Playing the Post Card

of Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49

The difference between a collector of post cards and another [...] is that he can communicate with other collectors with the help of post cards, which enriches and singularly complicates the exchange. In the bookstore I felt that between them [collectors of post cards] they formed, from State to State, from nation to nation, a very powerful secret society in the open air. -- The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Jacques Derrida.

For many readers, the primary attraction of Thomas Pynchon's second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (published in 1966) is the fact that it is short, a mere "novella," only 138 pages long in the paperback edition. By contrast, Pynchon's first and third novels, V. (1963) and Gravity's Rainbow (1973), are quite long, especially the latter, which is over 700 pages. Furthermore, the plot of The Crying of Lot 49 is relatively simple and straightforward, while those of the other two are not. And so, Pynchon's novella appears to obey what Herbert Spencer calls an "economy of creative effort." In The Philosophy of Style, Spencer states: "To so present ideas that they may be apprehended with the least possible mental effort, is the desideratum."

For Pynchon, who is, like William Burroughs, commonly regarded as -- indeed, praised for being -- a writer of "difficult" fiction, there must have been risks involved in writing an "economical" book, one without "waste" of any kind. In The Post Card, Jacques Derrida sketches out the incredible, perhaps even infinite complexity of the subject to which Pynchon's novella addresses itself (i.e., the workings of postal systems): "[I] want to write and first to assemble an enormous library on the courrier [both letter and delivery person], the postal institutions, the techniques and mores of telelcommunication, the networks and epochs of telecommunication throughout history -- but the 'library' and the 'history' themselves are precisely but 'posts,' sites of passage or of relay among others, stases, moments or effects of restance [standing or remaining] and also particular representations, narrower and narrower, shorter and shorter sequences, proportionally, of the Great Telematic Network, the worldwide connection."

Even if one were able to compress such a huge subject into the pages of a short book (The Post Card is over 500 pages), one might legitimately wonder if something as familiar, ordinary and even banal as the post office is fit for "serious" literature. "We have played the post card against literature," Derrida explains; post cards are "inadmissible literature." No doubt Pynchon didn't want his readers to apply a remark about a play (The Courier's Tragedy) that is contained within or enveloped by The Crying of Lot 49 to the novella itself: "It was written [merely] to entertain people. Like horror movies. It isn't literature, it doesn't mean anything." And so Pynchon wrote The Crying of Lot 49 as one would write a post card, something that is short, easy to read, and yet, despite its apparent superficiality and "innocence," the carrier of meanings that are indecipherable to all except those to whom it is addressed.

* * * *

If indeed the novella is a kind of post card, then the picture -- usually placed on the side opposite the address/message/stamp side -- is easy to locate. Amid much fanfare, it is unveiled at the end of the first chapter: "the central painting of a triptych, titled 'Bordando el Manto Terrestre' . . . by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo." According to Pynchon's narrator, this painting depicts the following scene.

[A] number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, 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.

For Oedipa Maas, the novella's protagonist, this painting is deeply moving and highly relevant to her own situation. She happened to see it in Mexico City, where her then-lover, a rich man named Pierce Inverarity, had once taken her on a tryst.

Oedpia, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. (Emphasis added.)

According to Janet A. Kaplan, author of Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, Pynchon saw Bordando el Manto Terrestre ("Embroidering Earth's Mantle") when, as part of the first full retrospective of the painter's work, it was displayed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1964, a year after her death at the age of 55. Painted in 1961, el Manto (oil on masonite, roughly 40 by 48 inches) is the central panel in an autobiographical triptych. It is possible that Pynchon, writing Lot 49 in 1965, recalled the painting from memory or incomplete notes, and not with a reproduction of it set in front of him. He gets a lot wrong.

1. Nothing here suggests that the golden-haired girls inside the octagonal (not circular) tower are Rapunzel-like prisoners. (By way of setting the stage for his recollection of Bordando el Manto Terrestre, Pynchon's narrator says that, prior to her affair with Pierce, Oedipa had "conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of pensive girl somehow, magically, prisoner among the pines and salt fogs.") In Varo's painting, there are six girls in total, all the same height and build, all dressed the same way, like identical sisters, a sextuplet. We can only see the faces of two of them. Though both girls have their eyes lowered and focused down upon their busy hands, they are clearly smiling. They look so relaxed that they might be asleep and smiling at their dreams.

They might also be smiling because they are plotting their escape. If viewers look closely enough, they can see -- upside-down and hidden within one of the folds in the tapestry -- that one of the girls has, in Varo's own words, "embroidered a trick [right into the tapestry] in which one can see her together with her lover." This detail leads Janet A. Kaplan to conclude that, "unlike Rapunzel [...], Varo's young heroine imprisoned in the tower is not merely a metaphor for confinement, but also an agent of her own liberation. To free herself [...] she connives to flee the tower that isolates her from the very life she is expected to create." (The third part of the triptych, The Escape, shows the girl and her lover fleeing/flying into the mountains.)

2. "Slit windows" is a misleading description, because the openings in the tower are positioned too low for anyone in the room (either standing or sitting down) to see out of them. (Kaplan calls them "battlements.") Strictly speaking, there are no "real" windows in the tower; no one inside can see out, into the "outdoors"; the tower is in some sense blind. The only window is the one (imaginary, metaphorical and/or hypothetical) opened up by the painter, who accomplishes the trick by "removing" or rendering transparent one of the walls. In a nice touch, the shape of this dream-like window exactly matches that of the alcove, which is in the back part of the room, facing us. This echoing or doubling effect suggests just how far into the "recesses" we (and no one else) are seeing.

3. The tapestry that comes rolling out of the tower doesn't seek to "fill" any void, nor does it manage to "contain" the whole world. (In addition to "embroidering" or "weaving," Bordando can also mean "bordering" or "circumnavigating.") There are several pockets left open, uncovered by fabric, and in each case these pockets are not empty or "void," but are filled with water, are in fact "bodies" of water, several of them traveled by boats. And so the tapestry seeks only to form or fill dry land, the land masses of the world, not the oceans and lakes, not the entire planet. As in the Bible, (the) land is only a "mantle" (a piece of clothing or the crust worn by the Earth), not the original, naked, oceanic Creation itself. Ironically, in his novel V., Pynchon himself had warned against making a very similar mistake.

Perhaps history this century [...] is rippled with gathers in its fabric such that if we are situated [...] at the bottom of a fold, it's impossible to determine warp, woof or pattern anywhere else. By virtue, however, of existing in one gather it is assumed there are others, compartmented off in sinuous cycles each of which come to assume greater importance than the weave itself and destroy any continuity [...] We are accordingly lost to any sense of a continuous tradition. Perhaps if we lived on a crest, things would be different. We could at least see.

In seeing or remembering only the tapestry, and not the bodies of water, Pynchon has, as it were, blindly mistaken the view from "the bottom of a fold" for the view "on a crest." He doesn't see or has perhaps forgotten the following paradox: bodies of water make up the pre-existing and "continuous tradition," not the added-on-later tapestry of the land, which is only a "compartmented" fold within the (larger) weave.

