What do we mean by "dark" and "ironic"? Let's just give you an example, straight away.
At one point in the novel, we hear the story of an executive at an electronics and rockets company who is replaced by an IBM 7094. His wife immediately leaves him, and, after several weeks of deliberating, he decides to immolate himself like the Buddhist monks who protested the Vietnam War. But after he covers himself in gasoline and is about to light the match, his wife comes home with her new lover: the efficiency expert who fired the executive. The efficiency expert sees what he is doing, and says:
"Nearly three weeks it takes him to decide. You know how long it would've taken the IBM 7094? Twelve micro-seconds." (5.71)
That's halfway between "Hey-o!" and "Ugh, that's messed up." And that's pretty much the tone of the entire book.
This novel is full of sick, hilarious jokes. In other words, it's classic Pynchon. He seems to view all of his subject matter through a darkly ironic mirror, and often sacrifices realism for absurdist comedy or plots so complex that they can only be born out of paranoia. We don't sense that the narrator has much sympathy for any of the characters (with the possible exception of the Maas's). In fact, Pynchon hardly even takes the time to give most characters an identity beyond an absurd name like Genghis Cohen.
Some people have major problems with Pynchon for this very reason. At times, it feels like Pynchon is just messing with the reader for the fun of it. After all, there aren't too many books that you finish and wonder if they're a profound meditation on the nature of America or just a grand practical joke.
Late in the novel, Oedipa goes to see her sometime confidante Mike Fallopian. She tells him everything she's discovered about the Tristero since they last met, and he listens patiently. Then he says:
"Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody's putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Inverarity set up before he died?" (6.98)
Oedipa admits to herself that the thought has been lurking in the back of her mind, but she refuses to admit it to Fallopian. "No," she says, "That's ridiculous" (6.99).
By this point in the novel, the reader can totally sympathize with Oedipa's predicament. We meticulously trace the plot, track down Pynchon's references, and patiently wait for it all to come together. And yet the whole time we know that the book is pretty much half-hoax. It must be either faith or—as with Oedipa—stubborn denial that keeps us from dismissing the whole thing as a practical joke, throwing the book across the room, and cursing Pynchon for wasting our time.
Lot 49 is a skinny little book, but within it Pynchon manages to parody English pop bands, literary scholarship, California counter-culture, Jacobean Revenge Plays, the American right wing, detective stories, and the corporate culture at a made-up electronics and missile company named Yoyodyne. He makes fun of everyone.
What makes his humor so devastating is that it's somehow believable. Through all of the exaggerations and distortions, we can still recognize the object of parody and think: Man, those John Birch guys just might be that crazy.
Satire was a genre that was exploding around Pynchon's time, with the likes of Joseph Heller's iconic Catch-22 and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. Yet Lot 49 goes a step further than these two books. Pynchon puts even the reader on shaky footing, so that you laugh without ever knowing for sure whether you're in on the joke or you are the joke. Some people are seriously put off by Pynchon's fiction for this very reason. Others recognize that it only pulls us deeper into the story. We can't laugh too hard at Oedipa Maas… because we're just as overwhelmed by all of it as she is.
No, this isn't about someone weeping over a vacant lot. The title refers to the ending of the book, when the Pierce Inverarity's collection of stamp "forgeries" is auctioned off as "lot 49" (6.128).
In the final pages of the novel, Genghis Cohen explains to Oedipa that "crying" is the technical term for how an auctioneer calls out a sale at a formal auction. As the day approaches, the mystery around "lot 49" begins to grow, and Oedipa hears that an unknown bidder has surfaced and will attend the auction.
"The Crying of Lot 49," then, is the moment to which the entire novel builds. It may be the moment of revelation (in which Oedipa finds out that the Tristero conspiracy is real), or it might be the moment at which Oedipa realizes that she is the victim of an elaborate practical joke. Or it may be yet another twist in the huge mystery that is this deeply strange book. Or hey: it might be a knock-knock joke.
