The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49

by

Thomas Pynchon

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Crying of Lot 49 can help.

The Crying of Lot 49: Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narrator declares that, beyond Mike Fallopian and The Courier’s Tragedy, other elements of Oedipa’s world will gradual start becoming “woven into The Tristero.” After looking over Pierce Inverarity’s will, Oedipa decides to visit Yoyodyne. She attends a stockholders’ meeting full of old men who spend an hour talking business and an hour singing songs about the company and the weapons it’s developing. Then, Oedipa goes on a tour with the elderly stockholders, but she gets lost among the Yoyodyne office workers and starts wandering around, looking for an exit.
The reference to weaving elements of the world together “into The Tristero” directly recalls the Remedios Varo painting Oedipa reflected on in the Chapter 1. In this painting, several women weave together an enormous cloth, which contains the whole world and spills out of the tower where the women are trapped. The metaphor is clear: Oedipa, feeling trapped as though in a tower, is weaving the clues she encounters into the massive Tristero conspiracy that is gradually coming to define her world. The Yoyodyne stockholders meeting is jarring because it pairs the seriousness of destructive military technology with the inane childishness of elderly stockholders singing songs about their own greatness. Pynchon is clearly suggesting that the people who hold power in America are foolish and comically incapable of wielding power responsibly. Given that Pynchon served in the navy and worked at Boeing, he may have considered this sentiment particularly true of the men who ran the Cold War military-industrial complex.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
American Modernity and Counterculture Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Oedipa notices that one off the employees, a very young man named Stanley Koteks, is drawing the same trumpet-like symbol that she saw in the message from Kirby on the bathroom wall at The Scope. Oedipa clumsily tells Stanley that Kirby sent her and then explains that she’s a company stockholder. He asks if she can get the Yoyodyne management to stop taking patent rights away from engineers. Hoping to provoke him, Oedipa declares that individual engineers don’t invent anything anymore, but Stanley insists that “teamwork” is just an excuse for people who are afraid to take risks.
Another unlikely coincidence convinces Oedipa that her investigation must be on the right track. Struggling to find the words to suggest that she is already in on the conspiracy, Oedipa instead ends up introducing herself as one of the stockholders—the exact people she and Stanley both despise. Stanley’s disdain for “teamwork” suggests that his job designing weapons is alienating and unsatisfying (much like Mucho’s job at the radio). But it also aligns him with the classic trope of the solitary genius inventor, totally cut off from the world, who singlehandedly changes it from the outside. Clearly, Oedipa is suspicious about such straightforward theories of invention and authorship—after all, she is busy investigating what she conceives as a complex underground network of conspirators.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
American Modernity and Counterculture Theme Icon
Media, Communication, and Human Relationships Theme Icon
Change, Redemption, and Marginalization Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Stanley shows Oedipa the patent for John Nefastis’s Nefastis Machine, a box connected to two pistons, with a bearded man on the outside. This man is the scientist James Clerk Maxwell, who famously thought that the second law of thermodynamics could be violated if some demon managed to sort hot from cold air inside a box. This would reduce entropy and create a difference in temperature that could, say, power a perpetual motion machine. By staring at Maxwell on the Nefastis Machine, Stanley declares, some people can control which of the two pistons will rise. Oedipa ponders her bizarre luck: among all the engineers surrounding her, she had to choose the crazy one.
Like Stanley Koteks, John Nefastis also clearly imagines himself as a misunderstood solitary genius—he believes in his mystical machine even though he claims that it violates the basic laws of physics. Unsatisfied with their day jobs, it seems, Koteks and Nefastis take a religious kind of faith in their bizarre scientific experiments. Although the book’s symbolic discussion of entropy is incredibly complex and open to interpretation, the second law of thermodynamics states that entropy never decreases over time, which means that hot air should spread out evenly through Nefastis’s box. Nefastis’s desire to sort the air inside the box back into separate hot and cold sections can be seen as a metaphor for Oedipa’s desire to define her individual identity and escape the seemingly entropic world, in which things grow more homogeneous and uniform over time. The sealed system of the box itself can be seen as representing the closed, interconnected worlds of American society and the novel itself.
Themes
American Modernity and Counterculture Theme Icon
Change, Redemption, and Marginalization Theme Icon
Stanley explains that only special “sensitives” can make the Nefastis Machine work, and Oedipa could get in touch with Nefastis in San Francisco at a certain P.O. box if she wanted to try. To take down Nefastis’s address, Oedipa opens her journal to a page where she has drawn the hornlike symbol from The Scope and written, “Shall I project a world?” Stanley Koteks suddenly grows suspicious and tells her that he was giving her the wrong address. Oedipa asks about the WASTE address from the bathroom wall, but Stanley tells her that it’s pronounced as an acronym—W.A.S.T.E. Then, he returns to his work and starts ignoring her.