4. Unaccountably, Pynchon's narrator makes no reference whatsoever to the two other women in the tower. (Six plus two is eight. There's a certain symmetry: eight women, eight walls.) One of these women is easy to miss: she is sitting back in the alcove, where she appears to be playing a musical instrument, perhaps a recorder. But the other woman requires a real effort to overlook: she is purple, very tall and slender, and standing near the epicenter of the room. (No doubt Oedipa's LSD-crazed, devoutly Freudian psychoanalyst Dr Hilarius would say that Pynchon has averted his eyes from what she represents, i.e., mommy's missing phallus.)

A magician or sorceress of some kind, the tall woman holds a small book in her left hand and, with her right hand, uses a long rod to stir a turquoise potion. The cauldron is utterly remarkable. Double-bowled, with one bowl atop the other, connected together by a narrow tube, around which a magic ring circles -- the cauldron sits at the exact center of the room. It is the source of two of the three sets of threads out of which the girls (using both hands) are weaving and embroidering the tapestry. (The third set of threads is quite obscure: it comes out of holes in the floor, and it isn't clear how the girls are incorporating it into the tapestry.) Perhaps the small book contains the spells, songs or instructions necessary to script the mantle, and the magician is needed to translate them, sing them or read them aloud. (Janet A. Kaplan likens the scene Varo has depicted to "a medieval scriptorium," a monastery for the writing or copying of manuscripts.)

In a set of curious touches, the magician's face is veiled (and so we can't see if her mouth is open or closed); and her eyes are averted, off to her right (and so she doesn't see us, peering "in" at her.) (Her averted gaze is all the more striking when compared to one of the girls in the first panel in the triptych, Toward the Tower, who, in Kaplan's words, "rebels, her gaze reaching out [back to/at the viewers] defiantly, resisting what Varo termed 'the hypnosis.'"). As viewers, we see everything; in Embroidering the Earth's Mantle, the viewers are invisible, unseen by those who are seen. In the case of the magician, we might have caught her during a pause, interruption or delay in the ceremony, perhaps a moment of distraction or day-dreaming.

None of this is adequately captured, indeed, most of it changed to the opposite of what it had previously been, by Pynchon's recollection: "Such a captive maiden [Oedipa], having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all."

The lesson for truly attentive readers of The Crying of Lot 49 is easy to see. As we follow Oedipa "from cry to cry" -- from self-pitying tears to tears of mourning (shed for Pierce Inverarity after his death), from "crying" (shedding tears) to the "crying" (auctioning off) of Lot 49 -- we must pay careful attention to the "economy" or "play" of Pynchon's writing, to his delays as well as to his deliveries, to what he leaves out, changes or gets wrong. It is possible that, embroidered into his elaborate yarns, there are designs of which he himself is not fully aware.

* * * *

By the time Pynchon recalls and displays Bordando el Manto Terrestre for his readers, two things of consequence have already happened:

1). Oedipa has already cried once ("Mucho [her husband], baby," she cried, in an access [sic] of helplessness"). Over the course of the novella, Oedipa will cry a total of five times, and two other people -- Dr Hilarius, and Emory Bortz, an author and college professor -- will cry (out) once each, making a grand total of seven cries. Perhaps this number, the square root of 49 -- itself an echo of the number of days of mourning in the Tibetan Book of the Dead -- is meant to evoke the seven-day-long period of mourning in Judaism called shiva or perhaps the "seven years' bad luck" Oedipa fears she's going to have after she breaks a mirror in her hotel room.

2). the plot has already begun. Hopefully without giving too much of the game away in advance, it must be said that, here, "the plot" means "the dramatic action," but also "the burial place" and "the conspiracy."

This is the novella's very first sentence:

One summer afternoon, Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it out more than honorary.

The narrator's "postal" metaphor ("the job of sorting it out") foreshadows the fact that Oedipa learns the news of her new duties (ner "naming") by letter. Sent "from the law firm of Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus, of Los Angeles, and signed by somebody named Metzger," it explains that a codicil to the dead man's will mandates that, post obit, "Metzger was to act as co-executor and special counsel in the event of any involved litigation." Together, Oedipa and Metzger are required, in the words of the narrator, to "learn intimately the books and the business, go through probate, collect all debts, inventory the assets, get an appraisal of the estate, decide what to liquidate and what to hold on to, pay off claims, square away taxes, distribute legacies. . . ."

Pierce had only been briefly involved with Oedipa, had not seen her in a very long time, and had attached the codicil a year before his death. Furthermore, the will itself had "only just now" been found. And so, troubling questions arise. What accounts for all the delays? Why wasn't all of this settled ages ago? Why had Pierce named Oedipa (of all people) to be a co-executor? Didn't Pierce have any siblings, ex-wives or children? Surely one of his legatees would serve better as the distributor of his legacies. Oedipa has no experience in such matters. "If only so much didn't stand in her way," the narrator says: "her deep ignorance of law, of investment, of real estate, ultimately of the dead man himself."

To get an answer to this Sphinx-like riddle ("why me?"), Oedipa must "pierce" the "inveracity" of the death-shroud of Pierce Inverarity, and thereby learn the naked truth about or standing behind her ex-lover. Oedipa must dig the dead man, decrypt his meaning. At stake in this quest for the truth isn't just Oedipa's peace of mind or her bond (her "word" to the probate court), but also the value of speculating upon a contemporary, feminized version of Oedipus; the interest of the novella itself; the way Pynchon is "evaluated" and "appraised" by critics, professors and other readers, book sales, etc etc.

But what happens if Pierce (declared to be of sound mind and body) didn't in fact know exactly what he was doing when he named Oedipa co-executor? A few pages from the novella's end, the narrator asks, "Might Oedipa Maas yet be his heiress; had that been in the will, in code, perhaps without Pierce really knowing, having been by then too seized by some headlong expansion of himself, some visit, some lucid instruction?" There is no answer, only the following consolation: "Though she could never again call back any image of the dead man to dress up, pose, talk to and make answer, neither would she lose a new compassion for the cul-de-sac he'd tried to find a way out of, for the enigma his efforts had created" (emphasis added). But finding compassion for blind stumbling isn't the same thing as seeing the naked truth.

"As things developed," the narrator says, back at the beginning, "she [Oedipa] was to have all manner of revelations." Some will have concerned Pierce, some Oedipa herself, still others her husband Wendell ("Mucho") Maas. But the balance of these revelations will have concerned what the narrator cryptically refers to as "what remained yet had somehow, before this, stayed away": the possibly apocryphal, semi-secret existence of an 800-year-old underground postal system that is sometimes called "the Tristero," other times "WASTE." According to the narrator,

Much of the [central] revelation was to come through the stamp collection Pierce had left, his substitute often for her -- thousands of little colored windows into deep vistas of space and time [...], he could spend hours peering into each one, ignoring her. She had never seen the fascination. The thought now that it would all have to be inventoried and appraised was only another headache. No suspicion at all that it might have something to tell her. Yet if she hadn't been set up or sensitized, first by her peculiar seduction [by Metzger], then by other, almost offhand things, what after all could the mute stamps have told her, remaining then as they would've only ex-rivals, cheated as she by death, about to be broken up into lots, [ready to be sent] on route to any number of new masters? (Emphasis added.)