The point is, we never learn what happens at the crying of lot 49. The novel ends—in a really cruel twist—with Oedipa waiting for the auctioneer to start the bidding.
For those readers who approach The Crying of Lot 49 like a detective story and take the time to trace the insane ins-and-outs of its plot, the ending should provide only one thing: the answer to the mystery. But we can't even give you a spoiler alert on this one… because there is no spoiler. There is no answer to the mystery.
Toward the end of the book, Oedipa's interest in the entire Tristero conspiracy begins to wane, and she worries that she is losing her mind (dedicated readers might feel the same way!). But Oedipa's (and our) interest is reignited when Genghis Cohen tells her about the auction at which Pierce Inverarity's stamp collection of "forgeries" will be auctioned off as "lot 49" (6.128).
Cohen adds that a mysterious unknown bidder has emerged, and that the bidder wants to place a "book bid," which means that he will not have to be present at the auction. Oedipa and Cohen have already assumed that the "forgeries" were made by the Tristero. Now they jump to the conclusion that the unknown bidder comes from Tristero, and that he has come to wipe out evidence of the organization's existence.
So the novel ends: "Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49" (6.158). Wait. What?! That's it? You mean we never learn who the mysterious bidder is? We never learn if the Tristero is real? We never learn if Inverarity planned the whole thing?
That's right. We don't.
Instead, we are left in the same position as Oedipa. We have uncovered an extremely elaborate plot, and we feel that it has to come together and make sense. But: nope. There is no moment of revelation. Instead, all we have are a series of possible interpretations: that Tristero is real, that Oedipa is insane, or that the entire thing is a hoax. Unless we force an interpretation on the novel, and choose to close it out with our own explanation—our own conspiracy theory—then the ending is just… there.
This is crazy-frustrating. It feels like Pynchon has just tricked us out of $11.95 that we could have spent on ice cream. The only way to know for sure is to double-down, to go back and reread and see if the book is on to something, or if it's only the feeling that it's "so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond just a practical joke" (6.116).
What we suggest is that you go back and reread Oedipa's final musings before the end of the book. As she thinks about what America is and what it means circa 1965, Oedipa considers another type of continuity that could draw "the continuity" of America together. It's not the Tristero, not some elaborate plot or rebellion or 500-year-long conspiracy. All of this, she seems to realize, is nothing but a red herring.
Instead, she thinks of America as a country composed of "storm-systems of group suffering and need" (6.144). And "There," Oedipa thinks "was the true continuity."
The novel is set in California in the 1960s with Oedipa yo-yoing back and forth between the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. Pynchon lived in California for several years in the 1960s, and though he initially flirted with the radical culture there, it seems that he later turned away from it. The Crying of Lot 49 gives him the opportunity to parody the culture in which he became immersed, however briefly.
Although Lot 49 is an experimental book that plays with narrative form and the nature of fiction, it is also totally spot on as far as social detail goes. At one point, Oedipa walks across the campus of the University of California, Berkeley:
She came downslope from Wheeler Hall, through Sather Gate into a plaza teeming with corduroy, denim, bare legs, blonde hair, hornrims, bicycle spokes in the sun, bookbags, swaying card tables, long paper petitions dangled to earth, posters for undecipherable FSM's, YAF's, VDC's, suds in the fountain, students in nose-to-nose dialogue. (5.10)
The description goes on and on. One senses that Pynchon could catalog the details of Berkeley's social life endlessly. Throughout the book, there are references to the John Birch Society, to the March on Washington, to Senator Joe McCarthy and the Red Scare. In some ways, Lot 49 is an unlikely book to serve as a period piece of 1960s California (since it's a surrealist comedy with a plot that goes all the way back to Europe in the sixteenth century), but Pynchon gives a very detailed sense of the time.
Today, things have come full circle and the book itself is considered an iconic artifact of 1960s counter-culture. In other words, you're not just holding a book that depicts California in the 1960s, you are holding a piece of California in the 1960s.
