Humor and Hysteria in Thomas Pynchon’s ‘Bleeding Edge’

[17 September 2013]

By John L. Murphy

Eternal September

The older Pynchon gets, the more enjoyable his sprawling, sly tales. Whether his later, affable fiction, or his earlier, hermetic epics, they reward attention and invite immersion (visit the annotated and informative Pynchon wiki). V. and Gravity’s Rainbow established him as one of America’s boldest writers. I found his 1963 debut more scintillating, if reliably ambiguous, than that ominous, obsessive follow-up a decade later conjuring up WWII. Gravity’s Rainbow‘s heady heft and conspiratorial content (blended with satire, snark, and strangeness) appears nevertheless embedded as our canonical postmodern monolith.

By Vineland (1990), Pynchon eased into a quirky, indulgent look back at the Reagan years (and before) in the decline of the Northern California counterculture. Pynchon appeared happier to let a less imposing narrative reveal his rambling characters roaming American fringes. Mason & Dixon (1997) questioned historical veracity in its colonial, mannered pastiche of a past frontier.

My weeks immersed in the vast saga of anarchism and adventure a conniving century ago as Against the Day (2006) and my weekend racing through the genial, if addled, pot-headed detective yarn (convoluted and shaggy-dog as ever) Inherent Vice (2009) generated joy. Not a mood I’ve have instantly associated with Pynchon from his formidable, labyrinthine plots of encoded lore.

The difference lies in his letting go of such dogged density, and letting chatter spew and float about. Humor jostles the pages of all his fiction, but his recent work, to me, engages affably. It requires concentration, but it flows more accessibly. Readers who may have been put off Pynchon might begin again here, and then drift backwards into his catalog. He engages our concerns. He combines casual commentary on mores with clever asides about first-person mom-approved shooter games, nasal forensics, IKEA, foot fetishes, and a strip club named Joie de Beavre.

He movingly evokes a Jersey landfill and an uptown Halloween. His rapid-fire patter playfully taps into how we talk and think, encouraging reflection, as well as reaction. I rarely laugh when reading, but I did here, more than once in these nearly 500 pages. This story begins the first day of spring, 2001.

Manhattan during a spring-through-fall season of “Eternal September” foreshadows what we know follows. Decertified, now rogue, fraud examiner Maxine Tarnow investigates bookkeeping by hashslingrz. Claiming to be a computer security firm, it’s actually a shadowy entity exerting pull over dot.commers. Maxine chats up a few hustlers for venture capital after the recent economic downturn. A similar protagonist enlivens Inherent Vice: a gumshoe guides us, an everyday sort pursues corruption.

But Maxine is not the caricature Doc Sportello was. His quest played out as the Manson Family trials shook up Los Angeles, as la-la land shakes off hippie dreams for a charmless, calculating ‘70s. Maxine’s ambitions to uncover the truth, as with Sportello’s, spark the presiding spirit of each cusp of a new decade. Dreamers burst into a scene, eager to improve it. Con artists and charlatans rush past. Cynical tycoons jostle for power. It’s a new take on the old threat—the corporate and banker “jocks” push aside the idealistic “nerds”—akin to what Doc found in his own less than laid back city.

Amidst a divorce, Maxine deals with the breakup as many do. “The past, hey no shit, it’s an open invitation to wine abuse.” One of the few perks of running her own offbeat enterprise (Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em): she can arrive at the office to open her stash of Pinot E-Grigio.

Tipped off by contact Reg Despard about hashslingrz, Maxine jumps at the chance to expose them. Is she afraid? “Not me, paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much?” Like many characters, not limited to her hapless pal from California, Vryva McElmo (a trademark Pynchonism, these satirical names) Maxine has a tic of raising the inflection of her voice within many sentences.

Pynchon notices East Coast-West Coast markers; after three novels set largely along the Pacific, this move from Silicon Valley to Silicon Alley demonstrates his knack at blending regionalisms into his America, a place nearly but not yet homogenized. Vryva’s married to Justin, who met his business partner at Stanford. At the “bleeding edge”, they capitalize on a program that erases its entry points in a chain of packets. “No proven use, high-risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with.” By the millennium, as in so many boom times, the pioneers have staked the best cyber claims.

These pioneers design “a virtual sanctuary to escape from the many varieties of real world discomfort. A grand-scale model for the afflicted, a destination reachable by virtual midnight express from anyplace with a keyboard.” The two creators differ on its direction. “Justin wanted to go back in time, to a California that had never existed, safe, sunny all the time, where in fact the sun never existed unless somebody wanted to see a romantic sunset. Lucas was searching for someplace, you could say, a little darker, where it rains a lot and great silences sweep like wind, holding inside them forces of destruction.” The result, named “DeepArcher”, twines these twin paths for wired departure.

