Time Magazine included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
Oedipa Maas - The novel's protagonist. After her ex-boyfriend, Pierce Inverarity, dies and she becomes co-executor of his estate, she discovers and begins to unravel a worldwide conspiracy. Oedipa functions in the novel as a type of detective, trying to find out the meaning behind Trystero in the play The Courier's Tragedy.
Pierce Inverarity - Oedipa's ex-boyfriend and a wealthy real-estate tycoon. The reader never meets him directly: all encounters are presented through Oedipa's memories. At the beginning of the novel he is already dead and is said to have been extremely rich, having owned, at one time or another, a great deal of real property and holdings in California.
Wendell "Mucho" Maas - The husband of Oedipa, Mucho once worked in a used-car lot but recently became a disc jockey for KCUF ("fuck" backwards) radio in Kinneret, California (a fictional town). Towards the end of the novel, the effects of his nascent LSD use alienate Oedipa.
Metzger - A lawyer who works for Warpe, Wistfull, Kubitschek and McMingus law firm. He has been assigned to help Oedipa execute Pierce's estate. He and Oedipa have an affair.
Miles, Dean, Serge and Leonard - The four members of the band called The Paranoids. They serve as a means of satirizing the southern Californian youth hippie culture in the mid 1960s.
Dr. Hilarius - Oedipa's psychiatrist, who prescribes LSD, which she does not take, to Oedipa as well as other housewives. He goes crazy toward the end of the story. Admitting to being a former Nazi doctor at Buchenwald where he worked in a program focused on experimentally-induced insanity to render Jews permanently catatonic. He claims to use faces as a weapon, and boasts of a face he made once that drove a subject insane. He holes up in his office, but is taken away peacefully by the police after Oedipa disarms him.
John Nefastis - A scientist obsessed with perpetual motion. He has tried to invent a type of Maxwell's demon, in an attempt to create a perpetual motion machine. Oedipa visits him to see the machine after learning about him from Stanley Koteks.
Stanley Koteks - An employee of Yoyodyne Corporation, Oedipa meets him when she wanders into his office while touring the plant. He knows something about the Trystero, but he refuses to say what he knows.
Randolph Driblette - The director of the production of Wharfinger's The Courier's Tragedy seen by Oedipa and Metzger. Driblette is a leading Wharfinger scholar, but he commits suicide before Oedipa can extract any useful information from him about Wharfinger's mention of the Tristero. Oedipa's meeting with Randolph after the play, however, sparks her to go on a quest to find the meaning behind Trystero.
Mike Fallopian - Oedipa and Metzger meet Mike Fallopian in The Scope, a bar frequented by Yoyodyne employees. He tells them about The Peter Pinguid Society. Oedipa searches him out again later.
Genghis Cohen - The most eminent philatelist in the LA area, Cohen was hired to inventory and appraise the deceased's stamp collection. Oedipa and he discuss stamps and forgeries.
Professor Bortz - Formerly of Berkeley, now teaching at San Narciso, Bortz wrote the editor's preface in a version of Wharfinger's works. Oedipa tracks him down to learn more about Trystero.
Prominent among these references is the "Trystero symbol", a muted post horn with one loop. Originally derived, supposedly, from the Thurn and Taxis coat of arms, Oedipa finds this symbol first in a bar bathroom, where it decorates a graffitto advertising a group of polyamorists. It later appears among an engineer's doodles, as part of a children's sidewalk jump rope game, amidst Chinese ideograms in a shop window, and in many other places. The post horn (in either original or Trystero versions) appears on the cover art of many TCL49 editions, as well as within artwork created by the novel's fans.
Oedipa finds herself drawn into this shadowy intrigue when an old boyfriend, the California real estate mogul Pierce Inverarity, dies. Inverarity's will names her as his executor. Soon enough, she learns that although Inverarity "once lost two million dollars in his spare time [he] still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary." She leaves her comfortable home in Kinneret-Among-The-Pines, a northern California village, and travels south to the fictional town of San Narciso (Spanish for "Saint Narcissus"), near Los Angeles. Exploring puzzling coincidences she uncovers while parsing Inverarity's testament, Oedipa finds what might be evidence for the Trystero's existence. Sinking or ascending ever more deeply into paranoia, she finds herself torn between believing in the Trystero and believing that it is all a hoax established by Inverarity himself. Near the novel's conclusion, she reflects,
He might have written the testament only to harass a one-time mistress, so cynically sure of being wiped out he could throw away all hope of anything more. Bitterness could have run that deep in him. She just didn't know. He might himself have discovered The Tristero, and encrypted that in the will, buying into just enough to be sure she'd find it. Or he might even have tried to survive death, as a paranoia; as a pure conspiracy against someone he loved.
