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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 746

The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon’s briefest book and the one with the least complicated plot, although it contains plenty of twists and turns. Oedipa Maas, a bored California housewife, is informed that she is the executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a former lover. Oedipa is plunged...

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The Crying of Lot 49 is Pynchon’s briefest book and the one with the least complicated plot, although it contains plenty of twists and turns. Oedipa Maas, a bored California housewife, is informed that she is the executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, a former lover. Oedipa is plunged into an increasingly complicated and increasingly sinister search for the estate, which becomes a search for meaning.

Oedipa uncovers what seems to be a vast underground conspiracy with ancient origins. Its present manifestation is an illegal communications system whose origins go back to the Middle Ages, when the private European postal service operated by Thurn and Taxis (this is historically accurate, as is so much in Pynchon’s work) gained a monopoly on mail delivery in Europe. In the novel, a rival group calling itself Tristero began a bitter and violent attempt to take business away from Thurn and Taxis. Remnants of the subversive group found their way to the New World and tried to subvert the U.S. Postal Service. Their system is called WASTE, which may mean that the alternative system is a waste of time and effort (some of their mail drops are garbage cans), but which may be an acronym and slogan: “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.”

Oedipa first finds the system operating among employees at a Silicon Valley electronics company called Yoyodyne, located in a town called San Narcisco, which, seen from a hill, looks like a printed computer circuit. She follows clues to a housing development in the area, where she is told a story about an American detachment in World War II that was wiped out by Nazis on the shores of an Italian lake. Later she attends a play, “The Courier’s Tragedy,” supposedly written by a contemporary of William Shakespeare, in which a similar massacre took place at the same spot as the climax of an Elizabethan tragedy of revenge. There are suggestions that Tristero was somehow responsible for both events, but Oedipa is unable to track down the original version of the play. The man who staged and acted in it mysteriously dies.

Oedipa’s search continues through encounters with strange people, including a crazy psychiatrist; a scientist who is trying to prove the existence of a puzzle in physics called Maxwell’s Demon, named for the famous British physicist Clark Maxwell; her increasingly deranged husband, Mucho; and a conference of deaf people who dance in perfect rhythm to music they cannot hear. At the end of the novel she is waiting for the opening of a stamp auction (the title, The Crying of Lot 49, refers to the opening of bidding for one item or group of items at an auction) which may reveal the meaning of Tristero, if indeed it has a meaning.

All of this sounds somewhat grim, but like Pynchon’s other works, The Crying of Lot 49 is lightened by the style, by high and low comedy, and by Pynchon’s verbal gymnastics. The characters’ names include Mike Fallopian, Stanley Koteks, Randolph Driblette, Bloody Chiclitz, and Arnold Snarb, among many others. There is a rock group calling themselves the Paranoids, who imitate the Beatles in every possible way. There is a law firm called Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus. The canned music in Oedipa’s local supermarket plays a nonexistent Vivaldi Kazoo Concerto, performed by the Fort Wayne Settecento Ensemble (also nonexistent). “The Courier’s Tragedy,” summarized at considerable length, is an accurate parody of the Elizabethan tragedy of revenge, exemplified by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (pr. c. 1585-1589, pb. 1594?) or by Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1594).

More clearly than V., The Crying of Lot 49 focuses on questions of behavioral psychology and free will. It is never clear to Oedipa whether Pierce Inverarity has really died; she becomes uncomfortably aware that if he has not, all of her investigations may be part of a complicated game in which Inverarity maneuvers her every move. If she is little more than a robot, the possibility exists that American culture has eliminated most possibilities for diversity. If Tristero exists (and even this is never certain), it may be only a feeble final protest against a society that is as carefully organized as a computer chip. It is also possible that Oedipa is hallucinating the whole thing. Yet there is the chance that a genuine resistance to an overly controlled society is really functioning. The Crying of Lot 49 raises these issues but leaves them unresolved.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

At first reading, The Crying of Lot 49 is a surrealistic portrayal of life in America in the 1960’s—a time of self-doubt, frustration, and alienation. Scenes of California life-styles and of characters such as Dr. Hilarius, Oedipa’s psychotherapist who is himself mad, combine with such surrealistic details as human bones being used to decorate the bottom of swimming pools and the inane plots of old films which Oedipa and her lawyer and would-be seducer, Metzger, watch on television.

