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.
In previous novels, these encounters would seem to indicate the presence of a conspiracy or some mystical influence; here the device serves as a kind of gag, or perhaps a tic. Maxine therefore never seems fully committed to her investigation; she proceeds by accident rather than by determination. The dramatic stakes are provided by the reader’s knowledge of what will happen on September 11, but Pynchon’s treatment of the event is deliberately deflated. The anticlimax is followed by an anti-denouement, in which few of the looming mysteries are resolved, though there are more surprise encounters, clandestine meetings, and suggestive dreams. The reader gets the sense that the novel could have ended 100 pages earlier, or 500 pages later.
But ideas, not plot, have always been Pynchon’s main concern. The central preoccupation of Bleeding Edge is the nexus of technology and terror—not terrorism itself so much as our culture’s amorphous fears about the future. A topic statement arrives early in the novel, spoken by a hacker named Felix Boïngueaux. He develops both malware and malware-detection software; Maxine can’t tell where his sympathies lie. “You’re frowning,” says Boïngueaux. “We’re beyond good and evil here, the technology, it’s neutral, eh?”
Maxine doesn’t reply, and the question lingers. Is technology neutral? Novels can pull off a trick that nonfiction cannot replicate: they allow us not only to consider an idea in elaborate detail, but to inhabit an idea, to follow it through to its most extreme conclusions. To live it. Pynchon achieves this effect most viscerally in scenes where Maxine visits a virtual world called DeepArcher. (The pun, as always with Pynchon, is intended.) DeepArcher is reminiscent of Second Life; it is like a video game with infinite levels and options, few rules, and no objectives. Though accessible through the Internet, DeepArcher links to no other Web site and is hidden from Google; it’s a closed system. It is, in other words, much like a Pynchon novel—shapeless, chaotic, open to interpretation, equally capable of producing boredom and wonder, bewilderment and enlightenment.