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 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...
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