Oedipa returns to Echo Courts in San Narciso, where she finds the Paranoids sitting motionless with their instruments next to the swimming pool, as though frozen in time. Serge, one of the Paranoids, explains that his girlfriend left him for Metzger, and then he sings a song about copying the ways of older men by dating far younger women—in his case, an eight-year-old at the playground. Metzger has left Oedipa a note explaining that one of his colleagues at the law firm is taking his place as her co-executor, which doesn’t bother Oedipa at all.
The Paranoids’ frozenness is another offhand reference to entropy (which results in homogeneity and motionlessness) and the myth of Narcissus and Echo (because Narcissus ended up staring at his own reflection forever). Metzger’s disappearance does not faze Oedipa, who is perfectly used to men being emotionally distant and treating women as sexual objects. Metzger’s preference for younger women recalls Mucho’s and John Nefastis’s—but Serge takes this to an exaggerated, ridiculous, frightening next level. Of course, he is so offhandedly proud of his pedophilia that he seems to be following a media trend (hearkening to Vladimir Nabokov’s popular novel Lolita) without understanding the implications of his actions—must like his band formed as a cheap imitation of the Beatles.
Oedipa calls Randolph Driblette, but Driblette’s mother picks up the phone and says that they will have a statement ready from their attorney tomorrow. Confused, Oedipa calls Professor Emory Bortz, whose wife picks up and explains that, although Professor Bortz is busy getting drunk and throwing beer bottles at passing birds with his students, Oedipa is free to visit.
Like Metzger, Driblette suddenly disappears, getting in the way of Oedipa’s plans. Although she wants all the people involved in her conspiracy to stay put so that she can fit them together into a complete vision of Tristero, they go on living their lives. Meanwhile, Bortz defies all stereotypes of a reserved, introverted, refined professor—his boisterous drunkenness is jarring because it undermines his sense of expertise, and Oedipa needs this expertise to make sense of The Courier’s Tragedy.
On her way to Emory Bortz’s house, Oedipa passes Zapf’s Used Books, which has completely burnt down. At the store next door, a clerk explains that Zapf burned down his store for the insurance money. This clerk, Winthrop (“Winner”) Tremaine, is a virulent racist who sells government surplus weapons and replica Nazi military gear. Oedipa is disgusted and leaves, but she regrets not killing Winthrop on her way out.
With the arson at Zapf’s, it seems like all the clues from Oedipa’s search for Tristero are consciously self-destructing. Like Yoyodyne’s childish songs about its missile technology, Winthrop Tremaine’s nonchalance about selling the tools for hate and violence is unsettling because it shows how, when Americans see an opportunity to profit, they seem to throw all other values out the window. Oedipa, on the other hand, retains the basic sense of human decency that everyone else seems to have lost.
At Bortz’s house, one of the Professor’s belligerent children meets Oedipa at the door. Bortz’s wife is surprised that Oedipa, who looks “harassed” like most mothers do, does not have children. In the backyard, Bortz and his drunken graduate students make fun of Oedipa’s question about “the historical Wharfinger,” because they say that there are nothing but words left from him. Oedipa quotes the line about the “tryst with Trystero,” and a stunned Bortz asks if she has been in the Vatican library. Oedipa shows Bortz the anthology with this line in it, and after looking through it and complaining about its errors, Bortz announces that this line has been added from the pornographic edition of The Courier’s Tragedy that is hidden in the Vatican.
Face to face with Bortz’s wife, Oedipa sees what her life might become like if she and Mucho have children. This reminds her that things can get far worse—she is bored, but many other women are “harassed” and crushed because they are expected to spend their lives at home, raising children. Bortz’s attitude about Wharfinger’s play is the opposite of Driblette’s: while Driblette thought that the truth of the play lay in his performance of it, Bortz insists that the truth is contained in the very text of his plays, and nothing else. Of course, the “tryst with Trystero” just happens to be in an adulterated version. This poses a fundamental dilemma for Oedipa: does she actually need to find the correct or original version of the play in order to figure out what Tristero is?