Along the way, Oedipa meets a wide range of eccentric characters. Her therapist in Kinneret, a Dr. Hilarius, turns out to have done his internship in Buchenwald, working to induce insanity in captive Jews. "Liberal SS circles felt it would be more humane," he explains. In San Francisco, she meets a man who claims membership in the IA, Inamorati Anonymous—a group founded to help people avoid falling in love, "the worst addiction of all". (Ironically, the anonymous inamorato wears a lapel pin shaped as the Trystero post horn, which Oedipa first saw on an advertisement for group sex.) And, in Berkeley, she meets John Nefastis, an engineer who believes he has built a working version of Maxwell's Demon, a means for defeating entropy. The book ends with Oedipa attending an auction, waiting for bidding to begin on a set of a rare postage stamps, which she believes representatives of Tristero are trying to acquire. (Auction items are called "lots"; a lot is "cried" when the auctioneer is taking bids on it; the stamps in question are "Lot 49".)
Pynchon devotes a significant part of the book to a "play within a play", a detailed description of a performance of an imaginary Jacobean revenge play, involving intrigues between Thurn und Taxis and Tristero. Like the Mousetrap which Shakespeare placed within Hamlet, the events and atmosphere of The Courier's Tragedy (by "Richard Wharfinger") mirror those in the larger story around them.
As in his earlier novel, V., Pynchon seems to be making a point about human beings' need for certainty, and their need to invent conspiracy theories to fill the vacuum in places where there is no certainty. Also, as he had in V., Pynchon laces the book with original song lyrics and outrageously named characters—e.g., Genghis Cohen, Manny DiPresso. "Mike Fallopian cannot be a real character's name," protests one reviewer.
Some have hypothesized that Pynchon was influenced by the racial tensions in southern California that would later turn into riots across the country. Critics have read the book as both an "exemplary postmodern text" and an outright parody of postmodernism. Pynchon himself disparaged this book, writing in 1984, "As is clear from the up-and-down shape of my learning curve, however, it was too much to expect that I'd keep on for long in this positive or professional direction. The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a 'novel,' and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I'd learned up until then."
As ever with Pynchon's writing, the labyrinthine plots offer myriad interconnecting cultural references. Understanding these references allows for a much richer reading of the work. J. Kerry Grant wrote A Companion to the Crying of Lot 49 in attempts to catalogue these references, but it is neither definitive nor complete.
The Crying of Lot 49 was published shortly after Beatlemania and the "British invasion" which took place in America and other Western countries. Indeed, internal context clues indicate that it is probably set in 1964, the year in which A Hard Day's Night was released. Pynchon, aptly, makes a wide variety of Beatles allusions. Most prominent are the Paranoids, a band composed of cheerful marijuana smokers whose lead singer, Miles, is a high-school dropout. The Paranoids all speak with American accents but sing in English ones; at one point, a guitar player is forced to relinquish control of a car to his girlfriend because he cannot see through his hair. It is not clear whether Pynchon was aware of the Beatles' own nickname for themselves, "Los Para Noias"; since the novel is replete with other references to paranoia, Pynchon may have chosen the band's name for other reasons.
Pynchon refers to a rock song, "I Want to Kiss Your Feet", a self-abasing version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The artist, Sick Dick and the Volkswagens, echoes such actual groups as the El Dorados, the Edsels, the Cadillacs and the Jaguars (as well as an early name the Beatles themselves were forced to use, "Long John and the Silver Beetles"). "Sick Dick" may also echo Richard Wharfinger, author of "that ill, ill Jacobean revenge play" known as The Courier's Tragedy. On top of all this, the song's title also keeps up a recurring sequence of allusions to Saint Narcissus, a third-century bishop of Jerusalem.
Late in the novel, Oedipa's husband Mucho Maas, a disc jockey at Kinneret radio station KCUF, describes his experience of discovering the Beatles. Mucho refers to their early song "She Loves You", as well as hinting at the areas the Beatles were later to explore. Pynchon writes,
Pynchon, like Kurt Vonnegut, was a student at Cornell University, where he probably at least audited Vladimir Nabokov's Literature 312 class. (Nabokov himself had no recollection of him, but Nabokov's wife Véra recalls grading Pynchon's examination papers, thanks only to his handwriting, "half printing, half script".) The year before Pynchon graduated, Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in the United States; among other things, including the novel's adaptation to cinema in 1961 by Stanley Kubrick, Lolita introduced the word "nymphet" to describe a sexually attractive girl between the ages of nine and fourteen. In following years, mainstream usage altered the word's meaning somewhat, broadening its applicability. Perhaps appropriately, Pynchon provides an early example of the modern "nymphet" usage entering the canon. Serge, the Paranoids' teenage counter-tenor, loses his girlfriend to a middle-aged lawyer. At one point he expresses his angst in song:
Near the beginning of The Crying of Lot 49, Oedipa recalls a trip to an art museum in Mexico with Inverarity during which she encounters a painting: Bordando el Manto Terrestre by Remedios Varo. The painting shows eight women inside a tower, where they are presumably held captive. Six maidens are weaving a tapestry that flows out of the windows. The tapestry seems to constitute the world outside of the tower. Oedipa's reaction to the tapestry gives us some insight into her difficulty in determining what is real and what is a fiction created by Inverarity for her benefit.