Despite his knowledge that this story is to be short (a "mere" post card), not long (a "proper" letter), the narrator doesn't get to the stamp collection right away. There's a couple of places that must be visited first, before it can be called upon. "It got seriously under way, this sensitizing, either with the letter from Mucho or the evening she and Metzger drifted into a strange bar known as The Scope. Looking back she forgot which had come first." But the "omniscient" narrator hasn't forgotten the ordering. (He can be trusted: his business is giving order or "taxis" to the plot.) The letter or, rather, the envelop in which it was mailed, came first.

It may have been an intuition that the letter would be newsless inside that made Oedpia look more closely at its outside, when it arrived. At first she didn't see. It was an ordinary Muchoesque envelop, swiped from the [radio] station [at which Mucho worked], ordinary airmail stamp, to the left of the cancellation a blurb put on by the government, REPORT ALL OBSCENE MAIL TO YOUR POTSMASTER.

A set up within a set up: "At first she didn't see." An "economical" abbreviation, surely: "At first see didn't see [the blurb]." But also, if only for a flashing moment, there's a suggestion that Oedipa was blind ("she didn't see [at all]") and then, jarred by the comical spelling mistake ("potsmaster" for "postmaster"), regained her sight -- a kind of reversal of the fortunes of Sophocles' Oedipus.

When told of the glaring mistake, Metzger makes a grim joke about two different kinds of delivery systems that are monopolized by the federal government (postal, and nuclear weaponry). "So they [the government] make misprints," Metzger said, "let them. As long as they're careful about not pressing the wrong button, you know?" Yes, of course: nuclear war would be an "obscenity" too horrible to report to and, in any case, well beyond the jurisdiction of the Postmaster General of the United States of America.

In the very next sentence ("It may have been that same evening that they happened across The Scope, a bar out on the way to L.A., near the Yoyodyne [weapons delivery] plant"), the narrator conveys us, post-haste, to the next stop along the route. While having a drink inside The Scope, Oedipa witnesses what looks like "mail call" along "an inter-office mail run" for employees at Yoyodyne. Immediately afterwards, Oedipa enters the ladies' bathroom, where, "among lipsticked obscenities," she quickly "noticed the following message, neatly indited in engineering lettering" (emphasis added):

'Interested in sophisticated fun? You, hubby, girl friends. The more the merrier. Get in touch with Kirby, through WASTE only, Box 7391, L.A.'

It's a "personals" ad, a commonplace, a cliche: horny geek looking for sex. But there's something else going on, as well. The word "indited" means more than just written or engraved: it's usually applied to speeches, poems, announcements and other "open letters," addressed to one-and-all. It is at variance with the exclusivity of "WASTE only." And what is WASTE? An economical or abbreviated rendering of W.A.S.T.E. (Later on, Oedipa -- by pronouncing it "like a word, waste" -- will alienate a user of the system, who explains, behind "a mask of distrust," "it's W.A.S.T.E., lady, an acronym, not 'waste.'" The acronym "posts" or stands for the slogan "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire," but still remains a pun on "waste," on yet another collection, sorting and delivery system controlled by the goverment. Looking for and finally finding a W.A.S.T.E. mailbox, Oedipa sees "a can with a swinging trapezoidal top, the kind you throw trash in: old and green, nearly four feet high. On the swinging part were hand painted the initials W.A.S.T.E. She had to look closely to see the periods between the letters.")

Back in The Scope's bathroom, the narrator says: "Beneath the notice [the personals ad], faintly in pencil, was a symbol she'd never seen before, a loop, triangle and trapezoid [...]. It might be something sexual [a depiction of genitalia], but somehow she doubted it. She found a pen in her purse and copied the address and symbol [a post horn with a mute inserted into its bell] in her memo book, thinking: God, hieroglyphics." She might have thought, God, again with the hierogylphics. Oedipa had already divined "a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning" in the printed circuits (or "cards") in transistor radios, in the "ordered swirl" of houses and streets in South California, and mostly vidily in Pierce Inverarity's Fangoso Lagoons, a "new housing development," which

was to be laced with canals with private landings for power boats, a floating social hall in the middle of an artificial lake, at the bottom of which lay restored galleons, imported from the Bahamas; Atlantean fragments of columns and friezes from the Canaries; real human skeletons from Italy [...] A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath [...] Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead.

As soon as Oedipa returns from The Scope's bathroom, one of the bar's patrons "had this funny look on his face" and says to her, "You weren't supposed to see that." There's a moment of confusion. Did the bar-patron (Mike Fallopian of the Peter Pinguid Society) mean the W.A.S.T.E. personals ad, or the inter-office mail run? Did he, having X-ray machines for eyes, happen to see Oedipa noticing the W.A.S.T.E. personals ad, right through the bathroom wall? No, of course not; it would be paranoid to think so.

The very next sentence (the narrator is keeping the plot moving): "He [Fallopian] had an envelop. Oedipa could see, instead of a postage stamp, the handstruck initials PPS [Peter Pinguid Society]." Fallopian, trying to reassure Oedipia that "it's not as rebellious as it looks," shows her the innocent, post card-like contents of a letter he'd just received through the W.A.S.T.E. system.

"Dear Mike. How are you? Just thought I'd drop you a note. How's your book coming? Guess that's all for now. See you at The Scope."

Here it is, then: the message on the post card that is The Crying of Lot 49. (All we need now is the address, and the stamp, and it will be ready for the post). Pynchon's narrator explains what Mike Fallopian's book is about:

[It's] a history of private mail delivery in the U.S., attempting to link the Civil War to the postal reform movement that had begun around 1845. [Fallopian] found it beyond simple coincidence that in of all years 1861 the federal government should have set out on a vigorous suppression of those independent mail routes still surviving the various Acts of '45, '47, '51 and '55, Acts all designed to drive any private competition into financial ruin. He saw it all as a parable of power, its feeding, growth and systematic abuse.

Though he may be paranoid -- for what lies "beyond simple coincidence," other than conspiracy? -- this Mike Fallopian is definitely "on the right track," both historically (the international postal reform movement of the 1840s) and ideologically (the parable of power). Or at least he's traveling in the same route taken by Jacques Derrida's The Post Card, in which the following passage appears.

