
I read it a year and a half ago and read through it again this month. I'm not a great reader of Literature, and I found it a bit difficult to stay with at some points (like the business about the play). I usually like a sensible plot and realistic characters, which I didn't feel this book had. Everything seemed symbolic/abstract to me. But it did have that explosive creativity that I sometimes like. I never knew where the next paragraph would be going. It seemed a bit like the book was just something that was created to hang all his wild observations on.

I thought his song lyrics were terrible and unmusical. Did anyone else feel that way? Were they intentionally bad?

What was the point of Metzger being an actor in a ridiculous movie with a sad ending? What meaning did the title have, other than just being the last words of the book?

I was glad to have read a Pynchon and can cross him off my list. I don't think I could make it through his longer works. But I did enjoy it and was glad I read it.
posted by DarkForest 31 January | 15:44
I thought the song lyrics were indeed intended to be terrible, as was the band name (The Paranoids?!) They cracked me up.

Metzger and the movie was one of the impenetrable parts of the book for me. I'd love enlightenment too.

I do think that there was a reason to call the book "The Crying" of Lot 49. This book is very much about weeping. I thought the Hungerford lecture did a great job of pointing that out. There is so much teariness throughout, I think because the inability to connect and communicate with others is so painful to all of us. So I thought the pun at the end and in the title -- "crying" the lot to the crowd -- was very intentional. Remember what the "lot" is -- The Tristero "forgeries" were to be sold, as lot 49. And then there is the coldness, the disconnectedness, of the last paragraph:

"It's time to start," said Genghis Cohen, offering his arm. The men inside the auction room wore black mohair and had pale, cruel faces. They watched her come in, trying each to conceal his thoughts. Loren Passerine, on his podium, hovered like a puppet-master, his eyes bright, his smile practiced and relentless. He stared at her, smiling, as if saying, I'm surprised you actually came. Oedipa sat alone, toward the back of the room, looking at the napes of necks, trying to guess which one was her target, her enemy, perhaps her proof. An assistant closed the heavy door on the lobby windows and the sun. She heard a lock snap shut; the sound echoed a moment. Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49.

Finally, I think there is a reason that the emptiness, the nothingness of a car lot is so distressing to Oedipa's husband at the beginning of the book (and we are reminded of this toward the end), and at the very end, we have the cold and alienated auctioneering of the "lot" which embodies meaning and connection.
posted by bearwife 31 January | 16:01
I thought the Hungerford lecture did a great job of pointing that out

Oh, I forgot about that... I'll have to watch...
posted by DarkForest 31 January | 16:11
I really appreciated Hungerford's lecture highlighting the book's historical period in her lecture. I got that it was the '60s, but I don't know - not having lived through it, it's helpful reminded that a lot of things that I take for granted as being part of the 60s in the US were really weird and unsettling at the time. So I appreciate better that having a housewife move out into the wider world at this time was a significant choice.

Actually, I think it's possible that I liked the lecture better than the book. I didn't feel like any of the characters were fully realized and believable - I wasn't invested in the characters at all. I did enjoy the story, but in a very abstract "where is this going and what is Pynchon doing with it" fashion. Hungerford's argument that Oedipa is a reader and at one level, the book operates as sort of an allegory of a reader's education - that's a framework that immediately made the book more comprehensible to me.
posted by EvaDestruction 01 February | 10:14
I'm going to have to watch this lecture. I read the book about 2 or 3 years ago, and I felt a bit like Eva did. I could tell there was a lot going on in the book, but damn if I knew what any of it was.
posted by BoringPostcards 01 February | 10:26
I finished it Saturday night and read the transcript of the Hungerford lecture Sunday.

I liked it, although I wished I had time to read more slowly and take notes.

I appreciated Prof. Hungerford pointing out the way Oedipa was able to assume roles - motherly, granddaughterly. Taking another look at chapter 1, I also saw this:

"And had also gently conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of a pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs of Kinneret, looking for somebody to say hey, let down your hair. When it turned out to be Pierce she'd happily pulled out the pins and curlers and down it tumbled ..."

