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329 of 340 people found the following review helpful
on August 10, 2001
Conspiracy buffs, look no further than "The Crying of Lot 49" -- a book that indulges in paranoia so much, you almost expect to see your own name mentioned somewhere in the text. There is an incredible amount of narrative inventiveness on every page, employing a wild concoction of dry humor, non sequiturs, bizarre characters with puns for names, and an endless barrage of references to a wide variety of pop culture, science, and technology. This is the first novel I've read that has introduced the concept of entropy as a narrative device.
The protagonist is a woman named Oedipa Maas who, when the novel begins, learns that her former boyfriend, the wealthy Pierce Inverarity, has died and designated her to be the executor of his enormous estate. Inverarity's assets include vast stretches of property, a significant stamp collection, and many shares in an aerospace corporation called Yoyodyne. As Oedipa goes through her late boyfriend's will, aided by a lawyer named Metzger who works for Inverarity's law firm, she learns about a series of secret societies and strange groups of people involved in a sort of renegade postal system called Tristero. She starts seeing ubiquitous cryptic diagrams of a simple horn, a symbol with a seemingly infinite number of meanings. Every clue she uncovers about Tristero and the horn leads haphazardly to another, like a brainstorm, or a free association of ideas.
This is a novel that demands analysis but defies explanation. My initial interpretation was that it's an anarchistic satire of the military-industrial-government complex, but it's deeper than that. Like Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire," it establishes a very complicated relationship between the author and the reader, where Pynchon seems to be tricking the reader in the same way that Oedipa is unsure if she is witnessing a worldwide conspiracy or if she is merely the victim of an elaborate prank. By presenting Oedipa's investigation to be either circular, aimless, or inconsequential, the novel seems to satirize the efforts of people who try to find order in the universe. Pynchon uses the concept of entropy to illustrate that the more effort (physical and mental) we put into controlling the universe, the more random it becomes.
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119 of 126 people found the following review helpful
on May 16, 2000
For no particular reason, I've avoided reading Pynchon novels but finally decided to take the plunge with this book. I was not disappointed.
I thought it was great. Really great, actually. His writing style strikes me as very similar to a number of his contemporaries (Robert Stone, DeLillo, etc.). The central riddle of the book and the mixing of obscure historical fact and fiction reminded me strongly of authors like Borges.
With regard to some of the negative reviews below I would say the following:
1. I consider myself a pretty typical reader and I did not find this to be a particularly challenging book to read, although Pynchon's style (punctuation-sparse and prone to occasional lapses into heavy factual detail) takes some getting used to.
2. This is not a "neat" story in the conventional sense. There isn't a tidy conclusion to the story and there isn't a "typical" character development arc. But so what? I don't think either of those things are a necessary requirement to good fiction.
The deliberately silly-sounding character names should be the first clue that Pynchon does not intend this to be a conventional work of fiction. It isn't. But that doesn't mean it's not a great book.
The book is clever, well-written, and confounding with its plot twists and turns. That's what made it a fascinating read and that's also what makes it the kind of book that I think I could read over and over again and not get bored. I think I'll always find something new that I didn't see before.
Isn't that what makes a book enjoyable to read in the first place?
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107 of 116 people found the following review helpful
on November 25, 2000
Okay it's not his best novel (that'd be Gravity's Rainbow) and it's not his worst novel (that'd be Vineland, which is still darn good, actually) but it is his shortest novel, so if you could say one definite thing about it, that might be it. The length is actually a good thing because is an easy book to hook people on Pynchon by giving them something short and say "Hey look he's great!". Because this is classic Pynchon, as good as anything he's ever done, a great big step forward from V. In these one hundred and eighty pages he manages to cram more prose and ideas and paranoia (because it wouldn't be a Pynchon book otherwise) than most authors can do in twice the space. Simply put, it's a fun book, and for all the trappings of "post-modernism" you can easily enjoy this book without camping out in your local library near the reference section if you just take everything on faith and read it. The story concerns Ms Oedipa Maas, who is executing the will of her late boyfriend and stumbles upon (she thinks) a conspiracy involving either the US Postal System, the Mob and just about everything else, a conspiracy that might stretch back hundreds of years. Or it might not. Pynchon proceeds then to play with Ms. Maas and the reader for the rest of the novel, throwing out obscure fact after obscure fact, toying with her perception of things (are things just happening randonly or is there a guiding force behind them?) and basically having a crackling good time doing so. His prose still consists of long winding sentences with a bit too much detail (it's a postmodern trademark to describe every single item on a desk at least once during the story) at times but the jokes are still funny thirty years later, the story is still good and frankly if you look past the fact that the story doesn't have a neat and pat ending then you'll probably enjoy this very much. Some folks find Pynchon too silly at times, but I think taking anything too seriously is bad and especially literature, where there's so much potential for humor. This is a good example of how you can write a serious, timeless piece of literature and still have the ability to make folks outloud. Remember, Joyce liked fart jokes. Keep that in mind.