In contrast, Bortz continues, Driblette’s version lightened the play in an attempt to capture its spirit. But, one of the students tells Oedipa, Driblette committed suicide two days ago by drowning himself in the Pacific Ocean. Just before, Bortz explains, “they” attacked the play’s set. Oedipa does not ask what he means—she only thinks about how all the men in her life (Hilarius, Mucho, Metzger, and Driblette) are disappearing or losing their minds.
Bortz admits that Driblette’s version has a different kind of truth to it than the words left behind by Wharfinger. Ultimately, even though he does believe that Wharfinger’s work speaks for itself, he does not seem to rule out the idea that there can be various, equally valid versions of a story—just as there can be various, equally valid interpretations of a novel. Driblette’s suicide is jarring, and Bortz clearly implies that the “they” who attacked him is Trystero, the same group of bandits who killed Niccolò during the play. Again, Trystero seems to jump the boundary between fact and fiction, and Bortz seems to know more than he is letting on. The disappearance of all Oedipa’s male lovers and acquaintances again suggests some generalized societal procession toward isolation and disconnection. Indeed, all of these men drop out of Oedipa’s life when they become emotionally unavailable to her.
Bortz explains that Driblette was following Bortz’s own version, which did not include the couplet about Trystero. Oedipa insists that this couplet was spoken, but Bortz says that Driblette, who spoke the line as Gennaro, must have been familiar with all the versions of the play and just made a decision to say the line on that day. Oedipa suggests that some event in Driblette’s personal life would have triggered this change, but Bortz says that it’s impossible to know.
Not even Bortz, the foremost expert on the play, can fully explain why Driblette chose to say the Trystero line. Oedipa can theorize all she wants, but ultimately, there is no single truth for her to measure her theories against. Oedipa’s assumption that Driblette said the line for some sinister, conspiratorial reason is just as plausible as Bortz’s guess that Driblette said the line randomly, for no good reason at all.
Bortz invites Oedipa and his graduate students inside and shows them copies of the pornographic woodcut illustrations from the corrupted Vatican edition that he attributes to the Scurvhamites, a Puritan sect that was so intrigued by sin that they gave themselves over to it entirely. Bortz thinks that they might have written this pornographic version of the play in order to make a point about the story’s moral repulsiveness. Furthermore, he argues that the line about God redeeming nobody who has had a “tryst with Trystero” was a way of talking about something morally irredeemable. Trystero must have stood for whatever the “Other” of God was—whatever force orchestrated the world of those who were not the chosen ones.
Just like Mucho went from despising his work to passively accepting it once he started taking LSD, the Scurvhamites also underwent a total moral inversion: from studying sin in an attempt to banish it, they turned to indulging in it completely. These inversions are significant because they suggest that people’s beliefs may not be as stable or lasting as they expect. It is very easy to give up one interpretation of the world in favor of another, and Oedipa clearly seems to be at risk of doing this with her views about Trystero. The association between Trystero and absolute evil is totally consistent with the group’s depiction as a shadowy secret force that only surfaces to perform dastardly acts of evil. But it also recalls Jesús Arrabal’s theory that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one.” This intrusion by an “Other” is quite similar to Trystero’s strange attacks, and there is no question that Oedipa’s search for Trystero is at least in part a search for the kind of “Other” that can intrude on and change her stagnant, unsatisfying world.
Oedipa asks Bortz what Trystero was, and Bortz explains that it’s an ongoing question he addresses in his next book, which will come out the following year. He pulls out an old book entitled An Account of the Singular Peregrinations of Dr. Diocletian Blobb among the Italians, Illuminated with Exemplary Tales from the True History of that Outlandish and Fantastical Race and tells Oedipa to check out Chapter Seven. She finds what she’s looking for in Chapter Eight, in which Dr. Blobb is crossing the mountains in a Thurn and Taxis mail coach and gets attacked by black-clad horsemen on the shores of “the Lake of Piety.” The men killed everybody but Blobb, whom they warned of “the wrath of Trystero” and asked to spread the news back to England.
