September 13, 2013
Early in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, protagonist Maxine Turnow enters into an internet space called DeepArcher. It’s not exactly a web site, not exactly a video game, but it acts similarly to both. It is, essentially, a safe space for coders to hide or share information. Under the guise of avatars, users are able to wander through a variety of digital worlds and communicate with other avatars in attendance. The pixelated landscape comes into focus slowly for Maxine. She “recognizes from a thousand train and bus stations and airports… the smoothly cross-dawning image of an interior whose detail, for a moment breathtakingly, is far in advance of anything she’s seen.” She intuits that the program is pushing her toward boarding a shuttle, but she hesitates, enjoying the complexity and effluvia of the station around her. “‘It’s all right,’ dialogue boxes assure her, ‘it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost.’” Maxine drifts deeper into the experience, “after a while interested not so much in where she might get to than the texture of the search itself.”
This journey into DeepArcher, and those that follow it, form, in a sense, a meta-commentary on the experience of reading a Pynchon novel. The reader enters a world that, while recognizable from a thousand books, is dazzling and intricate far in advance of more quotidian narratives. Of course there’s a plot that can shuttle the reader to the end, should the reader seek a straight path, but the complexity and effluvia—the texture of the search—is far more compelling. Getting constructively lost is part of the point.
The plot that shuttles the novel launches on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the spring of 2001. Maxine, a fraud investigator, is contacted by an old friend, Reg Despard. Reg has been hired to make a documentary on budding internet giant hashslingerz.com. During filming, Reg notices that nefarious activities are afoot at hashslingerz. The force behind these activities seems to be the company’s founder and CEO, Gabriel Ice. Ice is a Bill Gates-style villain: an arrogant billionaire programmer using his money as a bully pulpit to thrust his ideology onto the world. He also seems to be stealing huge sums of money from himself and laundering it through international danger zones, including but not limited to the Middle East. Reg asks Maxine to look into the fraud and help him make sense of it. Over the course of her investigation, Maxine becomes entangled in a world of Russian mobsters, pseudo-mafioso venture capitalists, activist bloggers, neoliberal villains, mystical bike messengers, private investigators who use their heightened sense of smell to sniff out the solution to various mysteries, and a host of uncomfortably young cybergeeks who range from Jennifer Aniston impersonators to foot fetishists. Nearly all of these characters share an obsession with money, partying, and the cavalier possibilities of the internet. The action unfolds almost entirely in Manhattan, sometimes stretching off the island but rarely farther than the reach of commuter rail.
As with most Pynchon novels, Bleeding Edge features dozens of characters, a plot so complex that one wonders if Pynchon himself is following it, wince-inducing puns (there’s a law firm called Hanover Fisk), sex scenes that range from tender to troubling to fetish explorations, goofy songs (which, if the reader really wishes to, she can arrange with a snappy ukulele accompaniment), drugs both real and imagined (plenty of good old-fashioned pot mixed in with folks inhaling compressed air dusters), and language play both silly (there’s a character named Feliz Boïngueaux, presumably Oïngueaux’s brother) and deconstructionist (a quick and lucid criticism of calling the spot where the Twin Towers once stood “Ground Zero”). Since the book is set in the New York of 2001, there is, of course, an attack on the World Trade Center. There are a couple of murders. It’s not a particularly paranoid novel. It’s certainly not paranoid in the way Pynchon’s first three books are. Like all Pynchon novels, though, there are operators in government agencies and large corporations manipulating the lives of those who live outside the power structure.
The ultimate result of these varied elements is a novel that is as fun as it is complex. Readers will find themselves giggling over Pynchon’s description of a fictional Scooby-Doo movie that ends in a punch line so silly and hilarious it’s painful. Character names, whimsical as ever, will likely result in more bemused groans than highbrow analysis. (Take Nick Windust, for example. Is there anything we can say about his surname besides, “Aren’t we all just that?”) For all the weight that some scholars place on Pynchon—and I’m not immune to this; I crossed the Atlantic not even a month ago to present an academic essay at International Pynchon Week—the casual reader can feel content reading Bleeding Edge as just a witty page-turner. For those who struggled with Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity’s Rainbow years ago and abandoned all hope of ever enjoying Pynchon, Bleeding Edge and the novel that precedes it, Inherent Vice, can be the books that serve as more accessible reintroductions.
