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June 14, 2015

First AoSHQ Bookclub Meeting: The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon

Just getting this up for the moment -- I have my opening bid at discussion coming, but I wanted to make sure people knew that they could start discussing the book, if they liked.

One thing I have to apologize for: I kept telling people it was a short book, and easily read. I was wrong. It is a short book, but not easily read at all; especially in the early-going, Pynchon enjoys long, maze-like sentences in which the subject and the verb are in a tense and unhappy long-distance relationship separated by miles of intervening clauses and digressions. As the book progresses, he utilizes this (show-offy?) styling less and less, and settles mostly into a fairly directly-told tale.

I didn't withhold that information from you to trick you into reading the book, I hope you know. I just honestly completely forgot about that tendency of his. We tend to remember the good parts -- and his long digressions on Pierce Inverarity's tower, or Oedipa's feelings about a Mexican painting, or Wendell "Murcho" Maas' overempathetic relationship with used cars is not among the "good parts" for me.

My attempt at an opening discussion below the fold:

I'm not a book critic, and honestly have no idea how one would go about criticizing a book, so I'll just discuss the associations I have with the book, and why it's stuck with me.

First of all, as a student, I always liked when science-fiction themed books somehow made it on the to straight fiction reading lists. It always felt to me like a cheat, when I could get away with reading a sci-fi book as a "real book" for school. The Crying of Lot 49 isn't really a science-fiction book, of course, but it does have several themes in common with sci-fi. It's a novel of ideas, certainly, including very weird ones, and blends alt-history and a bit of science fantasy speculation as it does.

I don't know much about California in the mid sixties to early seventies, except from books and the media, but I keep reading books that describe it as essentially a post-apocalyptic terrain-- a special kind of post-apocalyptic terrain, I'm thinking of. The physical markers of civilization are all still in place; they have not been swept away by nuclear fire.

However, I keep reading books in which Aquarian Age California is depicted as a place in which all the psychological structures of stability have been swept aside, detonated, atomized, leaving behind a population which looks like it's just humanity of the latter twentieth century, but which in fact has mutated far from the rest of its parent-species.

Having left behind (or simply lost in the long drive west) everything of meaning -- a spouse, a family, God, patriotism, idealism of the conventional sort, conventional ideas of male-female relations, and so on -- the remnants of civilization in the psychically post-apocalyptic landscape of 1970s California scramble to invent new sources of meaning, new conceptions of romantic and filial attachments, and so forth.

Pynchon's book reminds me of Philip K. Dick's books, many of which took place in Aquarian California. Even the ones supposedly set "in the future" are often actually just barely disguised (or, I would say: Not Disguised at All) sketches of California circa 1968 to 1972. A Scanner Darkly, for example, is billed as a science-fiction novel, and yet contains only two "science fiction" concepts (a drug called Compound D, which is not even a sci fi concept (it merely doesn't exist) and a "scramblesuit"). Otherwise, the "futuristic setting" is simply the slummier, druggier neighborhoods of California 1971. And yet, for all that, it is a deeply weird place. You don't have to do do much to turn California into a futuristic setting; they've been claiming for years, after all, it is the future. (Of course, the future is now in Texas.)

Oedipa's long, weird journey -- a journey about the hidden secrets of the world, through a maze which just happens to take the form of the California interstates -- had a sci-fi feel to me 20 years ago. Still does.

The other sci-fi (or at least, speculative fiction) author Pynchon reminds me of here is H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was a past-master at what might be termed artificial erudition -- fake erudition, invented learning, with his scholarly footnotes and references to books that never existed mixed in with books that definitely do exist.

Lovecraft played a game of intellectual gas-lighting where he'd mix in One That Does Exist -- some book about the principles of astrology by John Dee -- with the One That Doesn't (Unspraechlicht Kulten, in the folio edition, of course). His most famous story, the Call of Cthulhu, does make a reader start to get creepy-crawly with doubt and he loses sight of sure landmarks of reality and starts to wonder exactly which parts of this are genuine, and which are fantasy?

Pynchon doesn't play the game as seriously or straight and most of his bullshit is clearly marked as such (it seems unlikely that anyone would name a Civil War ship the Disgruntled). But is that story of the Italian lake real? Did he read that somewhere, or did he make that up?

The Trystero -- ah, the Trystero -- we can safely assume to be invention, but that fantasy comes mixed with enough of the real to give me (for one) that same sort of upside-down, druggy, losing-sight-of-the-shore feeling I sometimes get from Lovecraft.

I won't talk about the Trystero further, as many people might still be reading. I personally realized last night Oh man, this is nowhere near the two-night book I promised; in fact, I'm only through 66% of it now.

But the Trystero, to me, are one of the greatest sci-fi-ish fabrications I've ever read. That creepy play reminds me of Lovecraft's mentor's play, the infamous King in Yellow (the only copies of which are held in the Vatican's X Museum of demonic books), and, as a matter of fact, I have to imagine it's a case of a direct swipe. (What little we know of the King in Yellow also features a play in which the most horrific things imaginable seem to be known to the writers and the performers, but which they are too frightened to actually speak aloud of, and are only communicated to the viewers by implication and gesture.)

Played straight, instead of for humor, these strangely effeminate long-fingered murderers dressed all in black would be the stuff of nightmares. Even in Pynchon's more comic, nudge-to-the-ribs telling, I still find them pretty horrific. What are they, and why are they?

Anyway, tell me what you thought, or are thinking. I'm interested to know.

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posted by Ace at 07:00 PM

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