There are times in Lot 49 when you think you're just reading a clever book by an above-average American satirist. There's crisp deadpan dialogue, clearly articulated action, and here and there: a telling detail. And then Pynchon stretches his arms, leans back over his typewriter and rips out a half-page long sentence so densely packed with concrete detail and soaring ideas that you have to reread it five times before nodding and acknowledging that you are in the presence of greatness.
Early in the book, we learn that Mucho Maas hated being a used car salesman and decided to become a disk jockey instead. A simple enough biographical detail. But here's why:
He had believed in cars. Maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people poorer than him come in, N****, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or only of dust—and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10 cents, trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs, help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes—it made him sick to look, but he had to look. (1.12)
One reason this sentence is so remarkable (aside from its length) is that it allows Pynchon to interweave concrete description and introspection. For example, early in the sentence we learn that Mucho thinks of the trade-ins people bring in as "metal extensions of themselves." It's a fascinating idea, but then he makes it even more so by describing the physical form of this idea before moving back into the realm of Mucho's thoughts: "frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself."
You can see Pynchon threading the sentence, moving effortlessly between mind and physical world, between Mucho, the cars that he hates, and (later in the sentence) the imagined lives of the people who owned them.
The sentence concludes that each of these cars is: "a salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash." It's a beautiful metaphor, but it's important to realize that it just wouldn't work in a less grandiose sentence. Pynchon doesn't simply turn the phrase. He makes himself earn it by working up to it, detail by detail, from repainted fenders to rags made from old underwear, until we know exactly what he means when he says "a salad of despair."
Okay, first things first: what exactly is the Tristero? Well, Shmoopers, here's a fictional history lesson. Ahem-hem-hem.
The Tristero has its origins in the late sixteenth century, when an outsider named Hernando Joaquin de Tristero y Calavera emerges and claims to be the rightful heir to the Thurn and Taxis Postal System. When he is denied his claim, he begins a guerrilla campaign against the current head of the system, and eventually sets up his own rival mail carrier.
Got it so far? Good, there's more.
When the French Revolution comes around, there is a rift in Tristero. Some think the Revolution is madness and want to subsidize the now defunct Thurn and Taxis System to restore order. The infighting causes the organization to fall apart, and Tristero drifts into the nineteenth century, until a number of its members immigrate to America in the 1840s.
Take a breather. There's more still.
In America, they're greeted by the Great Postal Reform of 1845, when the U.S. government declared a monopoly on mail. The Tristero resorted to yet another guerrilla campaign against U.S. Mail, attacking Pony Express postal riders on their routes and carrying out their own underground mail service. Oedipa and others suspect the group is still active today, shuttling mail back and forth between America's dispossessed.
Phew. That's a lot of fictional history for one skinny little novel.
Oh, but heads up: the Thurn and Taxis system referred to in the book actually existed under the Holy Roman Empire and continued until the eighteenth century. What Pynchon does is to weave a highly artificial conspiracy (which is 95% of the whole Tristero kerfuffle) into the historical record using fictional artifacts. Between the known facts, he places an 800-year long campaign against government monopolies on mail. (Because he's a genius like that.)
At one point, Oedipa thinks of "how tenuous it was, like a long white hair, over a century long" (4.57). Tenuous is—no doubt—the right word to describe the conspiracy, but the suggestion is that Tristero is the great underground myth. It's what has been left out of the history books. It's what "they" don't want you to know.
As a historical organization, Tristero no doubt functions as a red herring, a vast labyrinth in which Oedipa (and the lucky, lucky reader) can get lost. But Tristero also constitutes the vast symbolic network that constitutes the book. Its symbolic image—the muted post-horn of Thurn and Taxis—suggests that the traditional means of communication (like mail and, um, novels) are unreliable, and that alternative means of communication must be adopted (like weird Pynchonian postmodern novels).
