Books That Built Us: ‘The Crying of Lot 49’

Monday, September 17, 2018 - 10:46am

I don’t remember reading “The Crying of Lot 49” for the first time, let alone how it came into my life. Those details are eclipsed by what I do recall — the process of coping with its bewildering form, shut in my mint green bedroom at 1:00 a.m., poring over Wikipedia pages on Thomas Pynchon and postmodernism. I was about 16, and offended by the bizarre little book’s refusal to have a plot, to develop characters, to … conclude. “Why go through the effort of writing something that seems to mean nothing?” I asked myself. “What the fuck?”

“The Crying of Lot 49” is composed almost exclusively of satirical jabs, distracting details and fruitless conversations. It chronicles the anti-Odyssey of Oedipa Maas as she happens to unearth a peculiar network of coincidences connected by “a symbol she’d never seen before, a loop, triangle and trapezoid,” meant to represent a muted post horn. The rudimentary post horn is the sole illustration in the slim volume and evolves from a point of intrigue to a trigger of sorts as Oedipa begins to see it everywhere. The physical motif is graffitied by polyamorists on a bathroom stall, scrawled amid the notes of a disillusioned techie and embossed on the pin of a member of the Inamorati Anonymous committed to assisting those who have fallen in love (“the worst addiction of all”). Oedipa reads into the symbols, convinced “she will create constellations” out of the chaos, but instead finds herself “an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia,” struggling to determine whether she’s actually stumbled upon a massive conspiracy or is simply going mad. It ends abruptly, right when you think you’ll get some sort of answer.

Like Oedipa Maas and her post horns, I found myself desperate to wring the ridiculousness of “Lot 49” into some constellation that made sense to me — one that looked like clarity, coherence and resolution. It was an exercise in pure futility, but one that exposed a set of rigid expectations for the novel I had no idea I was harboring. As I slowly came to terms with the fact that “Lot 49” isn’t conventionally “meaningful,” I felt as if I were becoming unstuck, in a completely Kurt Vonnegut way. I realized I was clinging to structure, got embarrassed and loosened my grip. The relief was near erotic.

Flash forward two-ish years and I’m walking to Name Brand Tattoo one September afternoon after Bio 173, or some other class I took freshman year that has zero relevance in what I think I’m doing now. I’m half a country away from home, I have no friends and I’m trying not to be scared as hell. So I’m getting a tattoo. When one of the three Nicks there asks what I want, I open “The Crying of Lot 49” to the symbol that haunts Oedipa Maas halfway across California, and a little more than halfway out of (or into?) her mind. I get the post horn inked in an impulsive, grasping attempt to immortalize that little bit of un-stuckness I felt in accepting “Lot 49,” so subsumed in the angst of my moment that I’m oblivious to the fact that I’m literally branding myself with a quintessential emblem of Postmodern Shit.

It was as if I had accidentally joined a cult. Since The Tattoo, I’ve been approached here and there by randos in public who recognize the symbol and wish to share a word, to rave over Oedipa Maas and the Tristero, to recommend a sweet new read. If you ink it, they will come. One of my professors noticed, told me I had a “dope tattoo”— my ego orgasmed. Friends who weren’t familiar with the novel were intrigued by my devotion and read it. Some became converts. I visited one of them this past summer and noticed he had drawn the post horn on his wall in Sharpie. When I pointed it out, I felt a new sort of intimacy establish between us. This book gives believers a simple way to find each other, and we’re here to spread the paranoid love. The “Lot 49” subculture, once you start to recognize it, is impressively prevalent. Radiohead and Ya Lo Tengo have both referenced elements of “Lot 49” in their work, an insider signal to listeners who know it. Oedipa Maas’s signature appears in “The Simpsons,” and the Google Smartphone App for the Treefort Music Fest once featured the post horn on its icon. It’s under my skin, on a wall in Berkeley and scribbled in a bathroom stall at SMTD. The magnitude of our devotion nearly brings me to tears. The realization that I’ve found belonging in a ridiculous literary subculture does bring me tears.

All these tears have made me ironically reluctant to return to the text. What if I don’t like it? What if it’s actually the squirmy sort of Postmodern Shit … and I still have this tattoo? I gave it a couple years, marinated in the cult, continued drawing post horns in my notebooks and evangelizing nonreaders. In the past year, though, I’ve noticed waning familiarity with the names and references that typically arise in “Lot 49” discussions. It was time. I tracked down my copy of the sacred text (thanks, Dayton) and was pleasantly surprised to find myself frolicking in the prose. There was so much I had missed the first time around — the smart satire, the raunchy references — the book that was once so inaccessible had become brilliantly hilarious. “Lot 49” round two was like reconnecting with a friend, and discovering even more virtue in them. Encounters like that make the relationship so much stronger.

The most impressive discovery from my literary homecoming, however, is the subtly powerful examination of binary thinking Pynchon manages to work beneath all the absurdity. In the agita of her self-doubt, Oedipa is described as “walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles, right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless.” The dark omnipresence of “this or that,” the dread of being stuck between, indefinitely, with no word exactly appropriate for the self in the moment. Damn. It is paranoia.

But there’s something to be said for how the structureless paranoia of “The Crying of Lot 49” pushes you into a disposition that can relieve some of the weight of those thick ones and zeroes. Once unstuck from my rigid expectations, I found myself able to notice and appreciate the novel’s ridiculousness. Once I made peace with the fact that there’s no constellation to be drawn, I entered an incredible literary community. “The Crying of Lot 49,” it seems, is an exercise in detaching from the anxiety of that tension between one and zero. What results is the hysterical grace it takes to exist in bewildering absurdity — absurdity not unlike that of television personality presidents and Bird scooters.