The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 is an ancient work of fiction by the author Thomas Pynchon.  There are no known complete texts.  It is believed that this was among the many ancient texts lost for all time when The Aethenaum was destroyed in The Great Collapse.

There is a surviving plot summary:

The Crying of Lot 49 starts with stock elements associated with the mystery genre. A rich man, Pierce Inverarity, has died, and his former girlfriend, Oedipa Maas, steps in to settle his estate—but then stumbles upon a number of puzzling facts and circumstances. In time, she begins to distrust the people around her, even those who seem most ostensibly helpful on the surface, and fears that something strange, and possibly dangerous, may be lurking behind the scenes.

In The Crying of Lot 49, instead of moving toward resolution, the mystery expands, involving more and more people, and eventually involving multiple continents and hundreds of years of hidden history. Eventually, the dead man and his estate are the least of our concerns. This conspiracy seems to involve everything.

But here’s the most banal twist of all. These conspirators don’t seem concerned about murder, or money, or power, or fomenting revolution. Instead, they want to deliver the mail. Maas finds increasing evidence of an alternative postal system run by a shadowy group known as the Tristero. The tell-tale sign of the organization is its use of a drawing of muted post horn in the place of your usual postage stamp. Our heroine first notices this symbol on a lavatory wall, and soon starts seeing it everywhere — as a doodle in office cubicle, chalked into a city sidewalk, in a store window, on an anarchist newspaper from 50 years before, etc. — but still can’t grasp exactly what it signifies. In time, she traces the post horn’s history back to the sixteenth century, when the secretive Tristero attempted to wrest control of continental courier service from the dominant Thurn und Taxis company, a real historical entity borrowed by Pynchon for his cryptic tale.

Instead of a solution, Maas eventually comes up with four possible—but mutually exclusive—explanations. As she muses to herself late in the course of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa’s preferred answer is that she is mad. What Pynchon himself prefers is more problematic. Think of him as a doctor who doesn’t offer a cure or even a precise diagnosis, but can list off plenty of symptoms and disturbing test results.

The Crying of Lot 49 offers only an “anti-resolution,” as it’s a book that doesn’t tie all the facts and evidence together into a neat solution . . . it just lets them hang out there in all their ugly unwieldiness.


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