The what and the what now? Okay, let's start by a getting a handle on what these two scientific concepts even are. We're going to get a little science-y; bear with us.
The concept of entropy that is described in the book comes from thermodynamics. In thermodynamics, entropy is a measure of how evenly heat is distributed in a system. The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that entropy will never decrease and that things will tend to disorder (non-convertible energy) and sameness. So entropy is shorthand for both disorder and sameness.
But we need to make sure we understand one basic thing about entropy before moving on to the concept of Maxwell's Demon. Imagine that a "box" of hot fast-moving air molecules is connected to a "box" of cold slow-moving air molecules by a small door and isolated from the rest of the universe. Since the Second Law says that entropy will never decrease, one would expect that the hot and cold molecules would eventually become evenly distributed between the two boxes.
In the late nineteenth century, a Scotch physicist named James Clerk Maxwell came up with a thought experiment to try to disprove the Second Law of Thermodynamics. As above, two boxes of air molecules are brought together, but here the hot and the cold are all randomly distributed. Maxwell postulated that a Demon could sit at the door between the two boxes and open it selectively so that all the hot molecules become concentrated in one box, and all the cold molecules become concentrated in the other.
As Nefastis puts it in the book:
"Since the Demon only sat and sorted, you wouldn't have to put any real work into the system. So you would be violating the Second Law of Thermodynamics, getting something for nothing, causing perpetual motion." (4.17)
In reality, physicists went back and forth arguing whether or not the Demon did or do not "put any real work into the system." The basic conclusion was that the act of sorting would increase the entropy of the system.
But Nefastis goes on:
"Entropy is a figure of speech, then, a metaphor. It connects the world of thermodynamics to the world of information flow. The Machine uses both. The Demon makes the metaphor not only verbally graceful, but also objectively true." (5.20)
This may sound a little like mumbo-jumbo, sort of a word salad. But the key thing to remember is that Nefastis (and Oedipa, to an extent) believe that this ability to properly sift and sort information can keep things from reducing to disorder and sameness.
For Oedipa, Maxwell's Demon becomes a metaphor: a way of imagining her attempt to sift and sort through all of the information that is presented to her in the course of the book—and there is a lot.
Imagine that American history as we know it tends towards sameness, and that everything exists exactly the way we think that it does. The conspiracy of the Tristero would disprove this… much like the thought experiment of Maxwell's Demon claims to disprove the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
But, for the Tristero to be real, Oedipa has to function as the "Demon." Instead of sorting fast and slow-moving air molecules Oedipa is sorting significant and insignificant facts.
Toward the end of the book, Oedipa again begins to think of her dilemma in metaphorical mathematical terms. As she says,
It was now like walking among matrices of a great digital computer, the zeroes and ones twinned above, hanging like mobiles right and left, ahead, thick, maybe endless. (6.148)
She begins to doubt whether all this sifting and sorting is even worth it. It seems endless, with the facts to be examined simply multiplying in number as the book goes on. And Oedipa begins to doubt that all of this will add up to a sense of meaning, to a moment of revelation. She realizes that she herself is necessary for Tristero to exist, that she is its Demon, but if she lets it all go… who cares?
The way that Pynchon plays with the concepts of entropy and Maxwell's Demon turns both of them into crazy metaphors for the way Oedipa relates to the overwhelming amount of information she encounters. Both concepts appear in Pynchon's novel Gravity's Rainbow, and both are general references in a lot of popular fiction, from Isaac Asimov to Ken Kesey.
About a third of the way through Lot 49, we are suddenly subjected to a ten-page plot summary of a made-up Jacobean Revenge Play called The Courier's Tragedy, allegedly written by a man named Richard Wharfinger. Guys, this is not a real play.
The play is super-duper complicated. So what's the point? Well, we're going to check out a weird source: Shakespeare.
