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The Crying of Lot 49

Thomas Pynchon

Study Question

Overall Analysis

Review Quiz

How is The Crying of Lot 49 a mystery novel?

A good answer would mention that the book certainly has many elements of a mystery novel, including clues and a detective figure. However, most mystery novels move toward a particular conclusion--the revelation of whodunit. In The Crying of Lot 49, most of the clues are meaningless (what good does it do Oedipa to learn the complete history of the Tristero?), and furthermore, each additional clue tends to open up more loose ends rather than close up existing ones. Also, whereas most mystery novels end with the culprit being captured, all mystery in The Crying of Lot 49 remains unsolved.

What role do letters play in this novel?

A great answer would have to mention the fact that letters in this novel are good examples of failed communication. In the beginning of chapter three, for example, Oedipa gets a meaningless letter from Mucho that presumably contains only dull, pointless comments. She does not write him anything substantial either, for that matter; she will not tell him about her affair with Metzger. We also see that the people using the W.A.S.T.E. system are required to deliver mail once a week even if they have nothing to say. As a result, the system is based on the delivery of empty, pointless letters. Moreover, a letter is what sets Oedipa upon the whole mystery journey in the first place. By the end of the novel, because we have sufficient reason to believe that everything in the book may have been simply a prank on Oedipa, we must suspect that the initial letter on page one may be the beginning of falsehood.

How does the novel treat the idea of chaos in culture?

Undoubtedly, the world of The Crying of Lot 49 is fragmented. The novel blends all elements of society together in one novel that contains druggies, hippie rock singers, right-wing kooks, lawyers, Mafia men, actors, and 17th-century culture, among many other things. There is little bond holding all these random elements together. This novel sounds in many ways like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, a poem about similar societal chaos. Faced with such a world, Oedipa seems to feel a need to put things in order. However, notice that her dream is to create "constellations." Constellations are great examples of how humans impose order on something that is not at all inherently ordered. Whereas a circuit board has a clear structure that works for a reason, constellations are an attempt on the part of humans to put order where there is none.

How does Oedipa change over the course of the novel? How does her social situation change?

Compare the songs of The Paranoids to the songs sung in Yoyodyne or the song of Baby Igor. What are the similarities? What are the key differences? Why are there so many songs and lines of verse in this novel?

Discuss the "religious instant" experienced by Oedipa early in chapter two. How does Pynchon create this instant? What are its characteristics? How does Oedipa's train of thought move? How does the (failed) communication in this instant relate to the rest of the novel?

The Crying of Lot 49 has a huge number of characters for a short novel. Analyze some of the minor characters--Metzger, Mucho, Hilarius, Fallopian, etc.--and comment on how they relate to Oedipa and the larger themes of the novel.

The novel deals extensively with history and the messages of history. What can the reader gain from understanding the history of the Tristero? Why is it included in the novel? How does it relate to the novel's themes of chaos and communication?

Analyze some of the systems of order in this novel and show how they relate to one another. For instance, you may discuss the printed circuit envisioned by Oedipa when she first sees San Narciso, or you might discuss Maxwell's Demon. Other possibilities include Mucho's job as a DJ, bringing a type of order to random, individual songs by different bands; and the U.S. Postal System, which has a highly ordered, organized monopoly. How are these systems thematically linked to other parts of the novel?

This novel has a particularly ambiguous ending. What are we to make of Pynchon's refusal to solve the mystery? What are we to make of the possibility that this is all a joke?

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