Such satiric elements fuse elegantly with the novel’s plot—a mystery story centering on Oedipa’s attempt to sort out all the details involved in the will of her late former lover, California real-estate mogul Pierce Inverarity. As coexecutrix of his estate, Oedipa finds herself journeying through several California cities in an attempt to discover the full implications of Inverarity’s bequest. Though dead, Inverarity is the controlling force of the action. His own name, for example, suggests the nature of the action on which Oedipa embarks. The root “vera” denotes “truth” or “certainty,” and the meaning of “Pierce” is obvious. Oedipa must pierce the truth, or, indeed, pierce the untruth. She must, in any case, come to certainty, clear up the mystery of his bequest.

The most mysterious aspect of Inverarity’s will seems to be the mogul’s involvement in Tristero, a secret, underground communication system which refuses to use the United States mail and which relies on its own franking mark, the post horn. After taking leave of her husband, Mucho, a used-car salesman besieged by guilt about his profession, Oedipa strikes out by car, visiting first San Narcisco, a fictional locale whose name suggests the self-love and introspective narcissism of a whole generation during the 1960’s. Here Oedipa spends the night in a motel room with Metzger, drinking and watching old films on television. Metzger tries to seduce her, but she eludes him by dressing in several layers of clothing so that Metzger quickly gets bored and fatigued in trying to remove them all.

The scene is comically symbolic, for soon afterward Metzger drops out of the action, unable to continue “unravelling” the layers of mystery behind Inverarity. Oedipa continues her journey alone. She has not given in to the narcissism of the body, and in subsequent scenes she repudiates as well the mind-distorting drugs of those whom she meets during her travels.

Her quest takes her at last to San Francisco, where she becomes obsessed with finding the truth. In the key scene of the novel, Oedipa walks the streets at night, seeing, or imagining she is seeing—for Pynchon is purposely ambiguous here—the post horn symbol of Tristero inscribed everywhere in the city, like some wild or passionate graffito. As insignia it is worn by scores of people, particularly by the sick, the poor, and the dispossessed. The scene is hallucinogenic, suggesting the drug culture of 1960’s San Francisco and paralleling Oedipa’s quest for an almost hallucinatory symbol.

The meaning of it all, the solution to the mystery, finally eludes her. By novel’s end, Oedipa’s quest has taken her to an auction where Tristero’s post horn stamp is to be sold in a collection. Here she waits impatiently for the auctioneer to “cry,” that is, to sell, the collection, cataloged as lot #49.

The seemingly inconclusive ending in which Oedipa is still awaiting the auction to begin suggests a deeper reading. Aside from the obvious satire on California and on American cultural totems, the book is really a novel of ideas. The plot, for example, seems to parody itself: The mystery story style, the concise, swiftly moving narrative, both serve as foils to a more profound, philosophical meaning. Oedipa’s search for the truth is not merely physical, as in a mystery story, but metaphysical, as in a Platonic dialogue. Her groping toward a solution can be viewed as a symbolic presentation of a human being’s search for the ultimate reality. Does Tristero really exist? Oedipa acts existentially—that is, as if it does.

Even while pursuing Tristero, Oedipa is plagued by uncertainty, haunted by doubt, by what she calls her “paranoia.” That Tristero is an order whose essential purpose is communication and yet whose existence is at least covert and at most problematic gives the novel its philosophical tension. Meaning in Oedipa’s life is not possible without Tristero, yet Tristero’s own existence is in doubt. Tristero as a communication system, real or imaginary, has become somehow problematic. Oedipa and all the minor characters are unable to communicate; they are alone, isolated, wandering in their own private night-towns in search of meaning, compassion, and love.

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