To hold one of Thomas Pynchon’s novels unopened is to be on the cusp of near infinite possibility. There is a dizzying scope and a staggering technical virtuosity to much of his writing, a willingness to confront historical and technological immensities, revelling in the chaos that ensues. This visceral wildness is evident in the famous first lines of his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow: ‘A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.’
Pynchon’s differing ambitions for Bleeding Edge are clear from its own opening: ‘It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school.’ Unlike the complex Gravity’s Rainbow (or most of his other works), its plot is fairly linear, its cast of characters manageable, and its geography largely contained to New York City. This is Pynchon for the uninitiated, or for fans who’d like to read him on holiday and still be relaxed. But it is far from a trifling work.
With the dotcom bubble newly burst, deregistered Criminal Fraud Examiner Maxine Tarnow is drawn into investigating hashslingerz, one of the few surviving start-ups of New York’s Silicon Alley, and its megalomaniac CEO, ‘pioneer dickhead’ Gabriel Ice. Hijinks ensue. A Stinger missile crew are training on a New York roof, an Italian venture capitalist-cum-crime-financier feeds Maxine inside information, an entrepreneur skimming cash from hashslingerz is murdered, and Maxine’s ex-husband comes back into the picture, as ice-cream-obsessed and jealous as ever. And then September 11 arrives and shifts the frame abruptly.
As she investigates, Maxine encounters a classically Pynchonian cast of characters: stoner software engineers, paranoid hackers, a video bootlegger turned documentary filmmaker, a Russian mafia boss and his rap aficionado thugs, an ‘idiot-surfant’ guru, a war-criminal neo-liberal bagman, and a firebrand, lefty blogger desperate to save her daughter from her marriage to Gabriel Ice. Wise-cracking Maxine, armed with her Beretta and an insatiable need to make sure everyone is well fed, navigates this world of oddballs and mysteries with a mix of nonchalance, determination and Jewish motherly instinct. Pynchon’s dei ex machina offer ready assistance, ensuring that no dead end stays that way for long.
As always, Pynchon displays an encyclopaedic knowledge of popular culture and a satirical touch undreamed of by Jonathan Franzen. Beanie Babies, Furbies, Zima and Purple Drank make appearances, along with an inexhaustible list of bands, TV shows and movies, punctuated by hilarious invented songs and carnival set pieces. The finest such scene, reminiscent of the Casino Herman Goering in Gravity’s Rainbow or the opening of V, occurs at a 1999-themed party thrown by hashslingerz. Pynchon describes:
… the godfather of postmodern toilets, a piazza-size expanse of Belgian encaustic tiling in ocher, pale blue and faded burgundy, recycled from a mansion on lower Broadway, with three dozen stalls, its own bar, television lounge, sound system, and deejay, who at the moment, while a six-by-by-six matrix of dancers perform the Electric Slide across the antique tiling, is playing Nazi Vegetable’s once-chartbusting disco anthem In the Toilet [Hustle Tempo].
Such rambunctiousness is nowhere to be found in the arrival of 9/11. Maxine learns of the attacks between dropping her kids at school and getting to her office, and spends worried hours hoping that her commodity-trading, no-longer-estranged husband is not among the victims. Normalcy is overturned by tragedy.
This is not, however, a novel that tries to make sense of 9/11. It is not really a ‘9/11 novel’ at all (problematic a genre as that no doubt is). Pynchon is interested in what the event becomes, how it is mediatised and manipulated, and in those ‘forces in whose interests it compellingly lies to seize control of the narrative … get people cranked up in a certain way. Cranked up, scared, and helpless.’ For Pynchon, what matters are the happenings at the lunatic fringe and in the underneath. By turning to the wild speculations of conspiracy – and there is no better writer than Pynchon to convey their full gamut, from Arab and Jewish to CIA and corporate – the novel subsumes the event of 9/11 within the central concern of the novel: the dark unconscious of the internet.
Early in the novel, Maxine reaches the Deep Web, a place of ‘obsolete sites and broken links, an endless junkyard’ yet with ‘a whole invisible maze of constraints … The hidden code of behaviour you have to learn and obey. A dump, with structure.’ The Deep Web is where hashslingerz does its work, where Gabriel Ice hides his tracks, where Defence hopes to gain control of the net, and where the dead go to live on as ghostly avatars. Maxine’s entry point is the virtual interface DeepArcher, a software program that takes the user to unexplored digital netherworlds, and allows them to create their own. There are echoes here of SF-novel virtual realities, especially Neal Stephenson’s 1992 classic Snow Crash. But this is Pynchon, and the underworld never quite stays under; the virtual bleeds into the edges of the actual. Maxine discovers hidden passages with unnameable terrors below Ice’s mansion in the Hamptons. A Silicon Alley entrepreneur is murdered beneath the Deseret Building’s swimming pool. Maxine meets contacts in subways, has revelations in dreams, and fears ‘a possibility that DeepArcher is about to overflow into the perilous gulf between screen and face’.
Maxine’s journeys through the Deep Web are Pynchon’s millennial incarnation of the labyrinthine underworlds of Gravity’s Rainbow’s post-war Zone and the secret postal networks of The Crying of Lot 49. In recounting those experiences Pynchon is most stylistically similar to his earlier works: riotous images, surreal associations, rhetorical flights, sentences that break off into ellipses. Yet these passages are rare in Bleeding Edge, rearing like occasional icebergs through the sea of pop-culture shtick, the danger beneath the sunny surface of Jennifer Aniston haircuts, Rugrats episodes and ‘Carmen Electra posters, mostly from her Baywatch period’.
Bleeding-edge tech, it turns out, might herald a better future, but it can also cut it to pieces. ‘We’re being played, Maxi,’ says the renegade hacker Eric Outfield, late in the novel, ‘and the game is fixed, and it won’t end until the Internet – the real one, the dream, the promise – is destroyed.’ Today, with an unceasing flow of new news about the ubiquitous electronic spying program of the NSA, it is difficult not to agree. Early Pynchon might have called for a chorus, everyone together, a revel and a rebellion against the desire of states, secret agencies and corporations to control the world. Pynchon at 76 is still exuberant, still raging, still eager to take stock of the culture around him and peel back its veneer to uncover the dark within. And yet, like his heroine in the last pages of Bleeding Edge, beneath the sceptical, scathing wit, he is, surprisingly, looking wistfully and just a little hopefully towards whatever comes next.
Thomas Pynchon Bleeding Edge Vintage 2013 PB 477pp $32.95
Michael Richardson is an academic and writer. Once, he was the only Australian speechwriter in Canadian politics. He can be found on the web at http://www.marichardson.net and on Twitter @richardson_m_a.
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