Postwar Classics

“They are stripping from me, she said subvocally — feeling like a fluttering curtain in a very high window, moving up then out over the abyss — they are stripping away, one by one, my men.”

Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49

Both Franny and Zooey and The Crying of Lot 49 have been on my list for a while. Salinger and Pynchon are two of my favorite writers, and since I’ve been having trouble concentrating on longer books, I thought it was the perfect time to read on these two. They’re both reasonable lengths–I read the Salinger in one day and the Pynchon in two–but there’s so much in each of them to think about. 

Franny and Zooey was, honestly, a heavy read. I hadn’t read Salinger since high school, and I forgot how dark his work is. The book opens with Franny Glass being met by her boyfriend at Union Station in New Haven, so they can attend the Yale-Harvard football game that weekend. The setting was familiar to me, as was the character of the boyfriend–he’s a Yale student who thinks he’s the smartest man in any room, and he name-drops Russian novels frequently. It seemed like a Fitzgeraldesque satire of college culture. Then the tone shifts: Franny is not only bored with her boyfriend, she is clearly mentally and physically unwell. The rest of the novel is about her relationship with her family, and one brother in particular, Zooey. The book is very philosophical because the characters are very philosophical. (Franny, Zooey, and their four older siblings were all child prodigies, which makes Franny’s boyfriend’s condescension even more ridiculous.) I think the strength of this book is in Salinger’s description. The second half of the novel takes place in the Glass family’s apartment, and as the characters moved from the bathroom to the living room to the bedrooms, I could see every room so clearly. The domestic drama of this book is compelling. The characters are recognizable and believable; they fight and make up like real siblings, and by the end, I wished I could spend more time with them. This book is also satisfying to read if you’ve read Salinger’s Nine Stories, as some of Franny and Zooey’s older siblings are characters in those stories.

The Crying of Lot 49 is about as strange as most of Pynchon’s books. I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow, Inherent Vice, and Mason & Dixon, and I absolutely loved both of them. What impressed me about The Crying of Lot 49 was that Pynchon managed to create as complex a world as exists in his longer novels, in a book less than 150 pages long. I don’t want to reveal too much of the novel (the conspiracies are fascinating), but the protagonist of The Crying of Lot 49 is Oedipa Maas, a woman and housewife in her late 20s. At the beginning of the novel, she finds out that her last serious boyfriend, a millionaire named Pierce Inverarity, has passed away and made her executrix of his will. If you’ve read Inherent Vice, this book has a similar vibe: it’s set in and around Southern California, and involves a protagonist who wants to unearth a deep-set conspiracy. Oedipa is a more reliable narrator than Doc Sportello, though. She grounds this novel through each of its classically-Pynchon stops (a motel run by the lead singer in a Beatles cover band, an abandoned amusement park, a used bookstore, and right-wing costume store) because she’s as agitated as any of us would be in the same situation. All she wants is to discover the truth, but as her search becomes more complicated, the people who help her fall to harm and she must decide if it’s worth pursuing at all. I highly recommend this book. Reading a famous writer’s first book can go a couple of ways–sometimes it’s very clear that they haven’t hit their stride yet. This book doesn’t feel like a first novel, though. It has all of Pynchon’s perfectly written trippiness and humor, and the plot is genuinely exciting.

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