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34 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on February 1, 2003
Thomas Pynchon - The Crying of Lot 49
It says something about Thomas Pynchon that "The Crying of Lot 49", by all reports a straightforward book, is, by Pynchonian standards, an oddity. For a writer who has built a reputation on constructing labyrinthine tomes that endlessly branch off for pages and pages until the reader wearily abandons any attempt at deciphering a plot, "Lot 49" is, well, linear. By far the most accessible of Pynchon's works "The Crying of Lot 49" is also probably his most concentrated. So short that it is often referred to as novella, "Lot 49" manages to get at Pynchon's BIG IDEAS and even contain some of his delightfully controlled chaos.
It is the story of Oedipa Maas, summoned to California's San Narcisco to fulfill a duty to left her by some shady inheritance, namely to oversee the execution of a rather large estate left by the newly deceased Pierce Inverarity. Immediately Oedipa finds herself overwhelmed by the size and complexity of Inverarity's estate, and hopelessly imagines that she will never get Inverarity's affairs straightneed out. No sooner does she lose hope than Oedipa meets an odd man who seems to have some ideas to help her. As the two look into the estate, coincidence after coincidence piles up until Oedipa finds herself enmeshed in what may or may not be a global conspiracy where almost every person, place and thing she meets up with can, given enough time, be plausibly fit.
The central question to this story, does the conspiracy exist or is Oedipa making it all up, is a metaphor which Pynchon pursues over many divergent paths, each leading to a different idea. On one level, Oedipa's quest is a microcosm of each of our own lives: using the available information she (an we) creates a story about the way things really are and continually tests and refines it. That Oedipa finds substantial clues in the oddest and most coincidental places is part of the mystery: is it really that life is so capricious that random encounters can have profound impacts, or is life much more banal, leaving Oedipa to simply imagine connections amidst a sea of information?
On another level, Pynchon uses Opedipa's quest to get at the concept of entropy. Pynchon likes to apply terms and ideas from the realm of physics to psychological and sociological phenomena, and his invocation of entropy may be the most famous instance of this. Just as in a closed system individual particles will tend toward greater disorder so in Pynchon's universe do the people and information in our society tend toward entropy. Fighting against this decay is Oedipa, who tries to create some order out of the randomness that she encounters. Again we are met with a similar question, do Oedipa's actions counter entropy and point toward some transcendent truth or is she simply fighting an impossible battle and unable to create order in the world?
Once you've accepted that these questions are valid there's nothing to do but follow Pynchon's ideas to their inevitable conclusion: in "Lot 49" there is no truth other than that which we create. In a sense, all of the characters are like Oedipa; although they aren't questing to ferret out a conspiracy, they are attempting to fit everything they come across into some kind of rational framework. And so do we. Cause and effect only exists insofar as we pick out one certain moment to be the cause and once certain moment to be the effect (even though we could have picked out any two points on the chain of causation), things only become important once we say they are. Each of us is at the center of our own self-ordered universe.
But how do we know that the universe is really ours? Every day we are bombarded by thousands of stimuli outside of our control, each of which seeks to order our life for us. Does Oedipa see the conspiracy as she wants to or as the system wants her to? It is here, where Pynchon examines the limits of freedom in modern life that he makes his most substantial points.