I was also struck by the defining traits of Southern California and San Narciso (I love that he called it that) in particular: technology and money. Aside from the city reminding her of the printed circuit, it's also the home of Yoyodyne. I had to go back and reread to discover how Pierce seemed to own part of everything - while Oedipa and Metzger are watching the film:

Now and then a commercial would come in, each time Metzger would say, "Inverarity's," or "Big block of shares," and later settled for nodding and smiling.

I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts about this line?

She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America.

posted by kristi 01 February | 11:23
I think that last line makes more sense in context:

But did it matter now if he'd owned all of San Narciso? San Narciso was a name; an incident among our climatic records of dreams and what dreams became among our accumulated daylight, a moment's squall-line or tornado's touchdown among the higher, more continental solemnitiesstorm-systems of group suffering and need, prevailing winds of affluence. There was the true continuity, San Narciso had no boundaries. No one knew yet how to draw them. She had dedicated herself, weeks ago, to making sense of what Inverarity had left behind, never suspecting that the legacy was America.

To me, that means that the town, with its big empty lots and quality of being a replicant of every other town -- and with the typical quality American towns have of seeming to have no formal start or ending -- is quintessentially American. In a bigger sense, the town seems to like many US towns to be torn between group experience and a sense of individual isolation and lack of connection.

Here's a different question -- Inverarity's name? I get the "rarity" part. Is "ver" a reference to truth? Or does "Inve" somehow modify "rarity?" I feel I am missing an important pun here.

Also, re people who haven't gotten to Hungerford yet: I actually prefer reading her lectures. I get more out of them and it seems to be a little quicker than watching them.
posted by bearwife 01 February | 11:40
Interesting question, bearwife. What popped into my head is inverse+rarity, implying ubiquitousness.
posted by EvaDestruction 01 February | 11:52
Re: Inverarity's name: I was getting hints of both "inverse" and "veracity", too (I'm not sure I picked up on "rarity"). I did a quick search to see if anyone had posted anything definitive on the web, and discovered that Inverarity is a village in Scotland, too (and thus has become a surname for a lot of people), which I doubt has anything to do with Pynchon's intentions, but I found interesting anyway. The "inver" means river or creek, as in "Inverness."

posted by kristi 01 February | 23:53
I came across the SparkNotes site for the book, and one of the questions there is "What role do letters play in this novel?" I was surprised to realize I hadn't really thought about the letters - and the stamps, of course, and Inverarity's stamp collection.

Much of the revelation was to come through the stamp collection Pierce had left, his substitute often for her - thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time: savannahs teeming with elands and gazelles, galleons sailing west into the void, Hitler heads, sunsets, cedars of Lebanon, allegorical faces that never were, he could spend hours peering into each one, ignoring her. She had never seen the fascination.

So, trying to count the letters, there are:

* the letter from Warpe, Wist-full, Kubitschek and McMingus, signed by Metzger, informing Oedipa that she'd been named executor of Pierce's will

* the letter from Mucho, with the "Report All Obscene Mail to Your Potsmaster" blurb

* her letters to Mucho

* the letters delivered during the mail delivery at the Scope

* Angelo's letter in the play

* the sailor's letter to his wife

* the letters in the W.A.S.T.E. can

* and even the other letters that give Oedipa authority to act as executor (the letters testamentary)

As far as I can tell, there's no significant or meaningful communication in any of these - Angelo's letter is a deception, Mucho's letter "had nothing much to say" (and her letters to him were dutiful and rambling), the Yoyodyne interoffice mail was obligatory and tended to result in perfunctory small talk. The legal letters give Oedipa authority but don't carry any significant communication between individuals.

I wish I knew what was in the sailor's letter.
posted by kristi 02 February | 00:15
I thought all of that about the mail was another exploration of the theme of attempting to connect, communicate, and understand, and failing. That theme is really worked in a poignant way all the way through the book. Another repetitive way it is discussed is the images of tightly coiled structures (streets, communication circuits) which end up being confusing labyrinths.

Love the quote about the stamps. Reminds me of that fabulous image from Alice in Wonderland of trying to peer through the keyhole into the wondrous world beyond.
posted by bearwife 02 February | 12:52
Hey, midwestern and northeastern bunnies: Where you gonna put all that snow? || Faceplant Kittehs!!