Thomas Pynchon (b. 1937?)
Contributing Editor: Richard Pearce
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Problems in teaching Pynchon are contradictory. On the one hand, students feel that the story is superficial and limited to the stereotype of the sixties they know from television. On the other hand, even by the end of this short section, they begin to feel overloaded--too much coincidence, too much happening.
To address these problems, emphasize the comedy. Deal with the problem of coincidence and overloading head on. List all the events and coincidences; discuss them. Work with elements of popular culture: radio, television, rock music, advertising, technology. Relate all the plots to the vague sense that someone or some organization may be plotting. Ask what we know about Pierce Inverarity. Relate to the post-World War II development of the suburbs, automobiles and superhighways, plastics, electronics, and the military-industrial complex. Focus on two goals: (1) understanding the decentered novel--too much going on for us to grasp, to understand what's important, to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys (and later radicals from reactionaries); and (2) recognizing that everything is connected. End with questions about this paradox: Is it positive--the ultimate democratic novel, where there are no hierarchies, where people from all classes and many subcultures will become interconnected, and where a woman can take on the role of hero (and Oedipus)? Is it negative--a writer running out of control, the ultimate paranoic nightmare, a random world where there is no connection and no meaning?
After students have a sense of the reading, discuss whether The Crying of Lot 49 is dated. Do the experiences of the past 10 years of urban blight, inner city riots, homelessness, welfare reform, immigration reform, the greater separation of rich and poor, and the computer revolution affect our responses to the novel today?
A specific strategy that works very well is to divide the class into groups to investigate a common problem, not to solve it but to work through the novel systematically and come in with a list of "facts." The most successful project is the hardest: What do we know about the Tristero? The students come up with not only many facts, but a firsthand understanding of Oedipa's quest, how it felt, the desire to connect effects to their causes, the value of connecting with one another, the nature of plotting, the difficulty of understanding history, the momentum of capitalism, and the contradictions of democracy.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Focus on the modern problems of (1) ordinary people being controlled by big business, the media, government, and (2) having access to so much information that we can't grasp connection or meaning.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
See the discussion of postmodernism in the headnote. Have students identify as many styles and allusions as possible--from pop (the Shadow, Baby Igor) to Papa (Oedipus). See how they relate, or don't relate.
By understanding the complex context of the sixties, we can understand the novel's pertinence today.
See the chapters on Lot 49 in Joseph Slade's Thomas Pynchon (New York: Warner, 1974); Tony Tanner's Thomas Pynchon (London and New York: Methuen, 1982); and Alan Wilde's Middle Grounds: Studies in Contemporary American Fiction (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987).
See also my brief introduction to Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981), which was reprinted in American Writers: A Collection of Literary Biographies III, Part 2, ed. A. Walton Litz (New York: Scribner's, 1981).
Among the most important critical works is the chapter on Pynchon in Tony Tanner's City of Words: American Fiction 1950-1970 (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), reprinted in Twentieth Century Views of Thomas Pynchon, ed. Edward Mendelson (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978).
One of the most intelligent discussions of The Crying of Lot 49 is the chapter in Thomas H. Schaub's Pynchon: The Voice of Ambiguity (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1981), reprinted in Critical Essays on Thomas Pynchon, ed. Richard Pearce (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1981).
Setting Lot 49 in the context of this anthology is Wendy Steiner's essay in Reconstructing American Literary History, ed. Sacvan Bercovitch (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1986).
For important recent studies, see: John Dugdal, Thomas Pynchon's Allusive Parables of Power, 1990, and Patrick O'Donnell, ed., New Essays on the Crying of Lot 49.
It may be helpful to consult J. Kerry Grant's A Companion to "The Crying of Lot 49" (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994).