Clearly, despite "Lot 49"s brevity, there is a lot at stake, and in its own way this fact makes the book appealing. Lacking the heft of Pynchon's tomes (notably V. and Gravity's Rainbow) "Lot 49" is pure, distilled Pynchon. This means that if you read "Lot 49" you don't exactly get the Pynchon experience, but you also don't have to wade through miles and miles of intricate, yet beautiful, prose to see what Pynchon is trying to say. As such, think of "Lot 49" as an introduction. If you like what you see, then acquire another Pynchon book and read on. If you don't like it, then perhaps Pynchon isn't your flavor.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on November 13, 2000
If you've always heard the term postmodern and wondered what it meant this book is for you. But, let me warn you, this book is definately not for everyone, the plot is unique to say the least, and the characters are not what you will find in most novels, but then again, neither is the intellectual stimulation. In little over 100 pages, Thomas Pynchon has written an accessibly managable introduction to postmodern literature. Although this book is rather dense, and is filled with obscure facts and information from seemingly every conceivable specialty of knowledge, it is an enjoyable way to aquaint oneself with one of the most misunderstood genres of modern literature. Just be sure to keep a dictionary, encyclopedia and sourcebook to anarchism handy. The plot revolves around the exciting and often bizarre experiences and wanderings of Oedipa Maas, as she embarks upon a surrealistic journey into the unfamiliar techno-industrial pop culture wasteland of San Narcisco and surrounding counties, after being named executor of an ex-lovers will. In her madcap adventures she uncovers a bizzaire world where everything that she has ever learned crumbles in the face of absurdity and falls into question. It is a world where nazi doctors, secret societies, papal misdeeds, anarchist dreamers, narcicistic ex-child stars, and deranged outcasts all come out of the shadows to invade the "typical" suburban landscape of an average American housewife. This book is concerned with uncovering the realities, or lack thereof, that most people would want to stay hidden, or at the least forgotton. It is about questioning the assumptions that we all hold dear, even if it means coming to terms with a world that is without meaning, without order, and most of all without a coherent design. This is a novel with many questions to be answered, so if you welcome intellectual challenge and desire obscure knowledge this book will certainly not dissappoint. And if you don't quite understand it read it again...
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17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on October 30, 2005
It's California, 1965, and Oedipa Maas, 28, a practical but restless woman married to a small-town DJ, discovers she has been made executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a rich industrialist and her one-time lover. Confused but curious, she travels to San Narciso to carry out her duties. She soon begins to suspect she has stumbled upon a conspiracy - a vast, perhaps global-historical conspiracy that involves Inverarity, his lawyers, the employees of the Yoyodyne Corporation, and maybe even her husband and therapist. Haunted by a sense of impending revelation, Oedipa tries to penetrate the enigma, descending into an underworld of broken, lonely souls, cynical playwrights and mysterious booksellers; a shadowy "alternate America" where coincidences accumulate suspiciously and the postal system takes on a sinister cast. Is it coincidence or conspiracy? Or a giant hoax orchestrated by Inverarity for his posthumous amusement? As the mystery deepens, Oedipa edges perilously close to paranoia... Pynchon's slim volume has the density of a planet. This is the kind of book you will read several times in your life, and still won't exhaust its possibilities. On the most basic level, it can be read as an intellectual thriller. The narrative is consistent, the plot moves along rapidly, and the point of view remains stable. But a reading confined to this surface level does it little justice. Even forty years after publication it's still considered open to interpretation: some critics feel it is ultimately meaningless and impossible to interpret, while others have found it cohesive, and even ethically motivated. (One essay I've read even takes a "scientific" approach to the plot, finding secret meaning in the novel's probing of entropy, thermodynamics and information theory.) All, however, agree that this is a vital work and a postmodern classic. The book's description of signs that appear everywhere suggests two opposite poles that are equally terrifying: everything happens according to some grand system or conspiracy from which we are tantalizingly excluded, or everything happens out of pure chance. That's the semiotic nightmare Oedipa falls into, and it's the one we live in, too. If you like novels that challenge and stimulate your intellect rather than merely entertain, then this one's for you. Dan Brown fans need not apply.
