If God does not exist, writes Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Possessed, then everything is permitted. And if everything is permitted, then nothing is illegal, a perfect scenario for the suburban California of Thomas Pynchon’s worst nightmares.
Take San Narciso—Saint Narcissus, that is—which lies somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles atop buried farmland and countless skeletons. “Like many named places in California,” writes Pynchon in The Crying of Lot 49, published in 1966, midway through the 1960s but early and pivotal in the ’60s, “it was less an identifiable city than a group of concepts—census tracts, special purpose bond-issue districts, shopping nuclei, all overlaid with access roads to its own freeway.”
That freeway doesn’t lead much of anywhere, but plenty of oddball things happen in San Narciso all the same. Unassuming, sun-blasted, the city is the epicenter of a centuries-old struggle between two rival mail services. Down the road is the headquarters of another corporate giant: “High above the L.A. freeways,” runs the company song, “And the traffic’s whine / Stands the well-known Galactronics / Branch of Yoyodyne.” Yoyodyne, whose name later turns up in another sci-fi–ish bit of Californiana, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, seeks its fortunes in the stars, while some of the lesser characters in the novel seek their fortune as stars—pop stars, that is, singing pimply songs in faux British Invasion accents, spurred along by a used car salesman–turned–DJ with the redolent, goofily Pynchon-esque name of Mucho Maas.
God may not be in evidence and everything might be permitted, but the people of San Narciso seek God all the same, some in the surf and the pine trees, others in misprinted postage stamps, others in the LSD that is then still legal. Mucho enjoys a good trip himself. His wife, Oedipa, is a little more straight-laced, but as the novel opens and she finds herself on the threshold of a very strange conspiracy, she of the deeply suggestive name finds the walls of her reality melting down all around her.
It doesn’t help that her psychiatrist once plied his trade as a concentration-camp doctor or that certain people in San Narciso are scooping up copies of a Restoration play because it contains clues as to that very conspiracy or that, as the novel winds amiably along its short course, she falls in with a fellow who believes he has conquered entropy: it’s a weird scene, and it gets weirder as Oedipa finds herself at a postage-stamp auction where an object of unhealthy desire is going up for sale, being cried, as the auctioneers would have it, as part of a lot whose number we now all know.
Pynchon revisited the unsettlingly paranoiac territory of The Crying of Lot 49, his second novel, in Inherent Vice, published 43 years later. The novel’s labyrinthine plot and obsessions with World War II, unintended-consequence technology, and the dangers of conformity are the stuff of Gravity’s Rainbow, which soon followed Crying. Everywhere, the swirl of weird words and lysergic images is trademark Pynchon. Fifty years on, it’s still a trip.Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor.