The Crying of Lot 49

“Shall I project a world?”

Thomas Pynchon

Does this look to you like a novel you would read for an English degree?

No, is the correct answer. No, it does not.

The Crying of Lot 49 is far too much fun to be work. It reads like a cross between Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, if you can imagine such a beast. Describing its plot is probably unhelpful, because whatever you imagine from it will be completely different from the reality, but I’ll give it a try.

Oedipa Maas (yes, funny names are one of the brilliant things about this book) finds that she has been named executor of the will of one of her ex-lovers. In the course of her duties she stumbles across what looks like a secret society extending its roots throughout the America she thought she knew…

OK, that makes it sound like a Dan Brown novel. It is nothing like a Dan Brown novel. It’s a weird concatenation of characters and happenings and most of the time you don’t really understand what’s going on, in the same way as you don’t really understand what’s going on in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But because it’s witty, and clever, and oh-so-ironic in an enormously postmodern way, it’s all right. It asks searching questions about our perception of the world, and why it matters, and about communication and stories and selfhood, but it does all this without any of that preachy self-absorption Modernist novels tend to have, and with a wonderfully light touch and eye for detail.

It is mostly on the strength of this novel that I have decided that while I thoroughly dislike Modernism in all its pretentious forms, I do like postmodernism. While The Crying of Lot 49 will probably annoy some people – those who like realism, for instance, and those who don’t like Douglas Adams particularly – for me, it was definitely the best novel I’ve read for university this term. And one of the very few of those that I might actually want to read again.

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