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The Crying of Lot 49 | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 | Chapter 3 | Summary



The narrator mentions the "Tristero" for the first time, saying Oedipa's "infidelity with Metzger" was the "starting point" for her revelations about them. Key to the revelation is Pierce's stamp collection, but chronologically, the next two significant events are Oedipa getting a letter from Mucho, and Oedipa and Metzger meeting Mike Fallopian at a bar called The Scope. Mucho's letter has a blurb from the post office that reads: "Report all obscene mail to your potsmaster." Mike Fallopian introduces himself as being from the Peter Pinguid Society, named after a commodore for the Confederate army during the American Civil War (1861–65) who fought the Russians off the California coast. Fallopian criticizes industrialism, but he admits Pinguid later made a fortune speculating in real estate.

Metzger and Oedipa witness a strange mail delivery in the bar, and Oedipa sees a note and the "hieroglyphic" symbol of the muted post horn in the ladies' bathroom. She copies down the address: "WASTE, Box 7391." Fallopian reveals they "weren't supposed to see" the mail drop. The Peter Pinguid Society uses the Yoyodyne Corporation's interoffice delivery system to write letters to one another, and members are fined if they do not "send at least one letter a week." It turns out Fallopian is writing a book on the "history of private mail delivery in the U.S."

Later, out on Lake Inverarity, Oedipa is with Metzger and the Paranoids and their girlfriends when they run into Manny Di Presso. He is on the run from a man named Tony Jaguar. He informs Metzger he is suing Pierce's estate on behalf of Tony, who claims Pierce never paid him for bone charcoal used in Beaconsfield cigarette filters. It turns out Tony sourced the bones from dead American soldiers at the bottom of a lake in Italy. The Paranoids mention all of this bears resemblance to a "Jacobean revenge play" (a tragedy set in the English Jacobean period, 1603–25) called The Courier's Tragedy, but their drug-addled attempt to relay the plot to Oedipa is so unintelligible that she decides to see it herself.

The "peculiar" play consists of five long acts. The fourth act is especially ambiguous and shows "a kind of ritual reluctance" to speak plainly, instead relying on the exchange of "Significant Looks." The word Tristero is spoken at the end of Act 4, and it lingers "in the dark to puzzle Oedipa." Oedipa goes backstage to speak with the director, Randolph Driblette. He tells her the script is copied from a paperback book he found at a used bookstore called Zapf's. When Oedipa asks about the "Significant Looks" in Act 4, he criticizes her for being "so hung up with words." He claims he's the "projector at the planetarium" and "the reality is in [his] head." He tells her no matter how deeply she commits, she could never find the truth of the Tristero. She gets in the car with Metzger, who is listening to Mucho's radio station.


Oedipa begins her descent into the underworld of the Tristero in this chapter. What begins as a word that "puzzles" her starts to "exert power over her" by the time she leaves the theater after her conversation with Driblette. She is so shaken by the coincidences going on around her that she does not even realize her husband Mucho is speaking on the car radio until two miles down the road.

When Oedipa and Metzger witness the mail drop, Fallopian is her first link to the Tristero. The letter Fallopian receives consists of bland pleasantries, and Fallopian suggests it's the frequency of the correspondence rather than the content that matters. This is Pynchon's way of criticizing shallow communication—and the types of people who talk a lot but say very little. Fallopian himself is the rather self-important author of a book on private mail delivery and a member of the Peter Pinguid Society, a fictional group possibly based on a real incident during the American Civil War (1861–65). Pynchon often uses a blend of historical fact and fiction to create a level of ambiguity and to add to the hallucinogenic effect of the narrative. Here, this works on two levels: it makes Oedipa begin to question her understanding of reality, and it makes the reader do so as well.

Much of Oedipa's fascination with the Tristero springs from the chaos of her day at the lake with Metzger and the Paranoids. The teenagers' attempt to relate the plot of The Courier's Tragedy is "near to unintelligible" from the "eight memories unlooping ... as strange to map as their rising coils ... of pot smoke." The coils and loops are symbolic of the circular, chaotic, and, ultimately, meaningless type of communication Pynchon loathes.

When Oedipa attends a performance herself, the play is overstuffed with mysterious happenings, "lies" and "Significant Looks" given without illumination of meaning. It fails to bring Oedipa the clarity she seeks. The single thread she can hold on to is the word Tristero. Oedipa will come to wonder if this is by accident or design, but Driblette's warning to her seems to point to design. He tells her if he were to "dissolve" in the shower and "be washed down the drain into the Pacific," then what Oedipa saw of the play would vanish. All that would exist would be "traces, fossils ... without value." This foreshadows Driblette's death in the Pacific in Chapter 6. It also reveals the play to be a rather pompous "in-joke" that mirrors the farce Oedipa herself will go through researching the Tristero. All her leads end up taking her nowhere. As Driblette says, Oedipa could "waste [her] life" putting together clues "and never touch the truth." This is also a possible joke on the reader, as Pynchon is essentially wasting his readers' time as they try to make sense of the plot, only to arrive at the end to realize the surface story has no resolution.

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