[Y]es, in the "modern" period the country of the Reformation [Germany] has played a rather important role, it seems to me in postal reform [...] No, I don't have any big hypothesis about the conjoint development of capitalism, Protestantism, and postal rationalism, but all the same, things are necessarily linked. The post is a banking agency. Don't forget that in the great reformation of the "modern" period another great country of the Reformation [England] played a spectacular role: in 1837 Rowland Hill publishes his book, Post-Office Reform: Its Importance and Practicability. He is an educator; and a reformer of the fiscal system. What was he proposing? the stamp, my love, what would we have done without it? The sticking stamp, that is, the uniformization of payment, the general equivalent of the tax, above all the bill before the letter, the payment in advance (the uniform rate and a system of prepayment, which were adopted in 1840 after great popular agitation).

And so, at the center of it all: pre-paid postage stamps. The "reformed" Post Office insists on their universal use, and "underground" groups like the Peter Pinguid Society and the Tristero refuse to use them at all and, on occasion, make mocking counterfeits of "official" ones. And, at the center of the plot in The Crying of Lot 49, a whole collection of pre-paid postage stamps.

* * * *

With the opening of Mike Fallopian's book, about a quarter of the way through The Crying of Lot 49, Pynchon's narrator has completed the necessary detours. We are ready to precede to the heart of the matter: "So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of the Tristero." No -- a hesitation on the narrator's part -- "blooming" mixes the metaphor of the mantle (the tapestry). And so he tries again:

So began, for Oedipa, the languid, sinister blooming of the Tristero. Or rather, her attendance at some unique performance, prolonged as if it were the last of the night, something a little extra for whoever'd stayed this late. As if the breakaway gowns, net bras, jeweled garters and G-strings of historical figuration that would fall away were layered dense [...]; as if a plunge toward dawn indefinite black hours long would indeed be necessary before the Tristero could be revealed in its terrible nakedness.

This second try is a complex re-presentation, change and expansion of the novella's central images (metaphors): the mantle isn't simply a form of magic that covers parts of the world, but "historical figuration" (the embroidery of experts), which doesn't seem to be magic at all, but a neutral science; and it (the mantle) doesn't simply cover the naked body of the Earth, but also the naked body of the Tristero conspiracy.

Note as well the apocalyptic tone: "the last of the night," the "late" hours, the "indefinite black hours," the "terrible" nakedness of the final truth. A haunting certainly, but not by the shadow or spectre of nuclear war, something in the looming future, but by the end of a long-standing epoch. The end of the post (symbolized by the muted post horn) and the beginning of the telephone, which Pynchon's narrator refers to as "the horn." Derrida mourns the entire epoch from Socrates to Freud: "We are writing the last letters [...] We are taking the last correspondance [letters and correlations]. Soon there will be no more of them. Eschatology, apocalypse, and teleology of epistles themselves. For the same reason there will be no more money. I mean bills or coins, and no more stamps. Of course the [mechanical] technology which is replacing all that had already begun to do so for a very long time [...] It will no longer be writing that will be transported, but the perforated card, microfilm, or magnetic tape. The day will come that, thanks to the 'telepost,' the fundamentals will be transmitted by wire starting from the user's computer."

Incredibly, Pynchon's narrator, instead of moving on to Pierce's stamp collection (his "proper" destination), does something uneconomical, even wasteful. He goes backwards, back to the very beginning, and tries to start the story again. "The beginning of that peformance [the striptease-like denuding of the Tristero] was clear enough. It was while she and Metzger were waiting for ancillary letters to be granted representatives in Arizona, Texas, New York and Florida, where Inverarity had developed real estate, and in Delaware, where he'd been incorporated" (emphasis added). Different, but the same story: waiting for the arrival of letters, more letters, more waiting.

This new thread (the striptease) leads Oedipa to the play The Courier's Tragedy, a fictional Jacobean revenge play that alludes to the Tristero conspiracy. From there, the yarn leads to a theatrical performance of the play, the director of that particular performance (Randy Driblette), the play's author (a fictional 17th century playwright named Richard Wharfinger), the script Driblette used (there are, of course, several different editions of the play, some of which are textually "corrupt," one of which is "obscene"), the bookstore at which Driblette purchased his copy (Zapf), the publisher of that "unaccountable" edition (Lecturn, based in Berkeley), the author of a preface to one of the rival editions (Emory Bortz), etc etc.

Like the play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet, The Courier's Tragedy is used to both further and comment upon the plotting of the novella itself. It is presented as "the landscape of evil Richard Wharfinger had fashioned for his 17th-century audiences, so preapocalyptic, death-wishful, sensually fatigued, unprepared, a little poignantly, for the abyss of civil war that had been waiting, cold and deep, only a few years ahead of them." There are three civil wars in perspective here: the English Civil War, circa 1648; the American Civil War, circa 1861 (cf. Mike Fallopian's book); and the (Second) American Civil War, circa 1965 (the "counter-culture" of Southern California).

Postal systems are central to the plot of The Courier's Tragedy. (Once again, "the plot" involves dramatic action, burial place, and conspiracy.) The "courier" of the play's title is Niccolo, who, Pynchon's narrator says,

is hanging around the court of his father's murderer, Duke Angelo, and masquerading as a special courier of the Thurn and Taxis family, who at the time held a postal monopoly throughout most of the Holy Roman Empire. [Niccolo's father had been the Duke of Faggio; Angelo had him replaced by Pasquale.] What he [Niccolo] is trying to do, ostensibly, is develop a new market, since the evil Duke of Squamuglia [Angelo] has steadfastedly refused, even with the lower rates and faster service of the Thurn and Taxis system, to employ any but his own messengers in communicating with his stooge Pasquale over in neighboring Faggio. The real reason Niccolo is waiting around is of course to get a crack at the Duke.

In Act IV, Angelo learns that Pasquale has been assassinated, and that someone named Gennaro has raised an army and declared himself "interim head of state until the rightful Duke, Niccolo, can be located." Angelo writes a letter, all the while "explaining to the audience but not to the good guys, who are still ignorant of recent developments, that to forestall an invasion from Faggio, he must assure Gennaro with all haste of his good intentions." When the letter is completed, Angelo (taking no chances) doesn't give it to one of his own couriers, but summons someone from Thurn and Taxis to deliver it. Niccolo shows up, takes the letter and goes off to deliver it to Gennaro. Angelo doesn't realize that the courier was Niccolo in disguise, and Niccolo doesn't know that the letter's contents pertain to him personally. Neither Angelo nor Niccolo realize that the subject of the letter and its deliverer are one and the same person.

Angelo is the first to make the connection. As soon as he does, he "orders Niccolo's pursuit and destruction." Once again, Angelo doesn't use his own men, but he doesn't summon Thurn and Taxis a second time. Instead, he turns to the Tristero, Thurn and Taxis's sworn enemy. Just before Niccolo is overtaken and killed by Tristero assassins, he opens up the letter he's been carrying. Reading aloud, he makes "sarcastic" comments about what "is blatantly a pack of lies devised to soothe Gennaro until Angelo can muster his own army." But when Gennaro arrives on the scene, and reads the letter aloud, "it is no longer the lying document Niccolo read us excerpts from at all, but now miraculously a long confession by Angelo of all his crimes [...] In the presence of the miracle, all fall to their knees, bless the name of God, mourn Niccolo, vow to lay waste to [Angelo's Dukedom of] Squamuglia." But who performed the miracle? Who re-wrote and re-sealed the letter? If not the Tristero, then whom? God?!