The most famous play-within-a-play ever written is The Murder of Gonzago in Shakespeare's Hamlet. As in Hamlet, Pynchon's play-within-a-play is intended to reflect the bigger issues in the book, and to speed the plot along. In this case, its labyrinthine complexity is also meant to parody the entire tradition of Jacobean Revenge Plays… as well as the complexity of Lot 49 itself. (No one ever accused Pynchon of not having a sense of humor.)
The main event that is echoed in the play is that a group is savagely murdered and their bones are sunk at the bottom of a lake. Weirdly, Oedipa has recently heard a story from Manny Di Presso about a bunch of American GIs who were massacred in Italy during World War II and who were thrown in a lake.
In the play, it's revealed that the evil usurping prince Angelo has massacred the Lost Guard, the elite army of the rightful Duke of Faggio. When Niccolo is murdered by the same lake, Oedipa thinks that the depiction of his murder is oddly similar to a description she has recently heard of attacks on Pony Express riders in the late nineteenth century. At the close of the play, a character utters the word "Trystero," and the seed of the grand conspiracy is planted in Oedipa's mind (3.130).
But all of the similarities to reality that Oedipa sees in Lot 49 are only odd, vague, and quite possibly coincidental. After all, Oedipa went to see the play because one of the Paranoids' girlfriends told her that it resembled Di Presso's story. Oedipa is hooked, though, and she goes to see the play's director, Randolph Driblette, who tells her that the text isn't that important, that all that matters is how Wharfinger's text took shape in his own head. He warns her:
"You can put together clues, develop a thesis, or several, about why characters reacted to the Trystero possibility the way they did, why the assassins came on, why the black costumes. You could waste your life that way and never touch the truth. Wharfinger supplied words and a yarn. I gave them life. That's it." (3.170)
It's good advice, but advice that Oedipa pays no attention to.
Through Driblette, Pynchon is also able to poke fun at literary scholars (which, hey, we're your friends, Pynchon!). His work is purposely designed to mess with their minds. Though it vaguely hints at deeper meaning, it is full of red herrings, rabbit holes, false significance, and enormously complex plots that turn out not to resolve themselves.
Oedipa is forced to function as an amateur literary scholar, and as scholars attempt to puzzle through Lot 49, they inevitably find themselves in the same predicament as Oedipa Maas: What is significant? What's not? What's real? Is this all a hoax?! Help!
Fun facts: Bordando el Manto Terrestre is a painting by Remedios Varo, a Spanish surrealist painter who was buddy-bud-buds with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. Varo first fled from Spain to Paris to escape the Spanish Civil War, and then again from Paris to Mexico City to escape the Nazis. She lived in Mexico City with her husband, the poet Benjamin Péret, from 1941 until her death in 1963.
Pynchon's description of the painting isn't totally accurate, which might suggest that he describes it from memory. As with Maxwell's Demon, however, what is most important is how the painting looms large in Oedipa's imagination.
Oedipa sees the painting in Mexico City while she is vacationing there with her (at the time) boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. At the close of Chapter One, she recalls the effect that it had on her. The painting depicts a group of women in a tower surrounded by a void. They are all knitting a tapestry, which spills out of the tower:
[…] seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry; and the tapestry was the world. (1.55)
As Oedipa looks at the painting, she begins to cry.
Oedipa cries because she feels trapped. She feels like one of the women in the tower, and running away to Mexico with Pierce is her own attempt to create a world, to weave a tapestry to fill the void that surrounds her. In short, she realizes that her escape with Pierce is a false escape, an illusion, and that she still remains Oedipa Maas, kept in place by "magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all" (1.55). Aww.
There are two key things to take away here. First, Oedipa has a vague sense of being overwhelmed by a power that she does not understand. Second, she attempts to escape this feeling by actively creating a world.
Oedipa will remember the painting several times later in the book, and the malignant "magic" that she senses takes the kinda-sorta more concrete form of the Tristero. But Oedipa's suspicion that her entire situation is an illusion remains.