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127 of 152 people found the following review helpful
Thankfully brief, this surreal satire may have been fresh and irreverent some 35 years ago when it was first published, but today it reads as a hyperstylized game of literary three card monte. The book is ostensibly about a woman who has been made executor of a rich former lover's estate, and her attempt to unravel the meaning of an ambiguous set of clues left behind. What this allows is for Pynchon to whisk her into and out of a number of wacky hi-jinks and meetings with post-beatnik weirdoes in an attempt to satirize both humankind's quest for knowledge and meaning, and post 1950s America. This is accomplished with a prose style that is going to either delight or dismay most readers with it's silly wordplay (especially in character names) and grab-bag referencing of physics, Greek tragedies, postal history, drug culture, and much more. I personally found the language tiresome, grating, and insubstantial-like too many Hollywood blockbusters of today, Pynchon is so busy throwing carefully constructed pyrotechnics at the reader that he never provides anything to care about.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on July 6, 2003
The Crying of Lot 49 is an amazingly rich and complex work, especially when you consider its slim, novella-like size. Thomas Pynchon is widely recognized as among the most brilliant of postwar writers, and this is the perfect introduction to his work. It has the themes, the multitude of characters, and the diverse interests of Pynchon's more sprawling tomes, but its size makes it more manageable.
Which is not to say that it is a breeze--in fact, I'm sure I missed things in my first reading that will become more clear the second or third time around. The plot itself is quite complicated, and when you consider the book's brevity, the cast of characters can seem almost Tolstoyan (they tend to walk on and disappear later in an endless stream). Also, Pynchon makes good use of some richly gothic prose equal to anything by the deadly serious Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy--but we can rarely be sure if we should take Pynchon's prose at face value.
The first thing you'll probably notice here is the sheer humor. Just the names of the characters make me laugh: Oedipa and "Mucho" Maas, Dr. Hilarius, "Bloody" Chiclitz, Arnold Snarb. And as usual with Pynchon, you can count on a generous helping of hilarous, sometimes awful, songs. Try the corporate ditties from the Yoyodyne Aerospace company. This book had me practically rolling on the floor again and again.
The story centers on Oedipa Maas, the very likeable young woman saddled with the unfortunate task of executing the estate of Pierce Inverarity, her former lover. As she attempts to get his affairs in order, she becomes increasingly entangled in what may or may not be a worldwide conspiracy called the Tristero (also spelled Trystero). This conspiracy evidently began as a sort of terrorist group opposed to the mail-carrying family Thurn und Taxis, who really did have a monopoly of postal services in Europe for many decades. Thurn und Taxis are represented by the symbol of a post-horn, so Tristero chose a muted post-horn as its sign.
All this is meticulously researched by Pynchon, who's interests and reading experience seems to be endless. We get accurate information here about entropy and the perpetual-motion concept of Maxwell's Demon, the Thurn und Taxis family, Elizabethan Drama--too much to list here. Speaking of Elizabethan drama, Pynchon also includes the best parody of a revenge play ever written.
There is much more than knockabout humor here. The dreamlike night scene in San Francisco, when Oedipa keeps seeing the muted post horn again and again, is richly evocative, the scene in which Oedipa comforts the old man in his apartment is surprisingly touching, and near the end Pynchon gives us some eloquent philosophizing, but without interrupting the novel's flow. These scenes stick in the mind as much as the hilarous comedy parts with Metzger, the rock band The Paranoids, and the ex-Nazi psychiatrist Dr. Hilarius.
I wouldn't ever give away the ending, but be forewarned that it is enigmatic. If you want Dickensian wrap-up, don't touch this with a 30-foot pole. But it's not just the ending that's open: critics tend to agree that one of the major characteristics of Lot 49 is interpretive openness throughout--almost any event can be read in more than one way. Most salient is the question (raised by Pynchon himself) of whether the Tristero is real, a practical joke, or just in Oedipa's mind. This uncertainty is what fuels the claustrophobic paranoia in the book--a Pynchon trademark.
