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Those, now that she was looking at them, she saw to be the alternatives. Those symmetrical four. She didn’t like any of them, but hoped she was mentally ill; that that’s all it was. That night she sat for hours, too numb to even drink, teaching herself to breathe in a vacuum. For this, oh God, was the void. There was nobody who could help her. Nobody in the world. They were all on something, mad, possible enemies, dead.[1]

Pynchon’s novella The Crying of Lot 49 is all about paranoia. Oedipa Maas’ pursuit of the truth behind Trystero blurs the line between truth, fiction and insanity. Moreover, there is no denouement – the novel ends without resolution. Arguably this paranoia is a reflection of Pynchon’s view on living in a postmodern world of texts, of signs and symbols. “Pynchon’s ‘primary observation’ in Crying ‘remains central, and it is one which our current foreign policy only seems to confirm: that paranoia is the last sense of community left us.'”[2] Oedipa, in this sense, is a reader like all of us, navigating this textual maze and trying to make sense of a multiplicity of signs and their relationships – relationships that, perhaps, aren’t there to begin with.

Thomas Pynchon wasn’t too keen on this work himself: “As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I’d keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was ‘The Crying of Lot 49,’ which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.”[3]

Unfortunately for Mr. Pynchon, many others liked it. The fact also is that it remains one of his most accessible works. At any rate, it is much more readable than that literary monstrosity that is Gravity’s Rainbow and might be a nice point of entry to ease you into the intricate oeuvre of Thomas Pynchon.

[1] Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966; London, 2000), 118.
[2] Patrick O’Donnell (ed.), New Essays on The Crying of Lot 49 (Cambridge, 1991), 8.
[3] Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner (1984; London, 2000), 22.