Books October 2013

The Thomas Pynchon Novel for the Edward Snowden Era

A review of the new novel Bleeding Edge
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Javier Jaén

Global conspiracy, apocalyptic fantasies, terrorist cells, cybernetics, ballistics, government intelligence, Jacobean tragedy, coded messages conveyed by courier, a screaming that comes across the sky: September 11 had all the makings of a Thomas Pynchon novel. And now it is one. The jacket copy—written, unmistakably, by Pynchon himself—describes Bleeding Edge as “a historical romance of New York in the early days of the Internet,” but this is a red herring (as is the suggestion that Jerry Seinfeld will “make an unscheduled guest appearance”; he won’t, though Jennifer Aniston will). Bleeding Edge is about the birth of the Internet age. It is also about the birth of the age of terror. The two are, after all, the same age. A coincidence? Pynchon, as his readers well know, does not believe in coincidences.

These themes are not new to Pynchon. His novels abound in information overload and terror, and the symbiotic relationship between the two. Bleeding Edge’s subject matter, however, hits closer to home—and closer to Pynchon’s home. The setting is the Upper West Side, where Pynchon has lived since at least 1990, which makes the novel the closest thing to an autobiographical statement he has ever produced, though that is not saying very much.

When Bleeding Edge begins, on “the first day of spring 2001,” the dot-com bubble has burst, and the start-ups of Silicon Alley, that “enchanted country between the Flatiron Building and the East Village,” have defaulted on their leases. Maxine Tarnow—Jewish, sardonic, single mother of two boys—is a professional fraud investigator. Many of Pynchon’s heroes are investigators of one stripe or another, but Maxine resembles most closely Oedipa Maas, the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49: quick-witted, urbane, prone to bouts of mania, with a heightened sensitivity to oblique signals and ellipses in conversation. Maxine proceeds by intuition, often succumbing to “rogue hunches” that inevitably prove accurate. She has a skill, rivaled only by her creator’s, for seeing unlikely connections between things.

Maxine’s adventures begin with a surprise visit from her friend Reg Despard, a documentary filmmaker—and already Pynchon is testing his reader’s suspension of disbelief. Reg has been hired to make a film about one of the few dot-com companies that has survived the crash, a shadowy computer-security firm named hashslingrz. Why a company this secretive would hire a documentary filmmaker is baffling, but Pynchon makes nothing of it, so the reader must simply shrug and go along with him. It is a familiar position for Pynchon readers. More than suspension of disbelief, Pynchon demands abandonment of disbelief. Which is another way of saying that he demands belief—just as a deity demands faith. This is why his fiction tends to convert readers into acolytes, critics into liturgists, naysayers into blasphemers.

Odd things are occurring at the hashslingrz office, Maxine learns. Employees are being given Arabic lessons; Arab men are assembling what look like bombs; disbursements are being issued to a shell organization in the Middle East. Reg thinks he is being followed, and his apartment is searched. September is just around the corner. According to one hashslingrz informant:

“Word around the cubes is there’s ’ese huge U.S. government contracts, everybody’s after em, big deal comin up in the Middle East, some people in the community sayin Gulf War Two. Figures Bush would want to do his daddy one better.”

We are firmly entrenched in Pynchonland now: song lyrics and acronyms, punning jokes, pop-cultural references (Zima, Beanie Babies, Monica Lewinsky couture), quasi-mystical organizations (“The Montauk Project,” a “boot camp for military time travelers”; the “Global Consciousness Project”), obscure symbols, and, most of all, paranoia. As Maxine says in the novel’s opening pages, channeling her author: “Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.” The fancifully named characters quickly multiply, the ominous clues accumulate, the confusion thickens.

Pynchon has always been strong on story, the events that fill the narrative, but weak on plot, the causal relationship between these events. His indifference to plot reached its most flagrant expression in Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow, large, action-saturated novels that nevertheless unfold chaotically, often with no obvious linear connection between one episode and the next. But he has never shown more hostility to plot than in Bleeding Edge, where he relies almost exclusively on the hoariest of devices: the chance encounter.

When Pynchon wants his characters to meet and exchange information, they run into each other. Scenes tend to begin with some variation of “She’s at the pay phone calling a cab when who does she run into but …”; “Going to work one morning, she runs into …”; “ ‘Rocky, what are you doing over in this neck of the woods?’ ” Maxine bumps into her sources at JFK airport; at the Port Authority bus terminal; in the basement of an apartment building; on the corner of 77th and Columbus; on 79th and Broadway; in Tribeca; in the East Village; at a health club; even in cyberspace. Everyone she meets seems to know one another, and they all have secret information that they happily reveal to her.

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