The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49 Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon's first novel, V., was published in 1963. The novel won him many awards. America began to view Pynchon as a premier Postwar writer, an able representative of the paranoid generation coming out of the McCarthy era and facing the horrors of the Vietnam War and domestic political unrest. The increasing paranoia and tension which erupted in America during the 1960s as well as the rising sense of postmodernism in the literary world were mirrored in Pynchon's next major work, The Crying of Lot 49.

Pynchon had been writing since he days as a columnist in high school. During college, he wrote several of his first short stories while gaining a Bachelors Degree in English. Pynchon added to this education a scientific knowledge from his early days as an engineering physics major and the later days at Boeing Aircraft. Between 1960 and 1962, not long after graduating from Cornell University, Pynchon worked for Boeing Aircraft in Seattle, Washington as a technical writer.

At Boeing, Pynchon wrote scientific articles which would enhance his understanding of theories and practices one notices in The Crying of Lot 49. One such article was "Togetherness," published in Aerospace Safety. The article detailed safety precautions for airlifting IM-99A missiles. Editor, Patrick O'Donnell, explores how this article was a predecessor to the writing style which Pynchon was in the process of developing. He comments:

"The title...suggests the ironic attitude that Pynchon must have taken towards his work at Boeing, and is suggested in these headlines from the article: ?One mistake and a lot of money has been wasted when you're moving a missile to its new home. It's a job requiring detailed safety on all sides. Togetherness, then, is the word.' The merging in these phrases of nostalgic domesticity with the sinister reality of what missiles are for (disguised by the homeliness of the language) prefigures the typically parodic intonations of Pynchon's fiction, where ?reality' is packaged in metaphors that reveal the fantasies and romanticized desires of a culture bound over to deathly designs beneath the camouflage of utility, community ('togetherness'), and domesticity (the missiles' ?new home').

Thus, Pynchon was actively cultivating, tuning, and refining his style, use of language, and commitment to parodic metaphor. Pynchon's knowledge of the scientist's and engineer's craft allowed him to expand his literary wit using the larger metaphors he had encountered. In 1960, Pynchon began playing with these theories in his short story, "Entropy," which has since been largely anthologized. The Crying of Lot 49 then traced the theories of entropy through the theoretical Maxwell's Demon device. In this novel, Pynchon further stretched the meaning of entropy to metaphorically control and educate the exploration of his protagonist and the reader. Only a year after Pynchon left Boeing, V. was finished, leading most to believe he had begun the novel while working at the plant. The publication of V. was also the point when Pynchon's lifestyle changed. He began living as a recluse. Very little biographical information is known about the author following this period. Two sections of The Crying of Lot 49 were published two years after V. but before the novel came out. The novel was published in late 1965 by Pynchon, but critic David Seed proposes that three different versions may exist. J.P. Lippincott accepted an early manuscript from which the early excerpts were taken and published in Esquire and Cavalier. There was then a review copy version which showed only minor revisions. Lastly, the published version came out, including more minor revisions. Various editions have followed, highlighting the exacting detail Pynchon desires to work with when attending to his texts.

The Crying of Lot 49 was presented with the Richard and Hilda Rosenthal Foundation Award of the National Institute of Arts and Letters. However, around the nation, the novel only met mixed reviews and was first considered Pynchon's minor work. Though the novel continues to be viewed as the author's most accessible text, few critics believe that the work is a minor piece of literature. On the contrary, The Crying of Lot 49 has found its way onto many college syllabi within the last couple of decades and will likely continue to be widely read. A testimony to its popularity is evident in the number of translations The Crying of Lot 49 has undergone.