Other things are left unclear as well. For instance, what does Pierce Inverarity have to do with the plot? The Tristero seems inextricably tied in with him, and his last name, as at least one critic has pointed out, seems to suggest untruth. Pynchon leaves open the possiblity that the Tristero is simply the posthumous masterpiece of the jokester Inverarity. Another possiblity, mentioned by Harold Bloom, (though he doesn't agree with it) is that "lot 49" is related to 49 days after Passover--in other words, Pentecost is just around the corner. Pentecostalism is mentioned by one of the characters in the parodistic play, so we have yet another interpretation on our hands.
I'm pretty certain Pynchon intends for us to be mystified by all this, and that he doesn't know himself whether the Tristero is real or "what happens" after the end of the book. Extrapolating this mystification to the whole universe is an easy step to take, and clearly embodies Postmodern thought-- a system which has essentially given up the search for truth and assumes that, though many hypotheses can be proposed, the universe is ultimately inscrutable. Though I disagree with Pynchon's conclusions, they are very well-written conclusions. I couldn't accept the philosophical secion near the end, but I enjoyed reading it. I also enjoyed the ending very much after I got over its bizarreness, and it's strangely effective, even infuriatingly delightful.
I'm annoyed by the fact that books are never reviewed for content the way movies are, so I'll briefly mention that here. This book is pretty much fine for high schoolers, with hardly any language and just a bit of sex--about one page. It's refreshing to see a living writer give us an effective book without the gratuitous vulgarity which characterizes so much modern literature.
In short, if you're looking for a piece of fiction a cut above the fluff which comprises 99% of current publications, read The Crying of Lot 49, and don't let the gothic prose daunt you. It'll have you in stitches, and make you think hard about some philosophical questions too.
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68 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on June 17, 1999
For God's sake--- why do so many people write these idiotic reviews, these reviews that are nothing so much as confessions of stupidity? Why do people believe that the primary aim of all art, even that of fictive prose, is absolute simplistic clarity? These are the same chuckleheads who fail to understand impressionism and cubism; they are the people who fail to recognize that distortions of photographic reality (or the use of abstract, metaphor-laden prose with poetic, rather than simple reportorial, qualities) are attempts to reveal a hidden truth or an occult sensation, something intangible lurking beneath the surface of the hubbub that constitutes our everyday lives. "Guernica" strives to convey the absolute chaos and horror of war, something of the mental distortion endured by those unlucky enough to fight; "The Scream" tries to convey the sense of terror that resides the very nature of being, a sense only perceived by the introspective and the sensitive; and "The Crying of Lot 49" dissects the effects of sixties culture, and its cultural precedents, on the bare skeleton of America. It uses metaphor to make sense of the welter of confused action that is American life (read: it does not strive to obfuscate it). None of these masterworks fail simply because they refuse to be obvious. There is a place for the realism of Michelangelo and the journalistic minimalism of Hemingway, but artistic expression should not, is not, and cannot be confined to those styles that lend themselves to easiest comprehension. Some art reaches for wispier, more difficult ideas, and demands that we, the readers and viewers, make the effort required to understand.
Reading is like weightlifting. It is a skill. It requires repetition and practice. One must read incessantly and carefully to become a good practitioner of the art.
