Mrs. Oedipa Maas received a letter naming her executrix of Pierce Inverarity's estate. Pierce was a California real estate mogul with a great number of assets whom she had an affair with years ago. Pierce died a year before the will was found. Oedipa did errands, trying to uncover what happened a year ago. Finally, she remembered a three A.M. phone call from Pierce. He had spoken to her in different voices. Oedipa's husband, Wendell "Mucho" Maas, arrived home. He complained, as usual, that his boss, Funch, at KCUF was trying to censor him. Mucho had formerly worked as a used car salesman. Mucho had tried not to be a stereotypical used car salesman, but the job overwhelmed him. Oedipa tried, unsuccessfully, to calm his memories. At three A.M., Dr. Hilarius, Oedipa's shrink, called and asked Oedipa if she was taking the tranquilizer pills. She refused to take pills or join his experiment testing hallucinogenic drugs on housewives. The next morning, Oedipa met with her lawyer, Roseman. Roseman played footsie with her. After lunch, he explained what Oedipa would do as executrix. Oedipa thought of herself as Rapunzel, Pierce having reached the top of her tower using a credit card to jimmy the doors. She thought of the painting by Remedios Varos she had once seen with Pierce in Mexico City which had made her cry. Out of the tower in the painting, wove a tapestry that contained the world and forced Oedipa to fear that she could not escape.
Oedipa traveled to San Narciso to look into Pierce's affairs. Mucho was little affected. The pattern of buildings seemed to want to tell her something. The numbers on the offices increased dramatically. She drove by YOYODYNE, a company owned by Pierce. Oedipa hesitated in front of "Echo Courts Motel" and the raunchy nymph on the sign. The face was similar to her own. Miles, the teenage manager, was in a rock group called the Paranoids. Later, Metzger arrived. He was good looking and had been a child actor, named Baby Igor. They turned on the television and poured drinks. One of Metzger's movies, Cashiered, was on. Almost every commercial that was broadcast was a product owned by Pierce. Oedipa thought the coincidences may be a scam.
Metzger knew about the trip Pierce and Oedipa took to Mexico. He tried to bet with Oedipa on the end of the movie. She finally agreed to bet that Baby Igor would die. The reels of the movie became boggled. Metzger allowed Oedipa to ask questions about what she had missed by playing Strip Botticelli. Oedipa dressed in every piece of clothing she had. She laughed so hard that she fell, knocking over a can of hair spray which shot off violently around the bathroom. The can shattered the mirror and shower's glass panel.
Regardless of how many questions Oedipa asked, Oedipa remained bundled in clothing. Metzger began undressing. Oedipa visited the bathroom and could not find her reflection. When she returned, Metzger was asleep, aroused. She kissed him. Twenty minutes later, Metzger had finally stripped Oedipa. Oedipa awoke in the middle of a sexual crescendo. As they climaxed, the Paranoids blew a fuse outside and the electricity went out. Soon, the T.V. returned to show Baby Igor being electrocuted. Oedipa had won the bet. She asked what Pierce had said about her. Metzger had been told that Oedipa would not be easy. Oedipa cried. Metzger called her to him and she went.
On an envelope from Mucho, Postmaster was misspelled as Potsmaster. Oedipa could not dismiss it. She and Metzger went to a bar near Yoyodyne called The Scope and met a man named Fallopian, from the Peter Pinguid Society. Pinguid had been a commanding officer for the Confederacy, who had led a ship to attack San Francisco where he was met with a Russian fleet. Nothing would happen but it was the first such Russia-American confrontation. An underground mail was delivered which Fallopian said they were not supposed to witness. In the bathroom, Oedipa noticed a strange horn symbol on the wall, asking for a response through WASTE.
One day, Oedipa, Metzger, and the Paranoids picnicked at Pierce's property, Fangoso Lagoons. A man popped up and asked Baby Igor for help. Manny Di Presso was a lawyer turned actor turned lawyer. He was running from one of his clients, Tony Jaguar. They stole a boat and rode to the social house in the middle of the lake. Di Presso was bringing suit against Inverarity because he did not pay for the bones that lay at the bottom of the lake. The bones came from Italy after a World War II battle where dead Americans were dumped into a lake. The Paranoids claimed that the story sounded like the play, The Courier's Tragedy by Richard Wharfinger.
