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 entire section is 746 words.)