Spray-Painting Pynchon

November 29, 2007

The search is on in the Case of the Illegal Literary References.

Starting last weekend, police at the University of California at Santa Barbara began receiving reports from around campus of a particularly academic form of graffiti -- red spray-painted allusions to the work of the postmodern author Thomas Pynchon, whose 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 is (in typical fashion) a sprawling admixture of paranoia, counterculture and obscure literary references.

In the novel, the main character, Oedipa Maas, discovers a symbol in a bar bathroom that later appears throughout the novel. It's a muted trumpet that represents a shadowy organization called Trystero, which may or may not be an underground postal network. The "muted post horn" appears in about a third of the 15 to 20 occurrences of graffiti documented by nine police reports received so far, said Matthew Bowman, the community relations and training officer at the UCSB Police Department.

(The other two-thirds apparently delved into less literary territory through the depiction of male body parts, the F-word and references to the university and the police. For that reason, Bowman said, he doesn't think the crime is necessarily or completely related to the book.)

Much like the symbol in the book, the graffiti (both the highbrow and less scholarly inclined variants) sings from trash cans, light poles, sidewalks and signs, on and off campus. In photographs taken by the student newspaper, The Daily Nexus, the horn is seen alongside text such as "Trystero" and the letters "ASUCSB" (a possible reference to the student government). In many instances, illegal graffiti tends to be the work of talented individuals, Bowman said. But "that doesn’t appear to be the case" here.

As the university begins its cleanup operation and the police investigation continues, two questions remain: Why? And who?

The reasons behind the unusual literary graffiti could be as varied as the many interpretations of Pynchon's novel. Alan Liu, a professor of English at UCSB who has assigned The Crying of Lot 49 in his courses, said he wasn't necessarily surprised that the horn has made itself known on campus. He compared the symbols to the ubiquitous "Kilroy was here" graffiti spread around the world by American servicemen during World War II, a reference Pynchon would have known (and in fact used in another novel) after his early work for a military contractor in Seattle.

Liu said he wouldn't necessarily be surprised if the perpetrators ended up being some of his students. The book, he said, “is at once an example of thinking about information networks and a critique of information and communication networks.” And the secret postal service, represented by the muted post horn, is "the network in particular of the underclasses, of people who are oppressed, people who are marginalized in one way or another."

The commitment to social justice, adoration of cult literature and level of artistic quality could certainly combine to form a psychological profile worthy of an episode of CSI. Bowman said students who have taken a class that assigns Pynchon's novel might become a focus of the investigation, but he couldn't comment specifically. But he does have some clues. "The quality of them is not the greatest. This is obviously not a professional tagger," he said. "English majors and graffiti artists generally don’t seem to be the same demographic."

Pynchon could not be reached for comment.

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