We're never entirely sure if Oedipa escapes or what exactly it is that she escapes from, or whether she has imagined her predicament or it is actually real. But the question that closes Chapter One echoes throughout the rest of the book:
If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? (1.55)
The novel is narrated in the third person, with limited access to the minds of Oedipa and Mucho Maas. The narrator is detached, describing the events—no matter how absurd and insane—in a totally deadpan manner.
It is only when he describes the thoughts of Oedipa or Mucho that we see him zooming out to offer greater perspective on the story. This technique gets some flak, because Oedipa and Mucho do not always seem capable of the rather grandiose inner monologues attributed to them. You kind of get the sense that the narrator (*cough, Pynchon *cough) has deeply profound things to say, but that he's trapped by his limited and detached point of view. It's only by expanding the minds of his main characters—sometimes unbelievably—that he can articulate his thoughts.
A series of super-bizarre clues leads Oedipa to go see The Courier's Tragedy, where she first hears the word "Trystero" and imagines it might be the key to a mystery. Up until this point, Oedipa has had a passive interest in executing Inverarity's estate, but from here on out she will become increasingly obsessed with proving or disproving the existence of an 800-year-long postal conspiracy called Tristero.
Oedipa's journey is largely a mental one. At least, we aren't sure how much of it is real and how much is imagined. She tries to take a break from the Tristero mystery in San Francisco, but instead spends a long, confused night wandering the city, seeing signs of Tristero everywhere she goes. The clues seem to pile on top of her, insisting on Tristero's existence, but they don't point to a moment of revelation. It's like a maze with no exit.
At the end of the night, Oedipa follows a Tristero postman, who leads her back to the mad scientist John Nefastis's apartment…which is exactly where she started. She is overwhelmed and frustrated by the whole ordeal.
After the ordeal in San Francisco, Oedipa begins reaching out to the men in her life. But she finds that her psychotherapist has lost his mind and that he was a Nazi all along. She finds her husband is taking hallucinogenic drugs given to him by her psychotherapist and has pretty much gone off the rails. She finds that her new lover abandoned her for a younger girl, and that the director of The Courier's Tragedy—the play that started her entire quest—killed himself by walking into the Pacific.
Oedipa is utterly isolated and no closer to solving the mystery of the Tristero.
The novel ends with yet one more promise that the mystery of Tristero might be solved. A mysterious bidder for the Tristero stamp forgeries in Pierce Inverarity's collection emerges, and Oedipa's friend Genghis Cohen thinks he must be from the Tristero.
She reluctantly goes to the auction to find out who the man might be, and yet the novel ends as "The auctioneer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of lot 49" (6.158). In short, the quest never resolves itself. We never learn if the Tristero is real or imagined. And we never really learn what Oedipa was questing after in the first place. Thanks for nothing, Thomas Pynchon.
Basically, the plot refuses to resolve itself. We are tricked into spending all this time following Oedipa through the maze, and there is no payoff. If you are frustrated, our only suggestion is that you go back a few pages and reread Oedipa's musing on Tristero and the nature of America. If there is a satisfying conclusion to the novel, to the symbolic meaning of Tristero (if not its real nature), it can be found there.
At the start of the book, Oedipa Maas learns that she has been named executrix of the estate of her ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity. Oedipa wonders why she has been named, but is not overly bothered by it or interested in the business of carrying out Inverarity's final wishes. She seems basically content with her life in Kinneret, living with her husband Wendell "Mucho" Maas, a local DJ.
Oedipa decides to drive down to San Narciso to meet with Metzger, the lawyer who has been assigned as co-executor of Inverarity's estate. The two end up sleeping together at Oedipa's hotel, and she officially becomes tangled up in the business of Inverarity's estate. A few days later, they go to Fangoso Lagoons and she hears a bizarre story about Inverarity buying the bones of dead American GI's without paying for them.