One should not skip anything, not so much as a single ambiguous phrase, not so much as a single word that falls outside one's vernacular. One should strive to ascertain the primary meaning of every word of a given text and as many secondary meanings as possible as well. And one must never expect that educated and erudite and soulful being, that being that John Milton called a "master spirit"--- the writer--- to dumb his prose down for easy consumption by dim-witted orangutans. Thomas Pynchon is not to blame for the fact that you know nothing of history, culture, literature, and so forth. Yet people blame him, and Shakespeare and Dante and Baudrillard and everyone else, rather than themselves and their TV-addled ignorance. For shame! There is more at stake here than the dignity of great writers themselves; there is more at stake here than the possibility that Thomas Pynchon might have to endure reading one of these asinine reviews and wind up asking himself, "Am I just throwing pearls before swine?" No, the matter is graver than that: potential readers are also victims. They read some numbskull's pronunciamento that Pynchon's book is a "great idea" with--- I can barely repeat it--- "flawed prose" (all the while writing in a terrible prose style himself, this astute reader, employing that stilted language of imbecility that everyone can easily understand), and think to themselves, "Humph. I guess it's not so good." And then these misled readers will buy John Grisham instead, whose work the fans of facile clarity and structural simplicity have awarded numerous five-star reviews. Literacy in America is limping toward death. The confederacy of dunces is on the verge of conquering the last bastions of a proud intellectual tradition. Wake up, America. Man cannot live on "Gilligan's Island" and "The Firm" alone--- unless he wishes to celebrate the millennium by returning to the trees.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
Whether a fact is discovered because it is unsettling, out of place, or merely noticed at random, that fact, when investigated, can sometimes reveal a whole alternative reality. Such was the experience of Oedipa Maas when she found, among obscene bathroom graffiti, a symbol of a muted bugle accompanied with a question, "Interested in some sophisticated fun?" This begins a bizarre, hallucination-like, Da-Vince-Code-resembling quest to understand this symbol, and the motives of a past lover, whom now she is assigned as co-executor of his will. This quest will reach back through the textual disputes of a Jacobean revenge play, to the renaissance ages in the low lands of Europe, to San Francisco and back again to a mythical suburb of Los Angeles, called San Narciso. Connecting these places and eras is an underground postal service created as an attempt to usurp one of Europe's ancient thrones by controlling its means of communication. Maas herself will ponder this conspiracy, finding it "so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond just a practical joke" Yet she also entertains the possibility that she is "fantasying some such plot, in which case [she is] a nut...out of [her] skull." What explains such an outrageous plot?

This novel shoots off metaphors in every direction, (or is it all one big metaphor?) and a great deal of the mental energy one spends with it will certainly lay in trying to answer the question "So what does it all mean?" Surely Pynchon did not sit down merely to write a nice story about an ancient underground postal service that now caters to San Francisco's social misfits and outcasts. So what DOES it all mean? Paradoxically, the themes of disconnectedness and entrapment play heavily. In the first chapter, Oedipa reflects:

"What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all..... If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else?"

Pynchon suggests that this tower is particularly modern, and he even hints that it is particularly American. By the end of the novel, she has an idea of the tower, it is "a great digital computer, the zeros and ones twinned above, hanging like balanced mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless." Her anxiety is an experience of vertigo before the virtual noise and bottomless web of modernity. It is that noise that cuts her off from her husband, and from meaning in general. What should be one line of communication, one postal service, has split into two: an official, government sponsored (and imposed) line and an underground line. We can certainly sense political dimension to Oedipda's predicament, but it is not only political. It reaches through all of experience, it is the foundation of San Narciso and is her tower. She despairs that a nation could "allow" such a town as San Narsico. Pierce Inverarity, Oedipda's former love, owned San Narciso, and the legacy that he passes to Oedipa, "was America."

With some thought, some piecing together of his clues, we can come closer to an understanding of this novel, but we can never be quite sure. There are layers of parallel stories (Oedipa, the Couriers tragedy, the Gallipoli film), where people are on a hunt to piece together a cohesive narrative, that may or may not exist. Even as the novel conludes, the extent and nature of this postal service, the Truth, is not revealed. Who is the secret man who bids on Lot 49? Is our pursuit just another layer to the novel's game? Have we involved ourselves in yet another indecipherable web, that web that is called "The Crying of Lot 49"? Is it a metaphor for modernity or a layer of modernity?

Yet, all of this remains a purely intellectual enterprise. Shouldn't the novel (or, The Novel) involve joy as well at the mind? Unless one takes pleasure in a literary rubix cube, I would not call this a satisfying book. Once you delve into the puzzle of this novel, one is rewarded with the stock themes of post-modernism: disconnectedness, entrapment, endless webs of white noise, meaninglessness, anxiety, reflections on The Word, the metaphor, and their respective levels of inadequacy. At some point it has to be interesting for its own sake. If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, the proof of a novel in in the reading. Call me sentimental, call me a philistine, but pass me the Dickens!
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