One of the best bits about going on holiday is the long, agonising process of deciding what books to bring. Amongst the numerous criteria in this procedure, a critical decider (for the Kindle-refusenik at least) is portability.
It so happened this year that the book that several people have recommended to me is an old classic, and less than 150 pages long – certainly easier to bring to the beach than Middlemarch.
If you’ve never read Thomas Pynchon, The crying of lot 49 is the place to start; if you have, it’s the book to come back to. It’s short, funny, immersed in ‘60s hipness, and populated by characters with spectacular names.
Amidst its wisecracks and baroque twists and turns, it deals pithily but profoundly with our search for meaning and truth.
The plot, briefly, is this. Oedipa Maas is chosen as executor of Pierce Inverarity’s will after he dies. Oedipa is Pierce’s former lover, and as she peels away the layers of his estate, she uncovers a series of incidents which seem to be linked to an underground postal service called the Trystero.
Inverarity leaves behind a stamp collection of counterfeits printed by the same postal service; Oedipa sees a drawing of a muted trumpet scrawled on a toilet wall; she learns that Inverarity paid a man to excavate human bones to make charcoal for cigarette filters; she goes to the theatre to see a Jacobean tragedy which also alludes to the excavation of bones and mentions the word Trystero; the director, Randolph Driblette, commits suicide shortly afterwards. She sees that logo – the muted trumpet – on an office worker’s doodle, a children’s game, a sailor’s tattoo. Everywhere she looks, there is Trystero, there is the trumpet, Trystero, trumpet, Trystero, trumpet.
Caught up in the middle of this intriguing web, Oedipa is unsure whether the Trystero really does exist or whether it is an elaborate hoax created by Iverarity to trick her. She wants to believe in it, she searches for somebody who will verify its existence; and yet, with increasing paranoia, she feels it stalking her like a nightmare. The Trystero is at the same time not-enough and too-much.
This is the dilemma, familiar to many of us, that The crying of lot 49 addresses so brilliantly. We are all confronted at some stage by the question of what it means to live, how to make sense of life, where we might find the thing (person, god or idea) who will guarantee our meaning. But there is always a risk that, in searching for the answer, we come too close to finding it – and lose ourselves in the process.
Facing up to her horrible dilemma, Oedipa concludes she has four choices: “she may fall back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry a disc jockey”. At the risk of reducing this to a credo, aren’t these the options open to all of us – believing in something, committing to something, breaking down, or accepting one’s lot? Each has its pros, each its cons.
Like the subjects of a painting Oedipa loves, perhaps each is a way of embroidering a kind of tapestry, a way of “seeking helplessly to fill the void”. If so, we may indeed be helpless, but it is the helplessness that each of us faces which fashions our own unique, creative weaving of meaning.