The Crying of Lot 49 as an Introduction to Pynchon
Published in 1966, The Crying of Lot 49 is one of Thomas Pynchon's shortest and earliest novels. Due, perhaps, to its length, some critics have concluded that the themes that made Pynchon famous were only hinted at in the work, only later to be fully developed.
However, its brevity compared to some of Pynchon's other novels, such as the canonical Gravity's Rainbow, makes it somewhat more accessible to those who are new to Pynchon or new to more experimental forms of fiction. Additionally, the development of the central character, Oedipa Maas, is in many respects more conventional than the characters of Pynchon's later works, making The Crying of Lot 49 a good entry point into Pynchon's works.
Pynchon as a "Sensitive"
Although some have claimed that The Crying of Lot 49 is not as high in quality as Pynchon's other works, this point of view seems to mostly revolve around the strictly intellectual aspects of the novelist's style. Although Gravity's Rainbow, for example, is long enough to include a staggering number of references, historical digressions, and arcane structural developments, it is not necessarily clear that these alone are what make Pynchon a great novelist. As The Crying of Lot 49 demonstrates, Pynchon's greatness resides in his ability to fuse experimental techniques of fiction with his acute emotional and philosophical understanding.
The Makings of Good Fiction
Many great novelists have crafted a place for themselves in the canon of fiction by achieving just such a combination of the rational and the transcendent as Pynchon does in The Crying of Lot 49. In discussions of experimental fiction in the English language, James Joyce is nearly always the first name that comes to mind. His works are rife with allusions and stylistic coups, but without his sense of the emotional and spiritual core of literature as art, novels like Ulysses would, perhaps, not have outlasted their author to the extent that they have. Among American novelists, Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac are among those to have brought stylistic innovation to bear upon sensitive perceptions of reality.
Pynchon's Contemporary Relevance
There is no doubt that Gravity's Rainbow is an accomplished work, and in many ways, as is often repeated in discussions of Pynchon, it is a novel that is uniquely contemporary. It has been said that Pynchon's work is one of the clearest examples of the influence of technology, perhaps especially film, on literature. Thomas Pynchon creates characters who break into song, portrays scenes from particular angles and with particular lighting schemes, and uses this style to develop themes of paranoia, the boundary between fiction and reality, the effect of war on human nature, the meaning of evil, and other topics whose consideration would perhaps not have been possible at the turn of the 20th century.
Academic Accomplishment vs. Personal Growth
Despite its merits, the reader is often left feeling cold upon completing (if the reader manages to complete) Gravity's Rainbow. One feels as though one has just completed a university course on Pynchon's fiction. The entire affair is a lopsidedly intellectual experience. To be sure, there are moments of humor and humanity scattered throughout the book, and the ending in particularly is jarring in a way that, even now, few critics know how to interpret. Nevertheless, Gravity's Rainbow fails in that it leaves the reader with a student's sense of accomplishment rather than a sense of personal growth. One finishes the novel but does not feel that one has gained anything of real importance in the endeavor.
How Pynchon Inspires Readers
By contrast with Gravity's Rainbow, after finishing the comparatively short and easy The Crying of Lot 49, the reader is left with a sense of awe, wonderment, and inspiration. These are the hallmarks of good art in general and good fiction particularly. Many of the issues Pynchon is fond of appear in the shorter work, and somehow they are expressed in a way that cuts straight to their core, exposing how they are related to life in general and to the reader specifically, imparting the reader with a sense of their cosmic meaning.
Perhaps the success of The Crying of Lot 49 lies in its relative ease; the reader is free to move beyond Pynchon's unique style to the fundamental significance of the text. No matter what the cause, The Crying of Lot 49 is, in addition to a good introduction to Pynchon, a great work of fiction.