Oedipa's pursuit of the truth behind the text of The Courier's Tragedy, though it turns up several tantalizing clues, takes her further and further away from Pierce's stamp collection. Eventually, there's a kind of break-down or catastrophe. At a particular place in the novella, the narrator sets his readers' sights on a specific destination ("The publisher's up in Berkeley," Oedipa thinks to herself; "Maybe I'll try them directly") and then sends them somewhere else ("next day she drove out to Vesperhaven House, a home for senior citizens"). Seven pages later, without noticing the lengthy and quite extraordinary detour he's just pursued, the narrator takes up where he left off, as if nothing unusual has happened ("She [Oedipa] found the Lecturn Press in a small office building on Shattack Avenue").

But something unusual did happened. Jacques Derrida might say that Pynchon intentionally and openly tried to imitate or import into the form of his narration the truth of all postal operations. Drawing upon both philosophy (historical figuration) and common sense (personal experience), Derrida states:

The condition for [the letter] to arrive is that it ends up and even that it begins by not arriving [...] A letter can always not arrive at its destination, and that therefore it never arrives. And this is really how it is, it is not a misfortune, that's life [...] To post is to send by "counting" with a halt, a relay, or a suspensive delay, the place of the mailman, the possibility of going astray and of forgetting [...] A strike [by the employees], or even a sorting accident, can always delay indefinitely, lose without return.

For these reasons, Derrida is fascinated by "dead letters," pre-paid missives that never arrive, that enter into and remain in the postal system.

"Dead Letter Office. -- Letters or parcels which cannot be delivered, from defect of address or other cause, are sent to the Division of dead letters and dead parcels post. They are carefully examined on both front and back for name and address of the sender; if these are found, they are returned to the sender. If the sender's address is lacking, they are kept for a period, after which dead letters are destroyed, while dead parcels are sold at auction." I ask myself, and truly speaking they could never give me a satisfactory answer on this question, how they distinguish a letter and a parcel, a dead letter and a dead parcel, and why they did not also sell a so-called dead letter at auction.

All this certainly goes a long way in The Crying of Lot 49, the ultimate destination of which is a dead man's stamp collection, parceled and ready to be sold at an auction. But there must be more in play than just that. Note the abruptness of and confusion caused by the beginning of the narrator's 7-page-long detour.

"Wait," [Oedipa] said, having just got an idea, "the publisher's up in Berkeley. Maybe I'll try them directly." Thinking also she could visit John Nefastis.

She had caught sight of the historical marker only because she'd gone back, deliberately, to Lake Inverarity one day, owing to this, what you might have to call, growing obsession, with "bringing something of herself" -- even if that something was just her presence -- to the scatter of business interests that had survived Inverarity. She would give them order, she would create constellations; next day she drove out to Vesperhaven House, a home for senior citizens that Inverarity had put up around the time Yoyodyne came to San Narciso. (Emphasis added.)

In sharp contrast to Oedipa's commitment to giving "order" (Taxis) and constellation-like coherence or legibility to Inverarity's "scatter," the narrator here creates disorder, a sense of dislocation, by deliberately going back and forth very quickly. Back to Lake Inverarity, where, by accident, "on the other side of the lake at Fangoso Lagoons," Oedipa happened to see "the historical marker," which proclaimed:

On this site, in 1853, a dozen Wells, Fargo men battled gallantly with a band of masked marauders in mysterious black uniforms. We owe this description to a post rider, the only witness to the massacre, who died shortly after. The only other clue was a cross, traced by one of the victims in the dust. To this day the identities of the slayers remains shrouded in mystery. (Emphasis added.)

And then, suddenly forward, not to Berkeley and the Lecturn Press, but to Vesperhaven House, a destination that has arrived completely unannounced and totally unexpected. On the day of Oedipa's visit, neither the residents of Vesperhaven nor even Pynchon's own readers knew or were told that she was coming. She had no real reason to go there, in the first place: Yoyodyne is only peripherally involved in the Tristero conspiracy, and had already been covered. Oedipa just wandered into Verperhaven one fine day, without knowing who, exactly, she wanted to talk to. She might have met no one on that particular day; the whole trip might've ended up a waste of time and effort.

Miraculously, the person Oedipa is lucky enough to meet isn't a "character" in the story, or at least hadn't yet been named, mentioned or alluded to.

In its front recreation room she [Oedipa] found sunlight coming in it seemed through every window; an old man nodding in front of a dim Leon Schlesinger cartoon show on the tube; and a black fly browsing along the pink, dandruffy arroyo of the neat part in the old man's hair. A fat nurse ran in with a can of bug spray and yelled at the fly to take off so she could kill it. The cagey fly stayed where it was. "You're bothering Mr Thoth," she yelled at the little fellow. Mr Thoth jerked awake, jarring the loose the fly, which made a desperate scramble for the door. The nurse pursued, spraying poison. "Hello," said Oedipa. "I was dreaming," Mr Thoth told her, "about my grandfather. A very old man, at least as old as I am now." (Emphasis added.)

Is it a mere "coincidence" or "accidental correlation" that, in ancient Egyptian mythology, Thoth was the inventor of numbers and writing (hieroglyphics)? Or that, in ancient Greek mythology, Thoth was identified with Hermes, herald and messenger (mailman) of the gods? No, these correlations can't be accidental, they must be intentional, because this "Mr Thoth" not only knows about the Tristero, but has definite proof of its existence.

"A Spanish name," Mr Thoth said, frowning, "a Mexican name. Oh, I can't remember. Did they write it on the ring?" He reached down to a knitting bag by his chair and came up with blue yarn, needles, patterns, finally a dull gold signet ring. "My grandfather cut this from the finger of one of them he killed. Can you imagine a 91-year-old man so brutal?" Oedipa stared. The device on the ring was once again the WASTE symbol.

Another stunning coincidence: dangling at the end of Mr Thoth's "blue yarn" is Plato's version of the story of the ring of Gyges. As Marc Shell points out in The Economy of Literature, the story of Gyges had been told by many ancient writers, including Herodotus, Xanthos, Anacreon, Plutarch, Cicero, Archilochus, and Horace. (Modern writers who have told the story include Montaigne, La Fontaine, Rousseau, Gautier, Gide and Tolkien.) But Plato was the first ancient to insist that Gyges was able to commit murder, seize control of Lydia, and become a tyrant (indeed, the very first tyrant of the ancient world) because he possessed a magic solid-gold ring, which (another coincidence!) he'd stolen from the finger of a corpse that'd been brought up from underground by an earthquake. Is it yet another coincidence that, in Spanish, arroyo means "gulch," but also "mine shaft" (a place from which underground gold is brought to the surface)?

