Secret codes, the Trystero: A mysterious Thomas Pynchon hunt


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Turns out when you show people the tattoo on your wrist and ask if they’ve seen any stickers nearby with it and a mysterious URL, they might not respond particularly warmly. They might just shake their heads in bafflement, ask halting questions, then look at you as if you’re in some sort of a strange cult.

Maybe I am. I have a tattoo of the Trystero symbol from Thomas Pynchon’s ‘The Crying of Lot 49’ on my wrist. In the book, the symbol -- a muted post horn -- is the sign for an underground mail system known as w.a.s.t.e. And the mysterious symbol might have greater, or lesser, meaning.


Now that symbol adorns 200 stickers planted around the country and can be found in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Denver, Boston and Los Angeles. Each sticker has a url, but you have to find a sticker to see where it leads.

The Google map of the sticker locations took me to my local Trader Joe’s -- convenient, because I had some grocery shopping to do -- but nary a sticker was to be found. I searched all the sticker places I know, around the parking lot and light poles, places inside where a sticker might be stuck. Finally, I asked my cashier, who showed no spark of recognition at the words ‘Pynchon,’ ‘geocaching’ or even ‘game.’ As she was edging away, a fellow staffer who could double as a bouncer at any rock club looked over his massive shoulder at me suspiciously. OK, time to go.

A similar scene occurred at a local coffee shop that I frequent; today its staff seemed to think I was some kind of imposter dressed as a journalist (it happens). I explained what I was looking for -- Pynchon, sticker, wrist. The barrista huffed, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ and went back to his business. And ... no sticker.

Apparently, while a Pynchon fan in England has picked up on the idea by creating and posting his own versions of the Trystero symbol and the secret codes, Pynchon stickers in the U.S. are going missing. Could it be the result of simple sticker cleaning? Are Pynchon fans scooping them up? Or are they being torn down because of some conspiracy?

But eventually I found one, in the photo above. It’s still in a good spot above the coffee lids at Demitasse, a high-end coffee shop in downtown L.A. I wasn’t the first one to discover it -- that honor goes, appropriately, to Trystero Coffee, a micro-roaster that sells its beans to the shop.

So where does the url take you? To a passage that begins, ‘Everybody in 24fps had their own ideas about light, and about all they shared was the obsession.’ That’s from Pynchon’s novel ‘Vineland,’ set in Northern California, which I discovered using the exhaustive and essential fan-run Pynchon Wiki website.


At the bottom of each webpage is a button marked ‘w.a.s.t.e’ Click it and a box pops up in which you can type a message. Where will w.a.s.t.e. deliver it? It’s a mystery -– which will lead some to concerns about privacy, while opening up the freedom of the anonymous Internet to others. There was no Internet in 1966, when “The Crying of Lot 49” was published; then Pynchon imagined real-life post-office boxes set up to move secret messages.

This Pynchon project -- the Google map, the sticker hunt, the URLs, websites and message system -- was cooked up by Pynchon’s publisher, Penguin Press. The Press announced last week that Pynchon’s entire catalog of books -- eight novels and a collection of short fiction -- will be released for the first time as e-books. In a likelihood, this project has something to do with that.

There must be more to learn about what the Pynchon project points to. For now, it’s a very Pynchon mystery.


Coffee meets Pynchon

Thomas Pyncon’s novels will finally be released as e-books

When Thomas Pynchon is just Tom: A remarkable collection debuts


-- Carolyn Kellogg