What these two later novels have in common is a more immediate set of cultural references. In his essay exploring Pynchon’s “genre-poaching,” Brian McHale demonstrates that Pynchon constructs his narratives using elements of the genres most popular during the historical period about which he is writing. Because Bleeding Edge is a historical novel about 2001, the genres poached should be very recognizable to contemporary readers. Maxine Turnow shares more in common with Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone or Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum than she does with characters in works considered more “literary.” The presence of Manhattan as a seemingly living, breathing character may draw inspiration from the Baltimore of The Wire, or, if one is to trust the epigraph, the novels of Donald Westlake. Readers need no companion or wiki site to tap into the narrative. It is born of the culture that surrounds us.
Which shouldn’t suggest that Bleeding Edge is simply another scrap of detritus floating around in pop cultural clutter. The novel, like Pynchon’s last four, investigates our complex relationship with late capitalism. A couple of decades ago, Linda Hutcheon observed that one of the defining characteristics of our contemporary ideological and political situation is that we are complicit in every system we condemn. So we curse global warming while driving a car to work. We celebrate the end of slavery in the United States without acknowledging that a comparable exploitation and dehumanization still exists in the very same cotton industry and in the falling factories where our underwear was sewn. We can call ourselves hypocrites for this behavior, but it probably goes deeper than that. With a nod to globalization, Bleeding Edge explores our complicity in a more localized format.
Maxine Turnow is persistently critical of the yuppies—or “yups,” as she calls them—in her neighborhood. They’ve gentrified her neck of Manhattan, forcing out the poorer, browner populations, making her surroundings more milquetoast. And yet she’s every bit the yuppie herself. She lives on the Upper West Side, runs her own successful business, sends her kids to private school, and is sometimes kind of married to a commodities broker. She curses the “Disneyfication” of Times Square and its consumer capitalist implications from a posh high-rise apartment, where rent alone is likely far higher than the median American income.
Her children share her ambivalence. In one scene, her son and his friend play an elaborate game with beanie babies and his friend’s toy mall: “Scenarios tend to center on violent assault, terrorist shoplifting sprees, and yup discombobulation, each of which ends in the widespread destruction of the Mall.” This is just one example of the book’s hostility toward conspicuous consumption. Yet, for all her criticism, Maxine does a fair amount of shopping, some of it even recreational. Likewise, Maxine’s friend refers to doing lunch as a “corrupt artifact of late capitalism” and refuses to engage in the practice. And yet they go to breakfast together. They order takeout for dinner. And, finally, toward the end of the novel, the two do lunch.
Even so, such contradictions are not simply matters of scorn or bald hypocrisy. Pynchon clearly intends to pose oppositions between ideologies and actions in an effort to negotiate a space between the two—searching, it seems, for a way to live a contemporary life that is less than a sellout and more than a hermitage. He provides no easy answers to the dilemma. There is no quick, moralistic sound bite to sum up the novel’s tensions. And this, in part, is why so many readers often feel like they don’t “get” Thomas Pynchon. But this lack of easy answers also provides the great freedoms afforded by his work. Readers can negotiate their own spaces between their own ideologies and their own actions.
The complexity within Bleeding Edge extends far beyond Pynchon’s explorations of late capitalism into the unexplored and perhaps rapidly-shrinking potential of the internet, into gender issues, meta-commentary on the role of the novel itself, and numerous other fields. There is plenty of fodder for scholars to aim their cannons at here.
Again, Maxine’s journeys into DeepArcher provide insight. Toward the end of the book, she encounters another avatar who expounds upon the changes in the webspace:
All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable. And that’s where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the unnavigable, the region of information.
Likewise, Pynchon takes us into that deep space, below the clutter of surface culture, into the uncomfortable depths where information ceases to be a commodity and begins to have meaning.