A tapestry flows out of a stone tower covering the Earth with an artificial mantle, formed by the weavers being spoken to in code by a man in black – code that is translated from the melody being played by another man out of sight, behind a dark doorway. Above a city in California known as San Narciso, Oedipa views the layout as a circuit board, possibly as the artificial mantle woven by these women in the tower now laid over the desert landscape. The circuit board will restrain paths of travel – one node will only ever lead to specific locations that the engineers have chosen. They will never cross paths, never diverge to see or do something they were not meant (allowed) to do. They are unknowingly constrained to a life that was chosen for them. A world built by engineers according to the schematics of a manager that were written according to the need of someone behind a dark doorway for whatever purpose they may have in mind: the weavers, the man in black, the flute player. Like this circuit board, the world surrounding Oedipa was built to hold secrets. Its side roads needle their way into the larger circulatory system of the freeways, taking San Narciso residents to where they are meant to go. And Oedipa’s journey to discover the meaning of an unraveling conspiracy might be similarly hopeless because of where They have set her path. Answers exist, but they are not meant for her.
Back to the beginning: Oedipa receives notice of her ex-lover’s, one Pierce Inverarity, death. She is left as co-executor of his estate. It is seemingly out of nowhere. They have not spoken in over a year. When her husband, Mucho Maas, returns home, he tells her how she should simply take the work to their lawyer. But who Mucho is might hold more to the story than is apparent. He is a sentimental. His mind is wrought with purposelessness. He cannot believe in what he does – playing music akin to the British Invasion style (right before The Beatles would be becoming popular) but finding no solace or purpose in it. What he did find purpose in, possibly too much purpose, was as a car salesman, purchasing and selling used automobiles. Each car he bought held the remnants of a person’s, or a family’s, history. It held what put them together, what created individual lives, and they were simply throwing out that vessel that held what seemed to him like such profound individuality and history. Mucho returns later completely changed, but we will get to that when it comes.
Oedipa proceeds through a series of strange events: her therapist (Dr Hilarius) calls in the middle of the night to unsuccessfully talk her into an LSD trial; the next morning her lawyer seems uninterested in her case and tells her to solve it herself after flirting with her and asking her to run away with him; she travels to San Narciso where, after viewing the city as a circuit board from above, she checks into Echo Courts Motel. Her journey is next symbolized by absurdity. When Metzger, the other co-executor, gives her the chance to predict “the end of the film” they are watching, she takes on his challenge. She must remove an article of clothing with each question she asks that might reveal whether she is correct or not. Thus every question is answered (unless, of course, it’s not; because like Them, Metzger is not beholden to actually following the rules) and they lead her nowhere. She knows the answer and the outcome from the beginning, whether by some subconscious Oedipal knowledge or a void in her mind that she can’t reach, yet sheds clothing one piece at a time, breaking down the only barrier she possesses to achieve an answer that will not ultimately matter. And she gives herself to him anyways, willingly. He, or Them, did not have to reveal a thing. They got what they wanted and her journey has not been made an ounce clearer.
Before any theorizing or further analysis, there are three things to keep in mind:
First, the bones come into play shortly after the previous scene. There is bone-dust in Inverarity-owned cigarettes, bones of dead soldiers at the bottom of a lake in Italy, and bones in Lake Inverarity where residents of Fangoso Lagoons can dive and seek them for pleasure. These bones are all found to be from the same source: soldier corpses hauled up from the lake in Italy and sold to be used for capital and pleasure. In the play they see later, The Courier’s Tragedy, the bones pop up again. A missing army near a lake reminiscent of Lake Inverarity, the bone-charcoal mixed as ink for writing. Keep these bones in mind because in the last instance Oedipa hears of bones, it will help reveal who Tristero may be, and possibly their purpose.
