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.
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.
Maxine loses days in DeepArcher. At first it seems a refuge. “DeepArcher will always take you in, keep you safe,” says one character. Elsewhere Pynchon describes it as “a virtual sanctuary to escape to from the many varieties of real-world discomfort.” After 9/11, DeepArcher’s population spikes. The new visitors are not only people like Maxine, seeking cauterization from the trauma, but the dead, including victims of 9/11, whose electronic ghosts continue to speak and live and play.
And yet, like so many of the virtual paradises we’ve created for ourselves, DeepArcher can be used for nefarious purposes. Hashslingrz’s villainous CEO, Gabriel Ice, who may or may not have connections to American intelligence and/or Islamist terrorists, is desperate to take it over. DeepArcher’s presence in the novel grows, accreting meaning, until it becomes more vivid—more real—than Pynchon’s “reality.”
Maxine’s father, a curmudgeonly intellectual approximately Pynchon’s age, seems to come closer than any other character to articulating the novel’s conscience.
You know where it all comes from, this online paradise of yours? It started back during the Cold War, when the think tanks were full of geniuses plotting nuclear scenarios … Your Internet, back then the Defense Department called it DARPAnet, the real original purpose was to assure survival of U.S. command and control after a nuclear exchange with the Soviets …
Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid …
Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable.
Technology is paradise; technology is hell. Pynchon embraces both interpretations—as most of us do, whether or not we admit it. One is reminded of the recent studies showing, on the one hand, that we Americans increasingly believe ourselves to be under surveillance, and on the other hand, that we don’t care. Come to think of it, our blithe submission to social media, the U.S. government’s Prism program, and the strange plight of Edward Snowden have all the makings of a Thomas Pynchon novel. And Bleeding Edge is it.
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