The Crying of Lot 49 | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 | Chapter 1 | Summary



Arriving at her Southern California home, Oedipa Maas learns she has been chosen as the executor of her ex-boyfriend's will. Pierce Inverarity was a businessman with "assets numerous and tangled enough to make ... sorting it all out more than honorary." Oedipa remembers her last call with Pierce the year before, in which he had done so many impressions and accents that her husband Wendell "Mucho" Maas had told her to hang up on him. Pierce had then suggested Mucho would be visited by "The Shadow" and had fallen silent. Oedipa now wonders if he had called to tell her about naming her executor.

She and Mucho talk about their day, discussing the letter from the lawyers and his workday at the radio station where he works as a disc jockey. Mucho prefers the station to his previous job at the used car lot, where the detritus of people's lives left behind in their cars could look like a "salad of despair." Mucho tells Oedipa to contact their lawyer, Roseman, because he cannot help her with the will.

Late that night her psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius, calls. He tries to convince her to join a drug study on suburban housewives. She refuses. At lunch the next day, Roseman flirts with her. She asks Roseman if he can sort out Pierce's will, but he suggests she might be interested in what she finds out. Oedipa feels an "absence of an intensity" in her life. She reflects on the time Pierce took her to Mexico City and she viewed a painting in the museum that made her cry. The girls in the painting are prisoners in a tower, and this is how Oedipa feels. For her, "the tower is everywhere" and "the knight of deliverance" could not save her. She also realizes what keeps her in her tower might be "magic, anonymous and malignant."


One of Pynchon's main objectives in this novel is to explore the nature of reality, and the feel of his prose evokes a hallucinogenic trip. Pynchon uses long sentences with multiple clauses that build upon each other to produce a sort of ordered chaos. The first paragraph of the novel contains six sentences, and in these, Pynchon manages to reference things as diverse as Tupperware parties, a hotel room in Mazatlán, the fourth movement of a concerto, and a "whitewashed bust of Jay Gould." This illustrates how scattered and shallow Oedipa's mind is, jumping from one idea to the next without exploring anything in depth. Pynchon means to show how Oedipa is a product of the chaotic culture of Southern California in the 1960s and how that culture lacks the focus to participate in true communication that leads to deeper understanding. Oedipa hovers at the edge of this insight at the end of the chapter, when she reflects she is like a prisoner in a tower that is everywhere. The tower is a symbol of the degraded society she lives in. It keeps her occupied with banalities so that her life feels unreal. This unreality manifests itself in a "sense of buffering" and "the absence of an intensity, as if watching a movie, just perceptibly out of focus." Her decision to accept the executorship is the first step in her search for meaning beyond her role as a suburban housewife.

Oedipa surrounds herself with "knights of deliverance" in the hopes they might offer some clarity, but each fails spectacularly. Back when they were dating, "Pierce had taken her away from nothing" because "there'd been no escape." Her husband, Mucho, refuses to get involved with her executor crisis. He has trouble dealing with the chaos in his own life, a chaos that may well be the "salad of despair" he recognized in other people's lives. Her shrink, Dr. Hilarius, seems more intent on driving her even crazier than curing her, and her lawyer, Roseman, flirts with her instead of taking her seriously. By the end of the novel, all the men in her life will have left her, died, or gone insane.

When Pierce refers to "The Shadow" during his phone call, it is possible he is referencing the Tristero, the shadowy organization Oedipa ends up entangled with while researching Pierce's assets. This reference to a "Shadow" could be proof Pierce set the whole Tristero plot up as a hoax, as Oedipa later suspects he might have, or it might have no meaning at all.

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