Lessons from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49

posted: October 30, 2016

tl;dr: In case you didn't think communication systems are important, read some Pynchon...

Although The Crying of Lot 49 was published more than 50 years ago, Thomas Pynchon knew then the importance of communication systems, not only in the modern world but throughout the centuries. The need to communicate, and to do so privately, away from the eyes of the powers that be, is a fundamental human need, especially for those who operate in opposition to the government and the dominant social structure. Those who control the communication systems, and snoop on communications, have tremendous power over others and gain the means to influence events. While The Crying of Lot 49 posits the existence of a shadow mail delivery system that has for centuries operated in competition with and opposition to the government-run mail monopolies, that fundamental human need shows up today in the online world in systems such as encrypted messaging platforms, Tor, the dark Web, and the Silk Road black market. Pynchon would not be surprised by any of these systems, nor the activities of the NSA as revealed by Edward Snowden.

The shadow mail system provides Pynchon a perfect vehicle for exploring some of his favorite topics: conspiracy, paranoia, the boundary between the mainstream world and the underground or underworld, and, of course: who really is in charge and setting the course of human events? Pynchon constructs an elaborate mystery that his main character stumbles through, piecing together obscure clues and developing hypotheses. The journey is far from drudgery; Pynchon mixes in plenty of satire and humor to keep the reader entertained.

The Crying of Lot 49 is set primarily in California, which really is two (at least) fairly different states: Northern California, centered in San Francisco, and Southern California, centered in Los Angeles. Pynchon paints memorable portraits of the scenery and people in both places; I was in San Francisco a week ago, and Pynchon’s descriptions were nearly as vivid as the scenery I saw with my own eyes. Pynchon is incredibly observant, and knows precisely how to put words together to form an image that brands itself into the reader’s mind.

Pynchon packs much into a mere 152 pages, especially for careful readers who try to piece together the mystery themselves (good luck!), and those who want to savor every word. The Crying of Lot 49 is a great introduction to Pynchon; next on my Pynchon “to read” list is the much longer Gravity’s Rainbow.

More people should read Thomas Pynchon, and take some of the universal truths he describes to heart. I daresay that if more of our politicians had, especially those who communicate sensitive messages via easily intercepted or retrieved (hacked or subpoenaed) email systems, the current presidential campaign would have unfolded very differently. But, alas, those who do not learn from Pynchon eventually learn these truths in other ways.