In Marc Shell's account, Plato introduced his novel hypothesis because Gyges was the first ruler to mint coins and use them as money. "Rings played several roles in the economic development of money [in ancient Greece]," Shell notes. Before the invention of coined money, rings were among the most commonly used symbola (valued items cut in half and divided between parties who'd entered into a contract, which was thus both sealed and "symbolized" by the cutting). Some of the very first coins were actually ring-coins, coins that could circulate and be worn as rings. And, perhaps most importantly, the seals or writing on the rings of kings were sometimes used to mint coins (and, it shouldn't go without mentioning, to seal and provide authentification for the letters conveyed by the king's couriers).

And there's the hitch or gather in the fabric: you can't separate the monetary system from the postal system. Mr Thoth's ring (the ring of Gyges) joins them together. Recall what Derrida said: "The post is a banking agency." Perhaps there's no need to remind Thomas Pynchon, who wrote The Crying of Lot 49 the same year (1965) that the U.S. Post Office announced it was closing all of its postal savings banks, which had been in operation since 1910. There should have been no need to remind Oedipa of the connection between letters and money. According to the narrator, "the probate court," after evaluating "in dollars [...] how much did stand in her way" -- that is, how likely she was to bail out of her responsibilities to the court -- had required Oedipa to "post" a bond. But, no: Oedipa needs to be reminded, again. That, precisely, is her function, her primary purpose: to remember. She tells herself: "I am meant to remember. Each clue is supposed to have its own clarity, its fine chances for permanence." But then, the narrator says, "she wondered if the gemlike 'clues' were only some kind of compensation. To make up for having lost the direct, epilectic Word, the cry that might abolish the night" (emphasis added).

After the miraculous appearance, deus ex machina, of Mr Thoth, Oedipa searches out Mike Fallopian. What does he make of the historical marker she'd accidently seen? "There's no way to trace it, unless you want to follow up an accidental correlation, like you got from the old man," he tells Oedipa, trying to dissuade her from pursuing the matter any further. Oedipa, ignoring Fallopian's use of the word "accidential," asks him in response: "You really think it's a correlation?" It's really a double correlation: a correlation between the "band of masked marauders in mysterious black uniforms" and the couriers of the Tristero; and a correlation between the incident commemorated by the marker and the incident remembered by Mr Thoth (his grandfather is the post rider who survived to tell the tale). And, of course, there is also a pun, which Pynchon doesn't hesitate to make, on "relation," as in family relations or "lines" of kinship. Oedipa, the narrator says, "thought of how tenuous it was, like a long white hair, over a century long. Two very old men [grandfather and grandson]. All these fatigued brain cells between herself and the truth."

Even the narrator thinks that Oedipa should be getting the hang of the weave (the plot) by now. "If she'd thought to check a couple lines back in the Wharfinger play," he says, "Oedipa might have made the next connection by herself." But she didn't. "As it was she got an assist from Genghis Cohen," "the most eminent philatelist in the L.A. area," who'd been retained by Metzger, "acting on instructions in the will," "to inventory and appraise Inverarity's stamp collection [...] for a percent of his valuation." In this arrangement, a lot, Lot 49 itself, depends on Cohen's "values." If he is an honest man, he will correctly appraise or evaluate the collection, and get paid "properly," according to the stipulated percent (which of course can either be large or small). But if he's a dishonest or corrupt man, he can intentionally overestimate the collection's value and thereby collect more money than he would have otherwise. It's called a "con game," a manipulation of "confidence." (At the end of the novella, when Oedipa spots him at the auction, Cohen looks "genuinely embarassed," and knows exactly why he shouldn't be there: "Please don't call it a conflict of interests," he tells her. "There were some lovely Mozambique triangles I couldn't quite resist." He's "conned" himself into believing he's not corrupt, much in the same way that Oedipa had once "conned herself into the curious, Rapunzel-like role of pensive girl.")

An indefinite time after her encounter with Mr Thoth ("One rainy morning"), but still within the narrator's unaccountable, 7-page-long interruption, "Oedipa got rung up by this Genghis Cohen, who even over the phone she could tell was disturbed. 'There are some irregularities, Miz Maas,' he said. 'Could you come over?'" Since this is the destination to which the entire narrative so far has been heading, Oedipa gets in her car right away (no delays) and drives straight to Cohen's office (no detours). Once she's arrived, however, Cohen serves her "real homemade dandelion wine," and tells her, "I picked the dandelions in a cemetary, two years ago. Now the cemetary is gone. They took it out for the East San Narciso Freeway." It's like she's hearing a post horn, heralding a delivery. Then she blacks out.

She could, at this stage of things, recognize signals like that, as the epilectic is said to -- an odor, color, pure piercing grace note announcing his seizure. Afterward it is only this signal, really dross, this secular announcement, and never what is revealed during the attack, that he remembers. Oedipa wondered whether, at the end of this (if it were supposed to end), she too might not be left with only compiled memories of clues, announcements, intimations, but never the central truth itself, which must somehow each time be too bright for her memory to hold; which must always blaze out, destroying its own message irreversibly, leaving an overexposed blank when the ordinary world came back [...] She glanced down the corridor of Cohen's rooms in the rain and saw, for the very first time, how far it might be possible to get lost in this. (Emphasis added.)

When, exactly, does Oedipa's seizure end? Is it even supposed to end? Did it end as soon as or a few moments after Cohen started explaining what he's found? After she leaves his office? After the narrator's seven-page-long interruption has ended? There's no telling.

The "disturbing" news is the fact that Pierce's stamp collection is corrupt or, rather, contains several corrupt stamps. Cohen shows Oedipa "a U.S. commemorative stamp, the Pony Express issue of 1940, 3 cents henna brown," which, like many other stamps, uses a watermark to verify and reassure that the stamp itself is legitimate, and to discourage or trap counterfeiters. But this particular watermark has the W.A.S.T.E. symbol (a muted post horn) worked into it. "It's obviously a counterfeit," Cohen tells Oedipa. "Not just an error." There are eight "counterfeits" in all, each of which, Cohen reports, has "an error like this, laboriously worked into the design, like a taunt. There's even a transposition -- U.S. Potsage, of all things."

As Cohen himself notes, "The question is, who did these?" Asked another way, "Who would want to taunt the U.S. Post Office?" Several possibilities immediately come to mind: bored, disgruntled or striking postal employees (insiders); agents from competing postal systems, possibly the Tristero (infiltrators); and enemies of the United States government itself, not just its Post Office (in wartime, even a "cold war," an obviously counterfeit stamp can be circulated in the hopes that it will destroy public confidence in both the financial and political legitimacy of the enemy's leadership).