Second, Oedipa gets her first wind of Tristero as its new iteration: W.A.S.T.E. The muted post-horn (muted, unlike the open-ended horn of Turn and Taxis) is written beneath the words on a bathroom stall. But here, it barely means a thing to her. It just so happens that the bar she is in hosts many Yoyodyne (think: an aerospace government contractor) workers. And of course, these workers don’t communicate through the government monopolized mail system, they use an underground system that only they believe they know of.
Third, and last, is the play, The Courier’s Tragedy. While it is long and often convoluted, the most important instance lies at the end. A usurped, rightful prince is working as a Thurn and Taxis agent, what was an equivalent of our modern-day postal service. As he is traveling back to his kingdom to deliver the letter that would reinstate him, the corrupt king sends Tristero, an underground mail system (and clearly something more than that) to dispatch him. He is murdered by three members all dressed in black, faces seemingly disfigured and behind gauze, right outside the lake holding the bones of the lost soldiers.
So how do these seemingly unrelated events tie together? The first major point occurs when Oedipa visits Vesperhaven House and talks with Mr Thoth. Mr Thoth mentions how his grandfather’s Pony Express was attacked in a similar fashion to the Tristero attack in the play. Men dressed all in black, disguised as Indians but with white feathers stained black with charred bones. Tristero, an underground mail service now reincarnated as W.A.S.T.E., disguises and empowers itself with the corpses of dead soldiers in order to suppress the monopolized mail service.
It seems, with this convoluted series of events, that Thomas Pynchon was predicting a surveillance state. Letters once passed from hand to hand, across states, county lines, through countries even. They passed unopened from writer to reader, contents unknown to anyone else. With this form of communication, a revolution could occur, strikes could be planned, corporate qualms vented and reinforced, unions formed. So, if communication could be so dangerous to the wealthy and powerful, what could be formed but Tristero – another simple form of communication, seemingly, but one that surveils. Letters to Oedipa appear already opened and possibly rewritten. Censorship could occur with a quick skim, or in today’s world, with an algorithm or the push of a button. Even more horrifying, they now will always know who sent the message, who wants to enact change, and who these people are in communication with. All this is disguised as an innocent convenience that makes everyone’s life easier. A prediction of the internet? The NSA? Security cameras lining the seedier parts of town?
But it’s even further than this. Why are the bones from soldiers? Possibly to show how those in power feign their worship of the troops’ bravery, when in reality we send them off with lies, allowing them to be slaughtered and dumped, all in the name of empire and capital. Their bones are now just to be churned up or burned, sold for entertainment or pleasure or disguise. And the LSD trials? We now see Mucho a changed man, no longer sentimental about the history of families or the small things in one’s life that create joy. Instead, he is bogged down with thoughts, believing only in things that could not possibly enact the change he would have originally wanted. Now it is just small, pointless thoughts of some all-healing “love”. He has been nearly brainwashed out of any care for the more nefarious aspects of contemporary life. If Oedipa had accepted the trial, so coincidentally offered immediately after receiving the position of executor, would she have had any desire to begin her quest. ‘
The final question is whether or not Oedipa’s quest was a bout of paranoia or not. And it very well could have been. Despite all this evidence and prediction on Pynchon’s end, he is not saying that this is the truth, that Tristero is the answer. It is true, of course: the surveillance state and the numbing of citizens’ minds was beginning around that time. But whether or not Oedipa’s search for Tristero was the correct path for discovery is up for debate. Could it possibly just be another diversion to take her away from finding the truth? Were all these symbols planted around the city to mentally break her down? Or was it similar to the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, where that first act of seeing the muted post-horn caused the rest to reveal themselves? We will never know. For as Oedipa dives deeper, answers draw further away. It is like her staring at the Nefastis Machine, willing something impossible to occur or some simple change to happen, but no matter how hard she tries, the laws that govern keep the engine still.
Pynchon is not hopeless though. He understands that an answer might be possible, however much the odds stacked against us. “For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia” (pg. 151). Even if we must give in to this paranoia, delve into conspiracies beyond our grasp, fight against powers that censor and murder their own constituents, and become alien to those around us, there is no option to give in.
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