British Association for American Studies


BAAS 2023 Panel Review: 8C-The Clinging of Lot 49: Perspectives on Pynchon’s Persistence

Reviewed by: Valentina López Liendo

Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (1965 1st ed. cover), Heritage Auctions via Wikimedia Commons.

Chaired by Dr James Baxter, a postdoctoral fellow at Trinity College Dublin, the panel ‘The Clinging of Lot 49: Perspectives on Pynchon’s Persistance’ explored the many ways in which Pynchon’s now hyper-canonical novel of 1966 resonates with contemporary American culture. The Crying of Lot 49 follows Oedipa Maas, a young Californian housewife called upon to execute the will of her former lover, a task which leads her to unravel a century-old conspiracy tied to an underground postal system, the Tristero. In typical postmodern fashion, the novel’s open end leaves readers to determine whether Oedipa’s sleuthing has led her to the cusp of a grand revelation, or whether she has slowly descended into paranoia. The three panellists explored different aspects of The Crying of Lot 49 and its afterlives, demonstrating the exciting range of current scholarship on the novel.

Hanne Nijtmans, a PhD candidate at Groningen University, opened the panel with her paper on ‘Oedipa Maas’ Legacy: Paranoid Subjectivity in American Podcasting’. Nijtman’s presentation illustrated the afterlives of Pynchon’s novel in popular culture via the paranoid female subject in the medium of the podcast. With reference to the cultural turn in paranoia studies, Nijtmans’ work highlighted paranoia as a narrative force within The Crying of Lot 49 and various contemporary horror and thriller fiction podcasts, including Homecoming, Archive 81, and Limetown, which she read as re-mediations of Pynchon’s highly influential novel. Most strikingly, Nijtmans’ paper illustrated the gendered nature of paranoia, in response to Sianne Ngai’s argument that paranoia is a ‘distinctly male form of knowledge production’. [1]

Margot Kidder in a still from the trailer for the psychological horror film Sisters (1972), American International Pictures via Wikimedia Commons

Nijtmans argued that investigative female characters are at a higher risk of being dismissed as hysterical. Their paranoia, however, might move female characters to disregard societal expectations regarding career and family, thus having a disruptive effect. Such is the case, Nijtmans argued, for Heidi, the protagonist of Homecoming who gradually uncovers that the experimentational military program she works for as a caseworker aims to prepare her traumatised veteran patients for redeployment, rather than rehabilitation. In the course of the podcast, Heidi rejects her role within the security state, increasingly inhabiting the role of a paranoid investigator, as Nijtmans showed. Nijtmans paper thus spoke to the multifaceted legacy of Pynchon’s novel, highlighting how the medium of podcasts re-imagines and re-contextualizes paranoid women within the contemporary.

The next paper turned to the panel’s original text as Max McKenna, a PhD candidate at Freie Universität Berlin, presented his work on ‘Interstate Postmodernism: Superhighway Subjects in The Crying of Lot 49’. McKenna’s presentation conceptualized postmodernism through the lens of infrastructure, particularly centring the high-speed roads built in the context of the Cold War, i.e. freeways or interstates, and the discursive apparatus compounding this government effort. With reference to Cotton Seiler’s theoretical work that situates driving as a constitutive force of post-war American subjectivity, McKenna presented a reading of Pynchon’s classic novel while situating it within historical discourses of automobility. [2] His analysis focused on the high-speed roads available to owners of private cars, such as freeways or interstates, which McKenna termed ‘superhighways’. Centring these superhighways in his analysis of The Crying of Lot 49, McKenna presented a new perspective on the well-known passage in which Oedipa overlooks the fictional city San Narciso from the side of the interstate. As McKenna showed, Oedipa is deeply attuned to these high-speed roads. They structure her perception of the spaces she moves through and condition the very same mobility they grant, ultimately forming the very basis for a distinct form of post-war subjectivity, as this paper argued. Notably, McKenna demonstrated how Oedipa’s attunement to the freeway undergirds her perception of space, shedding new light on The Crying of Lot 49 as part of a discursive apparatus on superhighways.

Interstate 10 Under Construction at SR 11 in California, ca. 1960, Los Angeles Examiner via Wikimedia Commons.

Kai Hopen, a PhD candidate at the University of Groningen, presented panel 8C’s final paper, entitled ‘Shall I Stop Him?’: The Endurance of Literary Liberalism from The Crying of Lot 49 to Percival Everett’s The Trees. Hopen read Everett’s novel as a literary successor to The Crying of Lot 49, highlighting the contemporary legacies of Pynchon’s text in literary fiction. While Pynchon’s novel centres Oedipa’s uncovering of the Tristero system, Everett’s The Trees, published in 2021, follows two Black detectives in present-day Money, Mississippi as they investigate a series of gruesome murders connected to the 1955 lynching of the fourteen-year-old Emmet Till. Notably, both authors parody their readership: Pynchon, as David Bennet has argued, satirises a postmodern reader’s conceptualization of ‘history and social reality […] [as] textual’ through the figure of Oedipa Maas. [3] In contrast, Hopen suggested that Everett parodies a New Sincerity readership, i.e. a readership which has turned away from postmodern irony and towards a trusting relationship with the author. Hopen noted that The Trees lacks a central character who functions as the reader within the text; rather, the narrator moves through the plot relentlessly, leaving readers breathless. The Trees culminates as victims of lynchings return to life to avenge their deaths. Its final line asks whether to stop a character from typing their names, a practice harking back to the Black Lives Matter movement and linked to the uprising within the novel. Hopen argued that this is a question directed at the reader, one that positions the novels’ readers outside the uprising, drawing attention towards the ultimately conservative tendencies of even New Sincerity literary readership. By reading The Trees with reference to The Crying of Lot 49, Hopen teased out the reverberations of Pynchon’s novel at our current cultural moment.

Chalk Writing for the #SayTheirNames Campaign in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Rhododendrites via Wikimedia Commons.

Taken together, these three papers illustrated the multifaceted legacies of The Crying of Lot 49. Taking an interest in Oedipa Maas as a starting point, each paper respectively envisioned Oedipa as a paranoid subject (Nijtmans), a superhighway subject (McKenna), and a postmodern reader (Hopen). The panel closed with a vivid discussion that touched upon a variety of subjects, including the gendered aspect of hysteria, infrastructure and the Tristero system in The Crying of Lot 49, and paranoid modes of reading in the works discussed. As noted above, each paper explored a different aspect of ‘The Crying of Lot 49’, attesting to the richness of emerging research on the subject.

[1] Ngai, Sianne. Ugly Feelings. Harvard University Press, 2005, p. 299.

[2] Seiler, Cotten. Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

[3] Bennett, David. “Parody, Postmodernism, and the Politics of Reading.” Critical Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 4, 1985, pp. 27–43, p. 36.