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Book Review: The Crying of Lot 49

January 18, 2010

This isn’t exactly news, not by any stretch of the imagination.  “The Crying of Lot 49” was published in 1966, and was listed in TIME as one of the “100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.”  Apparently, some people really like the book.

And some people give a f@$! what Pat Robertson says.

Yeah, weird, right?

But before I get to the review, I wanna tell you how it came to pass that I ended up buying the book, because that story, lame as it is, it’s better than the book.

As it happened, I was in a used bookstore in Colorado Springs.  I go to used bookstores like some guys turn to Sportscenter.  That is, regularly.  Anyway, I found a GREAT little book on mathematics called “The Number Devil” (which is completely fantastic, by the way), and as I was approaching the the line to check out, I picked up on the tail end of a conversation between the (older, wise-looking, intellectual-type, ex-hippie with gray hair and beard) guy at the register and a younger(ish) couple.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah…yep, signed copy.  Uh huh, yeah, he was a young guy.  Oh yeah, he died a couple years ago; committed suicide – hung himself”

I interjected because, though I knew little about this author that I’d recently been turned onto (via “Everything & More: A Compact History of “, I knew enough about him to think that maybe they were talking about David Foster Wallace.

Me, quizzically: David Foster Wallace? [young couple walks off, and now it's just the two of us]

Hippie-Dude: Yeah, you know of him?

Me: Yeah, just finished reading a book of his. [didn't reveal which book, because he doesn't need to know that I'm a nerd]  The signed copy you mentioned, is that “Infinite Jest?”

HD: Oh no!  That’d be worth a bunch of money!  No, not “Infinite Jest

Me: [lacking the presence of mind to find out which book he *did* have a signed copy of] Oh.

HD: Which book did you read?

Me: [dammit] “A Compact History of Infinity

HD: [glancing down at "The Number Devil"] OK, looks like you really like math.

Me: [dammit; busted] Yeah.

HD: Well, if you like Wallace, you might like Thomas Pynchon

Me: [having just heard "Monty Python"] Who?

HD: Thomas Pynchon.  If you like the style that Wallace writes in, you’ll probably like Pynchon’s style as well.  A lot of people don’t like it, but if you like Wallace, you’ll probably like Pynchon.

[HD goes on to describe Pynchon's style, though I forgot how he phrased it.  So, I found another nice little summary here, which does a nice job of capturing how both he, and DFW, write]

His way with language either has an undeniable quirky grace or is nigh incomprehensible. Just see how easy it is to get through a book full of sentence-long paragraphs, by which I mean to say, [Pynchon's] paragraphs in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ were large chunks of type constructed of SINGLE sentences, whose byzantine syntax made them very hard to read, unless possessed of almost superhuman powers of focus.

Meanwhile, he’s left the counter, and started walking towards…the fiction section!  I don’t read fiction*!  He’s talking, though I can’t tell whether it’s directed to me, or more just talking to himself, and I surmise that it’s equal parts of both, and says that he’s looking for THE definitive Pynchon book, “Gravity’s Rainbow“.  They don’t have it; I am relieved.

We walk back to the counter and, as I’m finishing the purchase of “The Number Devil”, his mysterious assistant appears out of nowhere, walks by and, without stopping, looking up, or otherwise acknowledging the existence of either myself or Hippie Dude, says, “Or The Crying of Lot 49, that’s another good book.”  And then, like a book ninja, she disappeared into the labyrinthine aisles.

Fast forward a couple days, and I’m browsing through the bookstore in the Denver airport, and suddenly I remember, “Oh yeah, fiction…what the hell was that guy’s name?”  And through a process of memory searching, trial and error, and plain ol’ luck (I remembered that the last name was “Python”, or something like that, so I systematically looked through all the “P’s” until I found “Thomas Pynchon”), I stumbled across “The Crying of Lot 49“.  I bought it with a degree of excitement that can only be compared to that moment when you’ve finally drank enough that you actually believe that you can dance, and say to yourself, “Fuck it, I’m just gonna go out there and have fun!”

*Note* Though, having just recently read “The Road“, I am softening my resolve on this.  Perhaps there are some worthy fictional books to read?

Anyway ~

It cannot be said that I didn’t enter into this endeavor with anything less than excitement and enthusiasm.  And, I’ll probably get a thumbs down or two over this little causerie from some Pynchon myrmidons, but nevertheless, I gotta level with you: I thought the book sucked.  I’m guessing that whoever put this book on that 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list was the same asshole that put No Doubt ahead of Creedence on the “Greatest Bands of All Time” list, or that put the Black Eyed Peas on there at all.  Dumbass.  He probably likes Peter Cetera too.  I’d like to thrash him with an 18″ length of double-braided hydraulic hose.

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Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s a really good summary of the plot. Don’t read it if you don’t want any spoilers, but then again, don’t read the book at all, and save yourself from wasting several hours of your life that you can’t get back!  Ever.  Thank me later.

As somebody that appreciates good writing I will say this: it’s not that the guy isn’t a good writer – he is – his ability to turn a smartly written phrase is is truly masterful.  Here, for example, is my favorite sentence from the book:

“But Roseman had also spent a sleepless night, brooding over the Perry Mason television program the evening before, which his wife was fond of but which Roseman cherished a fierce ambivalence, wanting at once to be a successful trial lawyer like Perry Mason and, since this was impossible, to destroy Perry Mason by undermining him.”

Anytime I laugh out loud (Note: I “laugh out loud”, I do not “LOL!”  Ever.) whilst reading a book, I’m inclined to lean towards being a fan.  But that sentence, and that sentence alone, was the only thing I thought sufficiently humorous to laugh out loud in the entire book.  Yeah, there were some other noteworthy sentences, and if the book didn’t suck so bad, I’d re-type them for you.  However, as it is, I didn’t like it, and I ain’t gonna.

As in "A WASTE of your time!"

So, here’s the deal: the book’s been out a while, there’s tons of stuff written about it, and there’s nothing about it I can say that hasn’t already been said.  Except for this: If I were you, I wouldn’t read the book.  And if I were you, I wouldn’t stop in the right lane at a stoplight if I have no intention of turning right.  Seriously, have some consideration.

Bottom line: having read “The Crying of Lot 49“, I highly recommend “The Number Devil


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