The next day, Oedipa and Metzger saw The Courier's Tragedy. The Jacobean revenge play set an elaborate plot over five acts. A ritual reluctance and unfulfilled expectation pervaded the play's atmosphere. One word, the Tristero, was muttered once with hesitation in conjunction with the bones. The play was filled with violence and sex. After the play ended, Oedipa asked Driblette, the director and actor who played the hero, some questions. Metzger mocked her and waited in the car. Driblette told her that the play was for entertainment. She still wondered why he had made certain choices, especially concerning the Tristero. Oedipa wanted to see the original manuscript but Driblette had lost it. He took a shower though Oedipa continued to ask questions. Leaving, Oedipa realized that she forgot to ask about the bones. Mucho Maas' voice played over the car radio.
Oedipa decided to bring the will to life. She visited a Yoyodyne stockholders meeting and got lost. She wandered until meeting Stanley Koteks, an engineer. She noticed him drawing the WASTE symbol. Because Oedipa was a stockholder, Stanley hoped she could him change the patent policy which disallowed for individuality. John Nefastis was one inventor who escaped and created Maxwell's Demon. Oedipa wanted to try the Demon so Stanley gave her a box number before realizing it was WASTE. Oedipa asked about it but pronounced the acronym as a word. Koteks would no longer help her.
Oedipa also noticed was the historical marker at Fangoso Lagoons. The inscription related the massacre of Wells, Fargo men by masked marauders. One victim traced a cross in the dust. Oedipa wondered if the cross had been a T for Tristero. She tried calling Driblette but did not reach him so went to Zapf's bookstores. In the play, Oedipa found a handwritten note next to the Tristero line, giving a variant edition. Continuing to track Pierce's estate, Oedipa traveled to a senior citizens home that Pierce had constructed. The one man who spoke to her was old Mr. Thoth. His grandfather had ridden for the Pony Express. Thoth mentioned that his grandfather loved killing fake Indians, who wore a black feather and rode at night. To remember their Spanish name, the old man showed her a ring his grandfather stole. It contained the WASTE symbol.
The next connection came from Genghis Cohen, the examiner of Pierce's stamps. Cohen asking Oedipa to look at irregularities he had found. He gave Oedipa wine made from dandelions that had grown in a cemetery cleared for a San Narciso Freeway. The connection to Pierce was unmistakable. Then, Cohen showed her the watermark on a stamp which revealed the WASTE sign. He pointed out a Thurn and Taxis legend on a German stamp. The WASTE symbol differed from the legend because it had an extra loop, likely a mute. Cohen also showed her the reverse sides of the Pony Express stamps which had engraved black feathers and the transposition, "U.S. Potsage." Oedipa told Cohen what she knew about these markings. He was not very responsive.
Oedipa drove to a hotel in Berkeley welcoming an American Deaf-Mute Assembly. The next day, Oedipa looked for Wharfinger's play. She found it finally in a warehouse. Looking for "Trystero," Oedipa was dumbfounded to arrive at a different word. The footnote stated that other editions had different variants, one being a pun for the Trystero. The preface was written by Professor Emory Bortz from UC Berkeley. Oedipa drove to the campus but Bortz was now a professor at San Narciso College. Oedipa drove to John Nefastis' home. He showed her the Demon and explained that entropy was a metaphor connecting thermodynamics to information flow. Nefastis allowed Oedipa to try to the machine but she failed. Nefastis told her they could have sex. Oedipa ran away. Oedipa realized that she was heading toward San Francisco in rush hour. The rush calmed her. She decided to look for nothing in San Francisco.