As if The Courier’s Tragedy were not outlandishly satirical enough, Pynchon takes it even further with Dr. Blobb’s inconceivably pompous memoir. Bortz is implying that Wharfinger might have somehow based The Courier’s Tragedy on reading Dr. Blobb, but this does not tell Oedipa much more about whether Trystero is real or not—in fact, it would be impossible to confirm if the events in Blobb’s memoir actually occurred. The Lake of Piety in Blobb’s memoir is clearly the Lago di Pietà where Tony Jaguar allegedly dug up the American soldiers’ bones, so there is no question that the attacks are connected. The question is simply how to explain this connection: Manny Di Presso could have adopted the story after hearing it in the play (which, in turn, borrowed it from Blobb), or Tristero could be repeating itself throughout history. Regardless, as Oedipa learns more details about Tristero and starts to fill in the gaps in her story, she still does not find any absolute proof that this story is true.
As Oedipa continues investigating Trystero over the next several days, she pieces together enough fragmentary information to get a basic idea of its history. During a period of political turmoil in central Europe during the late 1500s, a new government kicked the Baron of Taxis and the nobleman who ran the Thurn and Taxis postal monopoly out of their official positions. They replaced the latter with a nobleman named Jan Hinckart, but a mentally unstable Spanish man named Hernando Joaquín de Tristero y Calavera started claiming that he was the true heir to Hinckart’s lordship. Hinckart lost control of Thurn and Taxis, and sensing an opportunity to take revenge for his alleged disinheritance, Tristero decided to start a rival mail-carrying operation and have his couriers wear all black.
At long last, Oedipa finally puts together a coherent story about Trystero (which turns out to actually be “Tristero”). It truly is the sinister “Other” of Thurn and Taxis, haunting it from the margins of society in order to try and upend the social order. Tristero y Calavera's emphasis on disinheritance recalls not only the plot of The Courier’s Tragedy, but also Oedipa’s ostensible task throughout the novel: securing the inheritance of Pierce Inverarity. Similarly, while Tristero y Calavera’s dedicated his life and legacy to fighting a monopoly, Inverarity has a monopolistic hold on San Narciso. This strengthens the theory that Oedipa’s search for Tristero has really been a search for an alternative to the model of American society that Inverarity’s capitalist endeavors represent (and that she herself is suffering from at the beginning of the book).
The next day, Oedipa goes to Driblette’s funeral with Bortz, his wife, and his graduate students. She contemplates the disappearance of identity and the vanishing of the self, and she begs Driblette’s spirit to send her some clues from the last moments of his life. Oedipa wants to know if his death had something to do with Tristero, if she could have saved him, and why he added the last two lines to his act the night she saw the play.
Oedipa searches desperately for some theory or story that can give meaning to Driblette’s death, but she finds nothing. Even if Driblette did have a solid, singular motivation for including the Trystero line, Oedipa will never discover it. Her concern with his disappearance and worry that this constitutes a permanent loss for the universe directly points back to her encounter with the alcoholic sailor in San Francisco—in fact, staring at his mattress, she had the same worries about him. The surplus that these men have left behind—their memories and stories, the imprints they left on the world—have now been completely erased.
Oedipa cannot find any more information about Tristero, but Bortz speculates about its history. During a weak period for Thurn and Taxis in the mid-1600s, Bortz thinks that Tristero’s leaders would have debated what to do. He imagines Thurn and Taxis not fully understanding Tristero and believing that some mystical force was haunting them. Bortz even speculates that Tristero caused the French Revolution, but he admits that he’s making all of this up.
Bortz’s grand story about Tristero is appealing, but Oedipa (and the novel’s readers) should not be tempted to take it too seriously. It is pure speculation, of the same sort as the conjecture that led Oedipa to Tristero in the first place. If Tristero really operated as the devilish “Other” to the Thurn and Taxis monopoly—just as W.A.S.T.E. operates as an “Other” to the conventional postal system today—then this redeems Oedipa’s entire quest, because it shows that she has really come across the alternative to normalcy that she has been seeking throughout the book.
