(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 778 words.)