Soon, Oedipa met a man who wore a muted post horn. Oedipa mentioned Thurn and Taxis but got no response. Oedipa told him everything. He explained that he was a member of Inamorati Anonymous. The symbol originated with a fired member of Yoyodyne who recognized that love was his weakness. Oedipa wandered the streets, locating the Tristero symbol everywhere. She wandered into a Mexican diner and found Jesús Arrabal, an anarchist she and Pierce had met in Mazatlán. Lying near him was an old anarchist paper with an image of the horn but Jesús knew nothing. On a bus, Oedipa found the image and at the airport she overheard it. She would later wonder when she had dreamt it. Near morning, Oedipa spied a crumpled old man, with the horn tattooed. He wanted Oedipa to drop a letter for his disenchanted wife in a WASTE box under the freeway. Oedipa felt helpless when a rooming house collected the old man. An hour later, she found the WASTE can. She followed the WASTE carrier until he ironically led her to the home of Nefastis.
Back at her hotel, Oedipa was pulled into a ballroom of deaf-mute dancing but, surprisingly, no one collided. In the morning, Oedipa drove to Kinneret. Arriving at Hilarius' office, a bullet flew by her. She ran into the building to learn that Hilarius was having delusions. Oedipa tried to talk to him. He pulled Oedipa into the room. Hilarius was paranoid because he had experimented on Jews in WWII. Finally, Oedipa got his gun and the cops came in. Outside, Oedipa discovered Mucho covering the story. He interviewed her then they drove to the radio station. Funch told Oedipa that Mucho was losing his identity. She and Mucho went for pizza. In the middle of a conversation, Mucho stopped to listen to Muzak. Each individual, he claimed, was a chorus of everyone. He took out LSD pills from Hilarius' study and Oedipa understood. Mucho's nightmares had stopped. Oedipa had lost him.
Returning to Echo Courts, Oedipa learned that Metzger had run off to marry Serge's fifteen year old chick and turned over of his executorship to another lawyer. No mention of their relationship. Driblette could not be reached. She called Bortz and was invited over. On the drive over, Oedipa learned from the owner of the government surplus outlet, Winthrop Tremaine, that Zapf had burnt down his book store for insurance money. Oedipa wished she had hit Tremaine when he told her about Nazi wear he sold. At Bortz's, all were drinking. Oedipa asked about the line containing Tristero. Bortz thought she had a pornographic version from the Vatican. Bortz explained that only the preceding couplet to the Tristero was given the night he saw the production. Oedipa learned that Driblette had walked into the ocean. Their gathering was his wake.
Bortz showed her slides of the Vatican version, likely a Scurvhamite project, an extreme Puritan gesture to damn the theater. Bortz showed Oedipa a book by Blobb which Wharfinger had used to learn about the marauders in Italy. From her research, Oedipa created a history of the Tristero. The next day, Oedipa attended Driblette's burial. After hearing the eulogy, Oedipa tried to communicate with Driblette. She dreaded that the Tristero had removed Driblette as it had removed Mucho, Metzger, and Hilarius. However, Driblette did not respond. The libraries were of no further help to Oedipa. Bortz fabricated scenarios of Tristero meetings and disagreements and how their actions related inversely with those of Thurn and Taxis.
Oedipa no longer followed any leads. At the Scope, Fallopian was changed as well and did not believe her. Cohen called her in to look at a stamp. It defined WASTE as "We Await Silent Tristero's Empire." Oedipa noted that he had bought his American stamp manual at Zapf's. Suspicious, she found that Pierce owned the Tank Theatre and the strip that included Zapf's. She considered whether: Tristero was real; she had hallucinated it; it was a plot against her; or she had fantasized a plot against her. She had reached a void. Oedipa suffered greatly. Cohen called her frequently with new information, most importantly a new article. Oedipa told Bortz about it but did not check its veracity. The stamps were set to be sold under lot 49 at an auction. An suspicious anonymous bidder had arranged to bid by book, Cohen alerted her.
Oedipa drank bourbon until dark and then drove the highways with her headlights off. Nothing happened. Desperately, she called The Greek Way bar. When the man she met there came, she demanded to know if he had been set up. He replied it was too late and hung up. Oedipa felt lost and wandered along a railroad track. San Narciso had no boundaries. Pierce's legacy was America. She reflected on excluded middles. Later, Oedipa called the agent of the mysterious bidder. His client had decided to appear at the auction. Oedipa arrived early and ran into Cohen, who was bidding. Oedipa wondered what she would do to the bidder of lot 49. She sat in the back alone and watched the proceedings begin.