She knew a few things about it: it had opposed the Thurn and Taxis postal system in Europe; its symbol was a muted post horn; sometime before 1853 it had appeared in America and fought the Pony Express and Wells, Fargo, either as outlaws in black, or disguised as Indians; and it survived today, in California, serving as a channel of communication for those of unorthodox sexual persuasion, inventors who believed in the reality of Maxwell's Demon, possibly her own husband, Mucho Maas...
It's amazing to me the way that The Crying of Lot 49, published in the 1960's, not only prefigures our modern obsession with mysteries of conspiracy--The X-Files, Lost, any television show or film where someone says "you have no idea how high this thing goes"--but skewers them so mercilessly and savagely. I have never watched but a handful of minutes of Lost, and I know that I never will, because I know that no real substantive answers are forthcoming about what is really going on at that island, and that knowledge eliminates the fun of dissecting the clues it feeds out piecemeal to the viewer. Lot 49, which announces with great ebullience that its conspiracy is merely a tangle of clues and signs pointing to nowhere, could have been a great parody of it.
The conspiracy of Lot 49, such as it is, is this: Oedipa Maas discovers that she has been named the executor of the will of her late boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity, a California tech mogul. While dealing with Inverarity's estate, Oedipa is sucked into a shadowy conspiracy involving a secret mail service operating outside and in opposition to the US Postal Service, called Tristero. (It's evidence of the novel's cluttered, circuitous nature that I cannot recall--with the book in front of me!--how her curiosity is first piqued. Is it through Inverarity's stamp collection, which is sold as the titular "Lot 49" at the book's end?) Tristero seems to date back hundreds of years, operating in opposition to the (historically real) Thurn and Taxis postal system in Europe, and it continues to operate underground in America. One of my favorite bits involves a Jacobean play that Oedipa sees called The Courier's Tragedy, which seems to allude to the shadowy tactics of the Tristero, a part which involves a lot of humorously tedious textual criticism.
Tristero's American post system is called W.A.S.T.E.--standing for "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire"--and its symbol is a muted post horn:
After Oedipa learns of this symbol, she begins to find it everywhere: in bathroom graffiti, in a children's rope-jumping game, scratched into the back of a bus seat... The symbol's ubiquity is part of the book's essential absurdity. How can something be so secret when everyone knows about it? Pynchon describes the "true paranoid" as someone "for whom all is organized in spheres joyful or threatening about the central pulse of himself," but Oedipa seems to be constantly on the outside of something everyone else is a part of. And then, of course, there is the most absurd element of the book: What is there to be so secretive about? It's a postal service. It's a low-stakes, not particularly secret conspiracy.
And yet Oedipa is unable to make the proliferation of clues, the multitude of post horns, coalesce into something meaningful. Like Lost (or The X-Files, or The Prisoner, which debuted a couple years after the book's release) clarity and satisfaction are elusive. Pynchon's choice of a postal service isn't arbitrary: the W.A.S.T.E. system represents a mode of communication, but what is communicated is always irrelevant. The members of one corporation Oedipa looks into are required to use W.A.S.T.E. once weekly, but the content is not dictated, so the message is blanched of meaning:
Dear Mike, it said, how are you? Just thought I'd drop you a note. How's your book coming? Guess that's all for now.
On one level, Pynchon is being funny by depriving us of the one thing that would justify the secretive air around Tristero and W.A.S.T.E.: their being used to deliver message of real secrecy and significance. On a higher level, Pynchon is communicating the fear and anxiety that communication and content--signifier and signified--are divorced from one another; that a proliferation of signs can never be more than a proliferation of signs. This is the one theme that rises up over and over again from the clutter:
Nothing was happening. She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios that about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, an intent to communicate. There'd seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.
It's possible--in fact, I'd say inevitable for the average reader--to get through The Crying of Lot 49 and have the sense that you missed something extremely important. That is, you just didn't get it. That's exactly what Pynchon wants you to feel, I think, a "revelation trembl[ing] past the threshold of... understanding." Elsewhere, he communicates this more succinctly:
The act of metaphor then was a thrust at truth and a lie, depending where you were: inside, safe, or outside, lost.
The terror of The Crying of Lot 49, the reason the conspiracy rattles us so, is not that there is something sinister underlying all the signs and clues, but that they're all red herrings, pointing to nothing, and that perhaps all attempts at communication are the same.