Stanley seems to be part of the conspiracy that Oedipa is searching for but unable to learn anything about. In fact, her question “Shall I project a world?” deals precisely with the question of how she can make sense of the conspiracy that she cannot prove. She recognizes that all she has is her own perception of the mystery—she cannot verify any of her clues beyond her own perception. This is how all interpretation works, including how people form a sense of reality and interpret literature. Indeed, Oedipa’s line about projection is a direct reference to her conversation with Randolph Driblette after The Courier’s Tragedy, when Driblette said that he created the play like a projection that brings the universe to life in a planetarium. His interpretation of The Courier’s Tragedy is just one version—similarly, Oedipa’s projection of the conspiracy is just one among many coherent perspectives on it. An audience can only ever come up with one among many valid interpretations of what a piece of literature or art means.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Get the entire The Crying of Lot 49 LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Crying of Lot 49 PDF
After a few days, Oedipa sees Mike Fallopian at The Scope. He tells her that Stanley Koteks is part of an underground network of disgruntled scientists who grew up thinking they could be great, independent inventors. Then, the scientists realized that being an engineer now means working in a team for a corporation that ultimately takes all the credit and reaps all the rewards.
Fallopian lends credibility to Oedipa’s suspicions about Stanley Koteks, whose underground movement is just as futile as Fallopian’s own secret postal system. Whether they like it or not, both are doing Yoyodyne’s bidding, and their personal political and scientific commitments will never reverse this fact.
Themes
American Modernity and Counterculture Theme Icon
While Metzger and Fallopian get into an argument about patent rights and politics, Oedipa thinks about the other clues that have pointed her towards the truth. For instance, next to the lake in Fangoso Lagoons, there was a small monument to Wells, Fargo postmen killed by unidentified bandits dressed in black. Apparently, one of the victims traced out a cross—which reminds Oedipa of Niccolò’s stuttered “T-t-t-t-t…” in The Courier’s Tragedy.
The event memorialized at Fangoso Lagoons clearly seems like a real-life parallel to Niccolò’s murder in Driblette’s version of the play, just like the soldiers’ bones in the Italian lake after World War II recall the soldiers’ bones in the Italian lake onstage. As these stories strangely cross over from fact to fiction, it seems increasingly possible that The Courier’s Tragedy was somehow based on real events. When Oedipa relates Niccolò stuttering “T-t-t-t-t…” to the cross on the ground, what she means is that both might be sending a signal about Tristero.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Oedipa tries to contact Driblette to ask him about the marker in Fangoso Lagoons, but he never answers. She visits Zapf’s Used Books and buys Jacobean Revenge Plays—the proprietor says she’s not the only one to look for it. Oedipa looks to the passage that mentions Trystero and sees a note in pencil about a variant in the 1687 edition of the play. She sees that the play’s text has been copied from another 1957 anthology. The L.A. library does not have a copy, so Oedipa plans to visit the publisher—and maybe also John Nefastis—up in Berkeley.
Just as the reader starts resembling Oedipa by trying to piece together the mysteries of Tristero and Pierce Inverarity along with her, Oedipa starts to resemble the reader, hunting for clues in obscure details of a book. The conflicting editions recall Randolph Driblette’s belief that a performance captures the truth of a work of art just as much as an original text—in this case, there is not even an authoritative original version to consult. The multiple versions all seem equally legitimate to Oedipa, much like she can find multiple reasonable explanations for all the clues she encounters and interpret the conspiracy as a whole in various conflicting (but equally legitimate) ways.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
In fact, the narrator explains, Oedipa first saw the marker in Fangoso Lagoons when she went there as part of her attempt to visit all of Inverarity’s scattered businesses and investments. The day after, she went to a retirement home that he built. Inside, a nurse viciously pursues a fly, and an elderly man named Mr. Thoth tells Oedipa about his grandfather, a mail courier on the Pony Express who loved murdering Native Americans. In his dreams, Thoth mixes a scene from a Porky Pig cartoon with a story about his grandfather defeating a group of bandits with “a Mexican name” that he can’t remember. He shows Oedipa a gold ring that his grandfather cut off of one of these people’s fingers: it has the W.A.S.T.E. horn symbol on it.
Given all her concerns about secret mail systems and obscure 17th-century plays, it is easy to forget that Oedipa actually came to San Narciso to execute Pierce Inverarity’s last will and testament. Strangely enough, the reader has not learned anything about what is actually in this will—only that Pierce seemed to own absolutely everything in San Narciso. Mr. Thoth’s ring and story are perfectly consistent with the other tales of bandits that Oedipa has come across so far, and Trystero could certainly be “a Mexican name.” Just as experience is refracted through fiction in The Courier’s Tragedy, history gets filtered through dreams for Mr. Thoth. Crucially, Thoth is the Ancient Greek name for the Egyptian scribe-god who invented writing. This suggests that the elderly Mr. Thoth somehow represents the written or historical record, the process that allows past information to be passed down to the present.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Change, Redemption, and Marginalization Theme Icon
Oedipa visits Mike Fallopian, since the history of 19th-century mail carriers is his specialty. Fallopian laments that there is no solid evidence about bandits attacking them, although he suspects that the national government might have hired them to reinforce its monopoly. He also knows nothing about the W.A.S.T.E. horn symbol.