Oedipa gradually gives up on the Tristero story. She does not follow up with Genghis Cohen, Mr. Thoth, or the publisher of The Courier’s Tragedy. She also tries not to talk about Driblette and ignores Bortz’s offer to introduce her to another Wharfinger expert. However, she does meet Mike Fallopian again at The Scope. She explains all her findings and asks why his mail club does not use W.A.S.T.E. Mike replies that maybe they just haven’t found the right opportunity yet, and that maybe Oedipa is really caught up in a complex hoax designed for her by Inverarity. He tells her to seriously double-check her evidence. Oedipa accuses Mike of hating her and recommends that he visit Winthrop Tremaine’s store.
Why would Oedipa lose interest in the mysterious Tristero as soon as she hears a plausible story about it? Pynchon seems to be suggesting that, in situations like Oedipa’s, simply having a story about the world is enough. Oedipa’s curiosity is satiated, and she has no more to gain from continuing to investigate. (In fact, she has been pulling back, a little at a time, ever since her meeting with John Nefastis.) Still, Fallopian’s suggestion that Inverarity could have faked the whole Tristero conspiracy just to mess with Oedipa provides another perfectly coherent, equally probable explanation as Bortz’s. (There is also yet another alternative, which is that Fallopian’s system actually is W.A.S.T.E. and that he is also in on the conspiracy.)
One day, Genghis Cohen calls Oedipa and asks her to visit. He shows her an old stamp with the muted horn symbol that reveals the true meaning of W.A.S.T.E.: “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.” This stamp is not in Cohen’s catalogue, but it appears on a mysterious a piece of paper glued into the beginning of the book. Oedipa notices that the catalogue was from Zapf’s Used Books, so she goes to San Narciso to investigate.
At last, Oedipa can explicitly connect the W.A.S.T.E. system to Tristero. But curiously, W.A.S.T.E. appears to be both a descendent of the original Tristero and a predecessor of the “Empire” that it is “Await[ing].” This act of faith is, after all, very similar to many religions’ belief in the coming of a messiah or the arrival of a judgment day.
Oedipa is not surprised to learn that Inverarity owned the building where Zapf’s Used Books was located and the theater where Driblette put on The Courier’s Tragedy. Inverarity is the common denominator in every aspect of the Tristero story—he even funded the college where Professor Bortz teaches. Oedipa wonders whether Inverarity could have paid or persuaded everyone she has met so far to participate in his scheme. In fact, she realizes, Tristero could be a dream, a real secret mail network, an insane hallucination, or an unbelievably elaborate conspiracy created by Inverarity. Given these “symmetrical four” alternatives, Oedipa hopes that she is insane. She spends the night frozen in terror, realizing that nobody can save her from her paranoia.
After largely ignoring Pierce Inverarity since Chapter 1, the book finally takes a serious look at his character: the silent, absent figure who hangs over the entire plot, possibly as its mastermind. The reader knows almost nothing about him, but quite a lot about the things he owned. He is clearly symbolic of American capitalism, a way of life that has become corrupt and monopolistic in Pynchon’s view. But Inverarity has other, more complicated personal associations for Oedipa, who largely leaves the reader in the dark about the nature of her relationship with him. Perhaps most curiously of all, Oedipa never reveals what is actually in Inverarity’s will. All of her “symmetrical four” explanations are equally plausible theories that connect all the clues she has uncovered. To an extent, she knows that any of them could be true: she dreamed about Tristero during her night in San Francisco, has seen several other characters hallucinating (which means that she could be hallucinating too), knows that Inverarity had some power over virtually everything in San Narciso, and has finally pieced together a historical explanation for Tristero.