In any case, Oedipa doesn't understand. She thinks that a counterfeit stamp will be like a counterfeit banknote: valuable only when overlooked, and worthless when properly identified. "Then it isn't worth anything," she guesses when Cohen first uses the word "counterfeit." But she's wrong: a counterfeit stamp remains (valuable), after it has been identified and exposed. Doubly corrupt, it can be sold or auctioned off after being seized, while a counterfeit banknote is always destroyed after being seized. "You'd be surprised how much you can sell an honest forgery for," Cohen tells Oedipa. "Some collectors specialize in them." And so this "disturbing" news is actually very good news. It means that Pierce's stamp collection is probably worth a great deal more than originally thought, which in turn means that Cohen's fees will in turn be much higher. The government -- not only the postal inspectors, but the probate court, as well -- should be notified of these discoveries. "Do we tell the government, or what?" innocent Oedipa asks Cohen, who, "nervous or suddenly in retreat," replies, "No, I wouldn't. It isn't our business, is it?" No, apparently not: Cohen's "business" lies in not reporting things (sources of income, conflicts of interest, criminal activity) to the government.

So ends the 7-page-long interruption and the first half of the novella. The transition back to the main thread (the beginning of Chapter 5) is yet another "postal" relay. A kind of reverse of the others, this one -- instead of addressing us properly (to Lecturn Press, in Berkeley) and then sending us to the wrong destination (Vesperhaven) -- addresses us improperly and then sends us to the right destination: "Though her next move should have been to contact Randolph Driblette again, she decided instead to drive up to Berkeley."

* * * *

Marc Shell notes that "the ring of Gyges is a hypothesis that is discarded in the philosophical course" of the Republic, in which Socrates eventually declares "we have proved [...] that the soul ought to do justice whether it possess the ring of Gyges or not." Shell also notes that "the conclusion that the ring of Gyges is finally a bad thing and ought (if found) to be thrown away influenced many political philosophers after Plato," especially Jean-Jacques Rousseau. But what about Thomas Pynchon? He's got the ring of Gyges; he got it from Tolkien; Mr Thoth (even) showed it to Oedipa. But what's Pynchon going to do with it: use it and be corrupted, or throw it away? No; no excluded middles. "[Oedipa] had heard all about [them]; they were bad shit, to be avoided." Pynchon is going to try to have it both ways: he's gonna keep the ring, let Oedipa use it in her search for the truth, but only for a little while; then he'll take it back from her and cashier it.

Cashiered is the name of a disaster movie that Metzger starred in when a child, and "kasher" (a punning cross between cashier and kosher) is part of his schtick, his "come on" to women: "My mother was really out to kasher me, boy, like a piece of beef on the sink, she wanted me drained [of blood] and white. Times I wonder [...] if she succeded. It scares me. You know what mothers like that turn their male children into." In our usage of the word, "cashiering" means dismissing the ring (as one might dismiss a disgraced person from a high post), rejecting and discarding it (as one might refuse a ring consummating or offered in proposal of a marriage), and annuling and discharging it (as one might "break" a contractual agreement, vow or bond).

For most of the second half of the novella, Oedipa is or at least feels "invisible." As a result, she is able to go to commonplace locations and see and hear "secret," even forbidden (Oedipal), things.

Out at the airport Oedipa, feeling invisible, eavesdropped on a poker game whose steady loser entered [posted] each loss neat and conscientious in a little balance-book decorated inside with scrawled post horns [...] Catching a TWA flight to Miami was an uncoordinated boy who planned to slip at night into aquariums and open negotiations with the dolphins, who would succeed man. He was kissing his mother passionately goodbye, using his tongue. "I'll write, ma," he kept saying. "Write by WASTE," she said, "remember. The government will open it if you use the other. The dolphins will be mad." "I love you, ma," he said. "Love the dolphins," she advised him. "Write by WASTE." So it went. Oedipa played the voyeur and listener.

Thanks to the powers of the ring, Oedipa, "with her own eyes," "verified a [whole] WASTE system: [she'd] seen two WASTE postmen, a WASTE mailbox, WASTE stamps, WASTE cancellations. And the image of the muted post horn all but saturating the Bay Area" (emphasis added). She was also able "to fit together" a credible "account" of how the Tristero organization began, back in the 16th century, as a rival to the (quite real) Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly, the symbol of which was an open or unmuted post horn. But, most importantly, Oedipa was to able to understand how and why the Tristero survived, how and why it became today's W.A.S.T.E.

For here were God knew how many citizens, deliberately choosing not to communicate by U.S. Mail. It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?), there had to exist the separate silent, unsuspected world. (Emphasis added.)

There's been an exchange of "withdrawals" that, tragically, leaves a kind of vacuum in the middle. Ignored, denied and excluded from the Republic by the rich and powerful people of America, the poor and powerless have responded by going silent or only speaking in code. But, on both sides of the exchange, the withdrawals keep something back or take away something with them. The "machinery" of America's putatively democratic society (despite the absence of real citizens) keeps its "life," and the network of the excluded (despite being given a kind of death sentence) keep their dignity and sense of self as people who "belong." Indeed, they identify with D.E.A.T.H.: "Don't Ever Antagonize the Horn" is a graffito Oedipa sees accompanying a muted post horn.

Towards the end of the novella, Oedipa herself suddenly starts to withdraw from or cry off her quest for the truth, though she risks losing her bond and having the probate court revoke her "letters testamentary." Perhaps the corruption of the ring has begun to seize her (); perhaps the ring's no longer in her possession (Pynchon having withdrawn it). Instead of being curious, even zealous, she becomes "anxious that her revelation not expand beyond a certain point. Lest, possibly, it [like the ocean] grow larger than she and assume her to itself." She tells one of her sources of information, "It's over, they've saturated me. From here on I'll only close them out. You're free. Released" (emphasis added). And then, "her isolation complete," Oedipa "tried to face toward the sea. But she'd lost her bearings." She, too, has been "released," set "free."

The indefinitely long period of mourning for Pierce Inverarity -- seven days? seven weeks, that is, 49 days? whatever -- it's over. Images of Varo's Bordando el Manto Terrestre and "the continuous tradition" of "the weave itself" itself are clearly recalled at the crucial moment:

San Narciso at that moment lost (the loss pure, instant, spherical, the sound of stainless orchestral chime held among the stars and struck lightly), gave up its residue of uniqueness for her; became a name again, was assumed back into the American continuity of crust and mantle. Pierce Inverarity was really dead. (Emphasis added.)

Oedipa can now see what had previously escaped her notice:

Every access route to the Tristero could be traced back to the Inverarity estate [...] The whole shopping center that housed Zapf's Used Books [...] had been owned by Pierce. Not only that, but the Tank Theatre [where Driblette's production of The Courier's Tragedy had been staged], also [...] Even Emory Bortz, with his copy of Blobb's Peregrinations (bought, she had no doubt he'd tell her in the event she asked, also at Zapf's), taught now at San Narciso College, heavily endowed by the dead man. Meaning what? That Bortz, along with Metzger, Cohen, Driblette, Koteks, the tattoed sailor in San Francisco, the W.A.S.T.E. carriers she'd seen -- that all of them were Pierce Inverarity's men? Bought? Or loyal, for free, for fun, to some grandiose practical joke he'd cooked up, all for her embarassment, or terrorizing, or moral improvement?