However, this being not California but New York, old school (as in WASPs, Mossad, Skull & Bones, CIA, and Beltway) associations linger. In one prescient glimpse, TWA Flight 800, blown out of the 1996 sky over Long Island Sound, suggests a currently simmering conspiracy at the nearby Montauk Project. Not all such government schemes are “warm and comforting”, where our wish to see bad guys get theirs comes to pass. So warns March Kelleher.

Her son-in-law, billionaire Gabriel Ice, runs hashslingrz. She hints to Maxine: “If you were doing something in secret and didn’t want the attention, what better way to have it ridiculed and dismissed than bring in a few Californian elements?” I may be accused of tugging on this plot thread since I’m a native Angeleno, but I select this strand out of many—this being a Pynchon pattern—to highlight the skill with which he weaves it.

Naturally, such a mystery means that fewer plot points can be divulged from about halfway into a contemporary version of Bluebeard’s Castle. Here the heroine, despite the threat, enters a fortress, by a tunnel into the “terminal moraine”. Superficially, urban myths get dismissed, as Cold War vigilance seems a dusty relic. Beneath, servers stretch. Within, servants to a new world order seek control.

“Presently they’re linked and slowly descending from wee-hours Manhattan into teeming darkness, leaving the surface-Net crawlers busy overhead slithering link to link, leaving behind the banners and pop-ups and user groups and self-replicating chat rooms.” What Maxine and her guides reveal shunts away from the crowds and, as with so much of Pynchon’s fiction, near an abyss his protagonists seek.

Space looms, a long way from San Narciso’s industrial slums street-numbered in the 80,000’s, so far were they in miles from city hall in The Crying of Lot 49 (1966). A generation later, Pynchon pursues a last frontier. Maxine races ahead of (or after) tamers who seek to subdivide it and fill it full of conformity. It’s “down to where they can begin cruising among co-opted blocks of address space with cyber-thugs guarding the perimeters, spammer operation centers, video games one way or another deemed too violent or offensive or intensely beautiful for the market as currently defined…” Those last modifiers repeat Pynchon’s wonder: he shares awe through his pilgrim Maxine. She’s one of us.

Maxine’s ties to her family and friends, keeping her sane during her pursuit, enrich the compassion in this novel. Pynchon keeps his humor abundant, but he tempers it, in this look back at our very recent national past, with serious contemplation of what we do when we log on. Ernie, her father, muses how the Internet was, as DARPAnet during the decade of Ike, “conceived in sin, the worst possible” to keep the US military armed after a nuclear attack. He predicts how soon cellphones will tighten this surveillance leash around us, as “the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future”.

9/11 comes and goes, with neither irony nor sentimentality. Jingoism accompanies fear as cowed Americans beg for protection. The media’s Cold War context christens the devastation as “Ground Zero”. Coverage controls popular reaction. “The purpose is to get people cranked up a certain way. Cranked up, scared, and helpless.” Regression to the mean occurs: the security state looms. (Nobody calls the date “9/11” in this novel.)

Maxine reflects how “11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” Arabic Leet, a keyboard language enabling data transfer to the Emirates, appears early. This hint of collusion lures us down the trail Maxine blazes. She leaves our “meatworld” behind for an interior dimension: partly mapped and coded, partly codeless. A void stretches beyond her own imagination or, perhaps, Pynchon’s own.

Bleeding Edge floats around. Pynchon likes to fill his pages with imaginary songs. Conversations yammer on, as busy meals out fill Maxine’s Filofax. Her modus operandi finds her schmoozing and prodding many fellow noshers, if less exaggerated than typical Pynchon figures, still recognizably odd, or plain annoying.

Reminiscent of Don DeLillo’s reactions to national security and personal insecurity, the scenes when Maxine enters DeepArcher display best its promising premise. “It should be just one more teen-sociopath video game, except it’s not a shooter, so far anyway, there’s no story line, no details about the destination, no manual to read, no cheat list. Does anybody get extra lives? Does anybody even get this one?”

Open-source expanses beckon, as if William Gibson’s wired, arid, and wary realms re-boot for a feisty novice. Who turns out to be a Jewish mother-in-the-making rather than a cyberpunk. Then, the pace shifts as bodies blink out. True to the genre, false flags and red herrings distract Maxine. The ending (as common with Pynchon) emits not a bang, but a whisper.

For 50 years, Pynchon’s tales tell us, sinister or suspect specters manipulate our “meatworld”. Reflect on the enigmatic titular emanations of V., the enduring postal service of Lot 49, the secret plants enabling the sinister arcs of Gravity’s Rainbow, the downfall of utopia as engineered in Vineland, the shifty anachronisms chronicled in Mason & Dixon, the hidden tentacles of Against the Day, and the foggy notions controlling Inherent Vice.

Bleeding Edge represents another (if partial) exposure of occluded, relentless, corroding forces constructing and constricting our virtual reality.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/175069-bleeding-edge-by-thomas-pynchon/