One summer afternoon, a woman named Oedipa Maas returns to her house from a party and finds a letter in her box naming her the legal executor of the estate of Pierce Inverarity, one of her ex-boyfriends and a very wealthy California real-estate mogul. Oedipa learns that the estate is in a very messy situation, noting that Pierce once lost $2 million when one of his land deals backfired. The news of Pierce's death leads Oedipa to all sorts of strange imaginings. She suspects that she is becoming very ill, and she thinks back to the time she last spoke to him. She remembers specifically that Pierce liked to speak in strange voices, imitating celebrities (including Lamont Cranston), dialects, and ethnic groups.
Oedipa silently resolves to perform her duty to her late ex-boyfriend, but she realizes that she knows nothing about wills and how to execute them. She suspects that her husband, Mucho Maas, a former used-car salesman currently working as a radio DJ, will not be able to give her much help. We see that Oedipa has some reservations about her husband's mental state; she believes that even though he had to leave his job as a used-car salesman, he "had believed too much in the lot."
Later that night, Oedipa's doctor, Dr. Hilarius, calls her at 3 a.m. and asks her to participate in a drug experiment he is conducting. The experiment relates in some way to LSD, although we do not find out many details. Oedipa refuses him. The next day, she goes to see her lawyer, Roseman, who asks her to run away with him, although he does not know to where.
Oedipa, speculating to herself after seeing Roseman, realizes that she had always hoped to achieve some sort of escape through her relationship with Pierce. However, she never had actually escaped, and she now does not know what exactly she wanted to escape from. As the chapter ends, Oedipa imagines that she had been a type of Rapunzel trapped in a high tower waiting for someone to ask her to let her hair down. Pierce had tried to climb her hair up to her, but she imagines that he actually ended up falling down once her hair turned out to be only a wig.
Notice that the very first action of the novel is the reception of a letter. The issue of letters, mail, and, more largely, communication are central motifs in this novel. Later, Oedipa will begin to uncover what she believes to be an old world-wide conspiracy related to mail delivery; hence, it is important to note the times when letters appear in the novel. In this first instance, the letter communicates important information: Her old boyfriend has died, leaving her with an enormous task to sort out. Keep in mind now that many of the letters later on in the novel will not contain any information at all.
One must also immediately notice the peculiar psychological moments of the novel, such as the instant when Oedipa first reads the letter. Pynchon shows the flicker of Oedipa's associations after she receives the news, a thought process involving God, television, drunkenness, and fairy tales all entwined with her memories of moments spent with Pierce. These three motifs (God, TV, and drunkenness) all regularly appear throughout the novel, and each time they appear they are in some way related to communication. When Oedipa first arrives in San Narciso, she has a type of "religious instant" when she thinks that a divine being may be imparting some sort of knowledge on her, although what exactly that knowledge is she does not know. The television is also a source of confusion and one-sided communication in the novel, as we will see in the hotel scene with Metzger. And, of course, drunkenness and other drugs lead one to mental states that seem expanded and yet render communication impossible. All three of these motifs, as well as memories from the past, are examples of things that surround us and try to send us messages that we, for whatever reason, cannot understand.