The Crying of Lot 49

by: Thomas Pynchon

Chapter 3

Commentary

The Crying of Lot 49 is a satirical novel, as well as a mock detective story. Pynchon shows a keen interest in the marginal figures in society and enjoys poking light fun at them. We see a good example of this in the character of Mike Fallopian, the right-wing radical. The group's absurd name is a type of parody of the John Birch Society, and their radical beliefs about mail are right-wing libertarian views taken to the extreme. The radicals are not the only group to fall prey to the cutting satire; the Paranoids are also mocked as the stereotypical pot-smoking band from the 1960s. Later on, Dr. Hilarius will also be mocked as a radical Freudian doctor obsessed with academic psychology. Pynchon often uses his characters as facades to represent in an extreme fashion real-life counterparts in the Californian society of the 1960s.

This is also the chapter that first introduces us to the Tristero, which Oedipa first hears mentioned in the production of The Courier's Tragedy. It is interesting that, as she herself realizes, she comes away from the show thinking not about the bones as she had originally intended but rather about the Tristero. The issue of bones, in fact, along with the character of Manny di Presso, disappears from the novel altogether after chapter three. The bones are yet another red herring in a book that may be all red herring. However, the departure from the bones plot element is in itself satirical. The bone conspiracy taking place is very disturbing, as well as illegal; it is an issue that really ought to be investigated by the law so as to prosecute the wrongdoers who violated the resting places of so many soldiers. Instead, however, Oedipa forgets all about this real crime that needs to be resolved and turns toward the search for a bizarre, mysterious, and perhaps non-existent conspiracy that may not even have any real moral implications. In this chapter, the novel seems to take a deliberate turn toward the absurd.

A word ought to be said at this point about the Tristero. We will eventually learn who exactly Tristero was and why he is important. Oedipa will slowly uncover the fact that Tristero was a disinherited European noble who fought against the Thurn and Taxis postal system that controlled all European mail delivery throughout the medieval era into the Renaissance and the early modern period. Wharfinger, the author of The Courier's Tragedy, was aware of the existence of Tristero and included a throwaway line about him in the play. This single mention will become Oedipa's obsession in subsequent chapters, leading her into the most complex elements of the novel's plot. However, the Wharfinger play, the important parts of which will be further analyzed by Oedipa in greater detail in later chapters, also deals with the problems of communication between the characters. Indeed, a failure to communicate is what drives much of the play's action. In focusing on Tristero, Oedipa, thus, drives forward the story while ignoring the novel's major theme: communication. This is a marvelous move by Pynchon: the theme of miscommunication highlighted not by a recognition of miscommunication but by a moment of actual miscommunication that is highlighted in the intersection of Wharfinger's text and Pynchon's novel, but which is overlooked by Pynchon's characters.