Life's what you make it

The Crying of Lot 49

Oedipa Maas is executor of her ex-lover's will, only she's stumbled upon a centuries-old conspiracy, only in doing so she might actually be following the unwritten desires of dead Pierce Inverarity after all. Her life-sick husband accepts all with passivity while her new lover spurs her on. Philatelist Genghis Cohen and ex-Buchenwalder Dr Hilarius give her hints but actor Driblette holds the key, or is it with beatnik Mike Fallopian or even seventeenth century playwright Richard Wharfinger? Behind the real and cardboard scenes, Trystero's network of illegal postal employees waits, bides its time, provides a service for the disaffected dropouts and the suicidal... or does it exist at all?

Frank Kermode, with his usual extremity of reaction (a trait I heartily admire), called Lot 49 "the best American novel I have read since the war". Such Leavisite evangelism suggests he's been neglecting a lot of other books. But Lot 49 is undeniably powerful, powerful with that graceful ease and poise that ballet dancers spend a lifetime perfecting. The dizzying car-crash of verbal gags, sinister happenings and bizarre all-American characters do suggest that somewhere in this rich fruit-cake mess is hidden the Great American Shilling.

It's gorgeous to read, once the emetic splurge of the first chapter has settled down into a relaxed, swinging stride of dialogue to rival DeLillo, streams of consciousness and event that would raise an Irish eyebrow or two, and significations that Eco would kill for. And all the ideas and events in Lot 49 are so loosely, casually tied together that almost any (re)interpretation can be laid over them. Look on the web and see that everyone's done it: it's a hallucination, it's an allegory of the Nixon era, of McCarthyism, of the Cold War, it's meant to be real, it's a conspiracy against Oedipa, her lover has faked his death and is pulling all the strings....

And the twist is that none of these interpretations matter as much as the novel's polymorphism. The recasting of reality as imaginings and back again is an old trick of such stalwarts as Philip K Dick, but while Dick convolves he also makes apparent the layers he is playing with: only Pynchon can convinces you that maybe he doesn't mean it, or doesn't care, or it's all throwaway, or it's all entirely earnest and pointed and he means it after all. Like the spin of a roulette wheel, where this all stops Pynchon only knows and---reclusive, shy, and probably directing his post through other means---he ain't telling.