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The Crying of Lot 49 | Study Guide

Thomas Pynchon

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The Crying of Lot 49 | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Oedipa's Life before the Tristero

Oedipa Maas, a housewife in the suburban hamlet of Kinneret in Southern California, receives a letter one summer day in the 1960s naming her an executor of the will of her ex-boyfriend, real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity. Pierce had called her for the last time the year before, perhaps to tell her about the executorship, but her husband Wendell "Mucho" Maas had told her to hang up on him. When Mucho gets home from his job at the radio station, Oedipa tells him about the letter. Mucho advises her to contact their lawyer, Roseman, to sort it out. Before she goes to see Roseman, her psychiatrist, Dr. Hilarius, calls with an offer to join a drug study. Roseman merely flirts with her and suggests sorting out the will herself. Perhaps because Oedipa feels an "absence of intensity" in her life, she decides to set herself up in San Narciso to investigate Pierce's holdings. Mucho is sad to see her leave, "but not desperate."

At the hotel in San Narciso, Oedipa is shown to her room by Miles, a teenage boy and member of the band the Paranoids. When Pierce's lawyer Metzger shows up, he is so good-looking Oedipa thinks that someone is playing a joke on her. While a movie he made as a child actor plays on the television set, Metzger gets Oedipa drunk and seduces her. They make love and when they climax, the lights go out. The Paranoids, playing a song outside, have blown a fuse. This "infidelity" is the "starting point" for her revelations about the Tristero. (Pynchon uses the spelling Trystero and Tristero interchangeably in the novel.) Oedipa and Metzger go to The Scope bar and meet Mike Fallopian. They witness a mail drop Fallopian says they were not supposed to see. Oedipa also sees the muted post horn symbol and the acronym WASTE for the first time in the bathroom, but she does not yet know what they mean. Later, an adventure out on Lake Inverarity leads to the Paranoids telling Oedipa about a Jacobean revenge play called The Courier's Tragedy. When Oedipa goes to see the play, she hears the word Tristero for the first time. She goes backstage to speak with the director, Randolph Driblette, about it. Driblette warns her away from "wasting her life" seeking the truth of Tristero.

Oedipa Follows the Tristero into the Darkness

Despite Driblette's warning, Oedipa soon becomes so enmeshed in following her leads that "everything she saw, smelled, dreamed, remembered, would somehow come to be woven into the Tristero." She gets lost at a Yoyodyne stockholders' meeting and runs into Stanley Koteks doodling the muted post horn. Koteks suggests visiting the inventor John Nefastis to see if she is a "sensitive" who can communicate with the "honest-to-God Maxwell's Demon" inside Nefastis's machine. At Zapf's Used Books, Oedipa buys a copy of Driblette's paperback. At a home for senior citizens, she talks to Mr. Thoth about his grandfather who rode for the Pony Express and was once attacked by "false Indians" in black feathers. Genghis Cohen, the philatelist (stamp expert) evaluating Pierce's stamp collection, points out forgeries.

Oedipa decides to drive north to Berkeley without Metzger. She tracks down the publisher of the book she bought at Zapf's, but the Tristero line from Driblette's play does not appear in the copy they provide her. She notes the author of the preface, Emory Bortz, as a possible expert to consult on the matter. She goes to visit John Nefastis to take the "sensitive" test but fails. She concludes Nefastis is a "nut," and that to be a true sensitive, one must "share in the man's hallucinations." To test if she is merely fantasizing about Tristero, Oedipa decides to "drift ... at random" through San Francisco. She sees the muted post horn symbol wherever she goes. She sees it on the lapel of a man in a bar, The Greek Way, who claims to be an IA member (Inamorati Anonymous). She finds it on a sidewalk and discusses it with a group of children in Golden Gate Park. She talks to Jesús Arrabal, a man from her past, who is now in exile because of his involvement with a Mexican revolutionary group. She realizes there are many underground groups using WASTE as an alternative to the U.S. mail. She trails a WASTE letter carrier all over Oakland as he drops off letters.

The next day she goes to see Dr. Hilarius, hoping he will convince her she is fantasizing everything to do with the Tristero. However, Dr. Hilarius himself has gone crazy. Paranoid that Israeli soldiers are hunting him down for revenge, Dr. Hilarius has locked himself in his office with a rifle. Before the cops take him down, he advises her to "cherish" her fantasies or she may "begin to cease to be." Afterward, Mucho's boss informs Oedipa that Mucho is "losing his identity." Oedipa confirms this when Mucho reveals he can "listen to anything and take it apart again," and he tells her this is how he knows of her affair with Metzger. Oedipa realizes she has lost Mucho to the drug LSD, prescribed by Dr. Hilarius.

Oedipa Faces the Consequences of Her Tristero Quest

Back at her hotel in San Narciso, Oedipa continues to lose the men in her life. Metzger has run off and eloped with the girlfriend of one of the Paranoids. Driblette has committed suicide by walking into the ocean. Even Zapf's Used Books has burned down. She visits Professor Emory Bortz to ask about the discrepancies between editions of The Courier's Tragedy regarding the Tristero line, and Bortz tells her what he knows. In addition, Oedipa learns other purported historical facts about the Tristero over the next few days. She learns Hernando Joaquín de Tristero y Calavera set up the Tristero as a rebel system to undermine the official mail carrier Thurn and Taxis. However, after all her losses, Oedipa is now less enthusiastic about following up on Tristero leads.

Fallopian suggests Pierce might have set her up and the Tristero is "all a hoax." Genghis Cohen finds a stamp that gives the meaning of WASTE as "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire." This stamp is not listed anywhere except in an addendum to a catalog from Zapf's, which Pierce owned. Oedipa realizes "every access route to the Tristero" has something to do with Pierce. She ponders the four alternative truths of her situation. Maybe she has stumbled upon an actual worldwide conspiracy against official mail systems called the Tristero, or maybe she is hallucinating everything. It's possible an expensive, elaborate plot has been mounted against her, and it's also possible she is imagining "some such plot," which means she is crazy. Genghis Cohen informs her the Tristero "forgeries" are to be sold at auction as lot 49, and a secret bidder has shown interest.

Oedipa thinks about the state of America and the importance of the undergrounds she seems to have stumbled upon. "How many shared Tristero's secret, as well as its exile?" she wonders. Oedipa attends the auction along with Genghis Cohen and the secret bidder, who could be anyone in attendance. Oedipa contemplates making a scene to expose him. When the door to the room closes, she sits back "to await the crying of lot 49."

The Crying of Lot 49 Plot Diagram

ClimaxFalling ActionRising ActionIntroductionResolution2134675


1 Oedipa is named an executor of Pierce's estate.

Rising Action

2 Watching a play, Oedipa first hears the word Tristero.

3 Oedipa investigates leads relating to The Tristero.

4 Deep in the mystery, Oedipa feels she is going crazy.


5 Oedipa loses all the men in her life.

Falling Action

6 Pierce's estate goes up for auction.


7 The auctioneer gets ready to cry out lot 49.

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