Oedipa grows mysteriously ill over the next few days—she visits a random doctor, who suggests that she is pregnant. Genghis Cohen calls with new clues, including an article about Tristero splitting up during the French Revolution. Many of Tristero’s patrons despised the Revolution and decided to support Thurn and Taxis because it was an aristocratic institution. After they were outvoted, they abandoned Tristero, whose remaining members mostly immigrated to the United States in 1849 and 1850. Oedipa tells Professor Bortz, who suggests that Tristero would have been crushed by the American government’s postal reform, and that maybe its members disguised themselves as Native Americans to deliver mail. This explains all the imperceptibly modified, counterfeited stamps that Genghis Cohen has found.
Genghis Cohen’s article fills in the last missing historical link: the connection between the European Tristero and the American W.A.S.T.E. In fact, this history is also a comment on the colonization of North America, which was led by immigrants who were cast out of mainstream life in Europe. In a sense, according to the most traditional narratives about its history, America is actually a country built out of second chances for the marginalized, or evidence that waste can lead to rebirth. In the mid-1800s, Bortz’s history flows into Mike Fallopian’s study of private postal systems and Mr. Thoth’s strange recollection that his racist grandfather killed bandits with “a Mexican name.”
Genghis Cohen calls Oedipa to explain that Pierce Inverarity’s stamps will soon be auctioned off, and some secretive party has signed up to bid on the collection remotely, by mail. The “super-secretive” bidder has hired C. Morris Schrift, a well-known agent. They want to examine Inverarity’s stamps, the auction’s lot #49, but the auction house has refused. Cohen wonders if this secret bidder might work for Tristero and want to cover up the evidence of its existence.
Oedipa finally gets a shot at confronting Tristero, even though she now wants to put it behind her. Similarly, the reader finally gets a hint of where the novel’s title comes from. The number 49 has two parallel religious meanings: it is the number of days between Easter and the Pentecost in the Christian tradition and the number of days a person waits in the transitional state between death and rebirth in many Buddhist traditions. Notably, both these traditions connect the number 49 with a period of waiting or reflection, with the expectation that some salvation or rebirth will follow. Oedipa is literally waiting to hear from Tristero, of course, as are the W.A.S.T.E. members whose name literally means “We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire.” But the book as a whole can also be interpreted as such a period of waiting—whether in Oedipa’s life, American culture, Inverarity’s afterlife, or Tristero’s rebirth.
That night, Oedipa gets drunk at Echo Courts and then recklessly goes driving on the freeway. Soon, she is calling The Greek Way from a phone booth and asking for the man from the Inamorati Anonymous. She introduces herself as Arnold Snarb, and she tells the man everything she has learned about Tristero since she met him in San Francisco. She asks if their meeting was arranged by Tristero and pleads with him to tell the truth. But the man says that “It’s too late […] For me,” and he hangs up.
Oedipa’s drunken desperation suggests that the uncertainty around Tristero is pushing her to a dangerous breaking point. It is telling that she calls the Inamorati Anonymous member—he is the only man genuinely interested in listening to her, even though he has effectively sworn off all human relationships. While Oedipa is clearly asking the man if he is part of a conspiracy against her, his response is ambiguous: it could mean that he is, or it could mean that he has fallen in love with her and broken his vow.
Oedipa looks around and realizes that San Narciso is no longer special: it is just one more part of “the American continuity of crust and mantle.” Walking by the railroad tracks, she decides that Pierce Inverarity might have owned the whole city, but he was just part of the broader pattern of American life and inequality. His “legacy was America,” and Oedipa has inherited this legacy, even though she is not named in his will. She remembers Pierce’s insatiable desire to grow his business but wonders how he felt writing his will, knowing that it would all end one day. Did he really make her his executor just to pester her, to take revenge? Did he want to pass on the secret of Tristero? Or is he just dead, and is it a total coincidence that he led Oedipa to the Tristero?