Before going to see Wharfinger's play The Courier's Tragedy, Oedipa has only odd coincidences to go on. She knows of the American GI's; she has seen the muted post-horn and the WASTE symbol; and Mr. Thoth told her the story of his grandfather (a Pony Express rider attacked by men in black pretending to be Indians in the late nineteenth century).
Oedipa sees that the play is full of odd resemblances to the events she has been hearing about in real life, and, at the play's end, the main character puts a name to what (might) link it all together: Tristero. Oedipa's hooked.
Things escalate super-quickly. Oedipa goes to San Francisco looking to escape the signs of Tristero that she suddenly is seeing everywhere around her. Instead of escaping, she becomes totally immersed in it. It's not clear if Oedipa is hallucinating, but literally everywhere she looks she sees Tristero. At the end of the night, she follows a Tristero postman and is eventually led back to the house of the mad scientist John Nefastis.
At this point, Oedipa is scared that she is losing her mind. She goes to her psychotherapist, Dr. Hilarius, only to find out that he has gone insane and that he was a Nazi all along. She then meets up with her husband, "Mucho," only to find that Hilarius has been feeding him hallucinogenic drugs and that he's pretty much lost it.
She returns to the motel Echo Courts, where she learns that her lawyer boyfriend Metzger has run off with a younger girl, and then to top it all off she learns that the director of The Courier's Tragedy killed himself by walking into the Pacific Ocean. Oedipa is completely isolated and alone.
Oedipa begins to lose interest in Tristero, even though more clues begin to appear and the puzzle starts to fit together. Working with the Wharfinger scholar Emory Bortz, she pieces together that the Tristero arose in the late sixteenth century and took up a guerrilla campaign against the dominant postal system of the Holy Roman Empire, Thurn and Taxis.
But Oedipa becomes more and more reluctant to ask about Tristero. In a fit of desperation, she gets drunk and goes driving on the highway with her headlights off.
Genghis Cohen, the stamp expert, reveals to Oedipa that there is a mysterious bidder trying to buy up all the stamp forgeries from Inverarity's estate (which will be auctioned off as "Lot 49"). He believes the man comes from Tristero.
Oedipa attends the auction with him, only half-interested, but wondering if the "crying of lot 49" will be the moment of revelation that she has been looking for, or just another clue in an endless mystery. We never find out which it is, as the book ends just before the stamps are auctioned off.
Oedipa only becomes interested in Inverarity's estate gradually. But when she goes to Richard Wharfinger's play The Courier's Tragedy, she hears the name of a group that might explain all of the bizarre things she's been hearing. The name is "Tristero." This is Oedipa's point of no return. From here on out, she becomes totally obsessed with solving the mystery of the Tristero.
At no point is Oedipa farther from solving the Tristero mystery than when she gets drunk and drives her car on the highway with the lights off. By this point, her psychotherapist has gone insane, her husband has lost his mind to hallucinogenic drugs, her new lover has run off with a younger girl, and the director of The Courier's Tragedy has killed himself.
Oedipa can't tell if Tristero is real, or if she is insane and has imagined it, or if somehow her ex-boyfriend Pierce Inverarity built an enormous practical joke into his estate and it's all a hoax. Everything is uncertain.
As the book approaches its conclusion, more and more details about Tristero emerge, but the mystery seems no closer to being solved. Oedipa herself begins to lose interest. The book ends one moment before "the crying of lot 49." Lot 49 is a collection of stamp forgeries that belonged to Inverarity and are being auctioned off as part of his estate.
They appear to have been created by Tristero, and when a mysterious bidder emerges in the days before the auction, Oedipa's friend Genghis Cohen becomes convinced that he is from Tristero. Yet we never find out if this is Oedipa's moment of revelation or just another turn in an endless maze.
Note: This book is chock-full of historical references, real and imagined. The book contains entire histories in which textbook history and fiction are seamlessly intertwined. Of course, that is part of Pynchon's point: that the historical and the fictional cannot be neatly separated (at least, not without a bunch of time spent in the library, checking references). We've pointed out some of the bigger references here.