Oedipa has realized that the Sphinx-like riddle of the Tristero ("why me?") might not be a conspiracy, but a hoax, and that it isn't being played on the U.S. government and its Potsmaster, but, once again, on her personally and her alone. Thinking aloud for Oedipa, the narrator speculates on the following possibility: "A plot has been mounted against you, so expensive and elaborate, involving items like the forging of stamps, and ancient books, constant surveillance of your movements, planting of post horn images all over San Francisco, bribing of librarians, hiring of professional actors and Pierce Inverarity only knows what-all besides, all financed out of the estate, in a way either too secret or too involved for your non-legal mind to know about even though you are co-executor, so labyrinthine that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke."

Perhaps Pierce's cryptic motivations concerned not so much Oedipa's behavior as what she symbolized: "Though he had never talked business with her, she had known it to be a fraction of him that couldn't come out even, would carry forever beyond any decimal place she might name; her love, such as it had been, remaining incommensurate with his need to possess, to alter the land, to bring new skylines, personal antogonisms, growth rates into being." It's also possible that the hoax wasn't on Oedipa so much as on Death:

She just didn't know. He himself [Pierce] might have discoverd The Tristero, and encrypted that into the will, buying into just enough to be sure she's find it. Or he might even have tried to survive death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved. Would that breed of perversity prove at last too keen to be stunned even by death, had a plot finally been devised too elaborate for the dark Angel to hold at once, in his humorless vice-president's head, all the possibilities of? Had something slipped through and Inverarity by that much beaten death? (Emphasis added.)

And so, "the plot" of The Crying of Lot 49 comes down to four distinct, mutually exclusive possibilities. The Tristero/WASTE system is either (1) a conspiracy against the pre-paid postal stamp or (2) a hoax that counterfeits such a conspiracy; and if "the plot" is a hoax, the motivation for perpetrating it is either (3) pay-back for an unwanted remainder (an "odd" fraction of Pierce's personality, or Oedipa's "incommensurate" love), or (4) an investment in a highly prized remainder (life after death, or immortality). There's a thread that runs through or connects each one: money, which doesn't simply corrupt people, their motivations and their behavior; it also corrupts their minds, thinking and language. It stamps everything.

Pynchon's narrator also comes up with four symmetrical possibilities, but his list varies from ours.

Either (1) you [Oedipa] have stumbled [...] onto a network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating whilst reserving their lies, recitation of routine, arid betrayals of spiritual poverty, for the official government delivery system [...] Or (2) you are hallucinating it. Or (3) a plot has been mounted against you, so expense and elaborate [...] that it must have meaning beyond a practical joke. Or (4) you are fantasying some such plot, in which case you are a nut, Oedipa, out of your skull. (Numbers added.)

Note that the narrator has substituted psychology (possibilities 2 and 4) for money. As a matter of fact, the word "money" is only used once in the whole novella: "No one could begin to trace it," the narrator says of Driblette's decision to add two lines to The Courier's Tragedy. "A hundred hangups, permuted, combined -- sex, money, illness, despair with the history of his time and place, who knew." Money is just one "problem" or thread among many, and not the principle or dominant one.

Who has the authority to choose one of these possibilities and exclude the others, to make a "finding of fact" or other legally binding decision? As co-executor of Pierce's estate, Oedipa Maas does. But, "saturated," she's "freed" and "released" those who had felt bound to give information, and has vowed to "close them out" thereafter. Who does that leave, next in the order of succession? The narrator. And he does not fail to deliver or deposit Oedipa at the auction, though she is, like Wharfinger's 17th century audiences, "death-wishful, sensually fatigued, [and] unprepared" for the drama about to unfold.

To make sure that the estate makes as much money as possible and that there's no conflict of interest (no "hidden" deals, no price-fixing), the stamps are auctioned off, in a public ceremony, rather than simply sold in the usual fashion, i.e., privately. Despite the fact that the auction is open to "you, hubby, girl friends," anyone, the mood is exclusive ("WASTE only," men only).

The men inside the auction room wore black mohair and had pale, cruel faces. They watched her [Oedipa] come in, trying each to conceal his thoughts. Loren Passerine [the auctioneer], on his podium, hovered like a puppet-master, his eyes bright, his smile practiced and relentless. He stared at her, smiling, as if saying, I'm surprised you actually came. Oedipa sat alone, toward the back of the room [...] An assistant closed the heavy door on the lobby windows and the sun. She heard a lock snap shut; the sound echoed a moment. Passerine spread his arms in a gesture that seemed to belong to the priesthood of some remote culture; perhaps to a descending angel. The auctioneeer cleared his throat. Oedipa settled back, to await the crying of Lot 49.

This scene, the novella's very last, has its echo in Derrida's The Post Card.

When I enter the post office of a great city I tremble as if in a sacred place, full of refused, promised, threatening pleasures. It is true that inversely I often have a tendency to consider the great temples as noisy sorting centers, with very agitated crowds before the distribution begins, like the auctioning of an enormous courrier. Occasionally the preacher opens the epistles and reads them aloud. This is always the truth.

But that's just it. At the Lot 49 auction, the crier clears his throat but doesn't get to open his mouth, open and read aloud from the epistles (testaments mailed by the apostles), or reveal the truth. He's interrupted or silenced by Pynchon's narrator, or perhaps by Pynchon himself, who has given out, given up, or dropped the ball ("Keep it bouncing," Pierce, "talking business," had once told Oedipa, "that's all the secret [is], keep it bouncing"). The last word is "END," not "THE END," not "TO BE CONTINUED" (which would have more "bounce"). Just END, no bounce at all.

And so, despite the post card-like "economy" of the narration, and despite the (implicit) promise to "deliver," nothing gets confirmed, decided or resolved. The reader has waited until the end, only to find that, in the end, more waiting (an "afterlife") awaits. All four symmetrical possibilities remain in play, cancelling each other out. Or, rather, the whole "lot" of them have been cancelled, but not redeemed ("made good"); they've been addressed and stamped (Lot 49 on route to auction), but haven't arrived, won't ever arrive, God only knows.

-- Written by Bill Brown, 27 February 2004.

Authors cited:

Derrida, Jacques. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, originally published in French in 1980; translated into English by Alan Bass and published by the University of Chicago Press in 1987.

Kaplan, Janet A. Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys, published by Cross River Press, 1988. Edition used: first paperback edition, 2000.

Pynchon, Thomas. The Crying of Lot 49, originally published by the J.B. Lippincott Company, 1966. Edition used: 19th ("Windstone") printing by Bantam, 1982.

Pynchon, Thomas. V., originally published by the J.B. Lippincott Company, 1963. Edition used: 4th printing by Bantam reprint, 1968.

Shell, Marc. The Economy of Literature, published by the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978. Edition used: 2d printing, 1979.