This passage recalls the beginning of Chapter 2, when Oedipa first arrived in San Narciso and struggled to make sense of its endless, homogeneous sprawl. Now, she sees San Narciso’s decentralized, barren landscape as evidence of its connection to the rest of the nation. Again, she refers back to Remedios Varo’s painting (“Embroidering the Earth’s Mantle”) in her recognition that everything around her is part of a “continuity of crust and mantle.” As she starts to think systematically, she realizes that Inverarity’s excesses and absurdities—like his obsessive accumulation of wealth and power—were actually connected to broader social forces. And now, even though Oedipa is not actually inheriting his estate as his executor, she has a great power to shape his legacy. Whether intentionally or not, Tristero is one of the things Inverarity left behind for Oedipa, and she has to make sense of it without knowing the innermost truth of Inverarity’s intentions.
Oedipa thinks about how these railroad tracks connect with so many other ones throughout the country. The squatters living in the abandoned trains and delivering mail for Tristero probably don’t even know what Tristero was supposed to inherit. So many Americans are forced to live in the shadows, Oedipa realizes: they live in a world parallel to, but also inseparable from, Inverarity’s country of profit and consumerism. They wander around, waiting for a miracle, embodying the legacy of Tristero. Oedipa wishes that she could give them all a share in Inverarity’s estate, but she knows that the lawyers would stop her.
Oedipa specifically asks how profound inequality can coexist with profound interconnectedness in America. She has started to see the power of marginalized people, most of all through her search for Tristero, but she has also seen the absurdity of the systems of power and control that marginalize them. As Pierce Inverarity’s executor, she has power over a sizable part of these systems, at least in San Narciso. But she is not free to use this power—she has to execute the will within the strict limits laid out by Inverarity and his lawyers. This sense of simultaneous power and entrapment is one of the economic system’s most powerful tools: workers and business owners alike lock themselves into cycles of ever-greater production and consumption because they want to get ahead, or at least maintain what they have. If Inverarity prioritized the social good, he would have lost his business and someone else would have done what he chose not to—similarly, Oedipa feels that she has no choice but to execute the will, despite knowing that it will give Inverarity’s resources to the people who need them least of anyone.
Oedipa yearns to join Tristero, because she, too, is waiting for a new version of the world. There must be something better than the binary choice between the mainstream and the underground, which she feels hanging over her head like a computer’s ones and zeros. Everything can be part of the conspiracy (one) or meaningless (zero). Maybe the disinherited Tristero lurks behind the legacy of America, or maybe there is only America, which invites paranoia but doesn’t mean anything.
In her last moment of reflection, Oedipa makes the connection between Tristero and the rebirth of the world explicit. But her metaphor based on a computer also suggests that her current understanding is squarely based in the world she lives in—including all its new technologies, for better or for worse. Oedipa’s feeling that the world is divided into binary opposites is another way of expressing her realization that different, mutually exclusive, but complete theories about the world can produce equally valid perspectives on it. Clues do not decide their own interpretations, and now, for the first time, she is fully aware that those interpretations are completely up to her. The Tristero theory gives her a new perspective, but it cannot fully convince her becuase she can always see the alternative.
Oedipa calls C. Morris Schrift, the auction agent, who explains that his client has changed his mind and will be going to the auction. At the auction house, Oedipa meets Genghis Cohen, who admits that he wants to bid on some of the stamps himself. Cohen is also excited that the prominent auctioneer Loren Passerine is going to be “crying”—or selling off the day’s items. Oedipa briefly thinks about making a scene to unmask the secret bidder, but instead she goes to her seat and look out at the crowd. The auctioneer smiles at Oedipa and moves his arms like an exotic priest or “descending angel.” The book ends with Oedipa “await[ing] the crying of lot 49.”
Given the association between the number 49 and periods of waiting in Christianity and Buddhism, it makes sense that the novel ends on the brink of revelation. The auctioneer stands for God, or a “descending angel,” about to provide the miracle that Oedipa has been waiting for all along. Of course, just like Oedipa has to make sense of Tristero without ever seeing it, readers have to interpret this conclusion without ever learning if Oedipa gets her miracle or not. Tristero is left anonymous, although Oedipa will never run out of good theories about who it may be—even Genghis Cohen himself is a candidate. By ending on its own title, the book reminds its readers of what they were doing before the cracked it open: awaiting The Crying of Lot 49.