Although Oedipa initially saw Fallopian as an unstable conspiracy theorist when she met him in the previous chapter, now she is much further down the rabbit-hole than he is—especially as an expert on the precise subject of her conspiracy theory. Or there is another option: Fallopian might actually be part of the conspiracy.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Next, Oedipa visits Genghis Cohen, a local stamp expert whom Metzger has asked to evaluate Pierce Inverarity’s stamp collection. He calls and asks her to visit one day to settle some “irregularities,” and when she arrives, he serves her wine made from dandelions that grew in the old cemetery that has been demolished to make way for the East San Narciso Freeway. Oedipa knows that this is a clue, but she still has no idea what it points to. She starts to wonder if she will ever figure it out at all.
Again, in the remarkably closed system of Southern California, the novel returns to a seemingly irrelevant detail from the previous chapter: the cemetery that was torn up to build the East San Narciso Freeway. Oedipa does not know how to make sense of this detail in the context of her conspiracy theory, but its message about the world she lives in is clear. The destruction of the cemetery shows how post-World War II America ruthlessly discounts the value of everything that stands in the way of efficiency and profit—including the bones of the dead. Unlike the dandelions, the highway prioritizes function at the expense of beauty. And now, just like the bones in The Courier’s Tragedy and Beaconsfield cigarettes, the cemetery’s dandelions have been turned into human consumer goods. When this process converts the flowers’ physical components into something worth buying, their aesthetic and sacred value gets totally erased. 
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
American Modernity and Counterculture Theme Icon
Cohen shows her what he finds peculiar about one of the stamps: its is printed with the mysterious W.A.S.T.E. symbol as a watermark. Another stamp, from Germany, says “Thurn und Taxis.” Cohen explains that Thurn and Taxis was Europe’s dominant mail carrier from 1300 to 1867, and he shows Oedipa the stamp’s watermark, which is a post horn very similar to the W.A.S.T.E. symbol. In fact, the W.A.S.T.E. symbol just has one more shape next to the horn, and Cohen suggests that this is a mute. Oedipa thinks this makes sense, since whoever is behind W.A.S.T.E. is clearly trying to “mute the Thurn and Taxis post horn.”
Just like the masked bandits from The Courier’s Tragedy unexpectedly showed up in the Fangoso Lagoons monument and in Mr. Thoth’s story, now the real historical company of Thurn and Taxis turns out to have an important connection to the mystery of W.A.S.T.E. Even more importantly, it becomes clear that Pierce Inverarity himself was somehow involved with W.A.S.T.E., whether intentionally or not. (He might have been part of its network, collected its stamps as keepsakes, or unknowingly bought its forgeries.) Cohen finally solves the mystery of the muted trumpet symbol for Oedipa, and this suggests some kind of rivalry between W.A.S.T.E. and Thurn and Taxis. The only problem is that W.A.S.T.E. exists in the 1960s, and Thurn and Taxis shut down a century prior.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Because of the watermarks, Cohen continues, the stamps are clearly counterfeit. But he might still be able to sell them—someone might even want to collect them, knowing that they are false. The Pony Express stamp also has a peculiar black feather added to the image, as do seven others, and a mysterious typo: “U.S. Potsage,” instead of “U.S. Postage.” Oedipa tells Cohen that she saw the same thing on her letter from Mucho.
It is significant that W.A.S.T.E. and its counterfeit stamps actually lead Oedipa to a landmark discovery in her quest: both the association and its stamps are inherently associated with trash, which is seen as having no real value. And yet they are far more valuable to Oedipa than the real, official versions would be. The typo replacing “Postage” with “Potsage” suggests that Mucho might even know something about W.A.S.T.E.—after all, he and Oedipa scarcely know about each other’s lives, so she probably wouldn’t know if he were involved in it. This raises the curious possibility that the letter Oedipa received at the beginning of Chapter 3 was actually sent by W.A.S.T.E. In other words, even Oedipa could be in on the conspiracy without really knowing it.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon
Change, Redemption, and Marginalization Theme Icon
Genghis Cohen notes that these eight forgeries span from 1893 to 1954, and he wonders if they might even go back to Thurn and Taxis—even to the 13th century. Oedipa tells him about all the other clues she has discovered, and Cohen declares that the fraudsters must still be going. Oedipa asks if they should report their findings, and Cohen suddenly gets nervous—when she asks him about W.A.S.T.E., he’s clearly no longer interested in answering her questions, and he starts talking about the dandelion wine.
Cohen proposes that the W.A.S.T.E. conspiracy might be unimaginably vast, which suddenly makes it seem both less likely and more important than before. Like Stanley Koteks’s reaction when Oedipa showed him her journal and the actors’ reaction onstage during The Courier’s Tragedy whenever the mysterious Trystero assassins were mentioned, Cohen’s silence about W.A.S.T.E. seems like a possible admission of guilt—but Oedipa is still guessing. Ultimately, while Oedipa now has a far clearer and more complete picture of the mystery she has been trying to solve, this does not resolve her doubts—it only intensifies her desire to find the pieces that are still missing.
Themes
Conspiracy, Interpretation, and Meaning Theme Icon