Thomas Pynchon Is Still Doing What He Has Always Done, With Antic Humor and Utter Seriousnes
Is Pynchon suddenly relevant again? Has the culture's craziness finally just caught up to his penchant for conspiracy, paranoia, and crazy-named characters?
Bleeding EdgePublisher: Penguin
Length: 496 pages
Author: Thomas Pynchon
Publication date: 2014-08
Thomas Pynchon spent decades as the mystery man of American letters -- never interviewed or photographed, the elusive and brilliant author of the forbidding but influential 1973 classic Gravity's Rainbow, the guy who nobody seemed know and who, equally likely, few had the courage to actually read.
And then something happened. Without coming on the Today show or suddenly changing his status, the Pynchon mystery slipped away. Word spread that he had married his agent and had a son, and that they all lived quite un-hermetically on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He made a couple of guest appearances on The Simpsons, or rather his voice did (in one case with a Pynchon character appearing with a bag over his head). He penned a few essays and some rock liner notes. And, yes, he wrote more books.
The kind of book that Pynchon was famous for, the dense and enclopedic post-modern novel of paranoia, grew decidedly out of fashion. No less a figure than David Foster Wallace (Pynchon's most obvious and most uncooperative literally nephew) eschewed fancy footwork and jokey/ironic post-modernism in favor of a New Sincerety: books that try to take an unblinking look at human sadness. Critics — some with a sense of relief, perhaps, that they no longer had to wrestle with his complexities and curiosities — placed him into a category of Passed Sensations from Another Era.
And maybe that liberated him some. It became clearer than ever that Pynchon cared not whether critics adored him. His long, crazy-ass novel about Mason and Dixon (featuring a highly caffeinated Ben Franklin playing a kind of jazz on a set of water-filled wine glasses, to give just one example) got some respect because the main characters were seen as more carefully and realistically drawn than Pynchon's usual jive cats and government heavies. But Against the Day (2006), his longest, most digressive novel, was mostly reviewed as being a hot-air filled jumble, maybe brilliant in spots but not all that different from the zeppelin helmed by The Chums of Chance, which floats through the novel's telling of the multigenerational tale of the peripatetic Traverse family.
Coming off those two behemoths of detail and delirium, Pynchon shifted gears. Always a writer looking for a goofy laugh as counterpoint to the terrifying or apocalyptic, he produced two... detective novels. Set in 1970 California, Inherent Vice (2009) featured a usually-high surfer gumshoe trying to unravel a plot involving his ex-girlfriend, Shasta, Shasta's married real estate developer boyfriend, and a whole lot of crazy intrigue laced with mysterious spirituality, surf music, and metaphysical conjecture. Reviewers called it "Pynchon Lite” and, in setting and style, it had something in common with his second "novel” The Crying of Lot 49.
The year 2013 brought another modified detective novel, Bleeding Edge, as well as news that Paul Thomas Anderson was directing Joaquin Phoenix in a film adaptation of Inherent Vice. In the latest book, the now going-on-80 year-old hipster intellectual prankster was going to tackle society's conversion to digital culture — oh, and also the terrorist bombings of 9/11 — in a tale narrated by a libidinous, gun-toting, Jewish fraud investigator mom.
So, movie and new novel at the ready, was Pynchon suddenly relevant again? Had the culture's craziness finally just caught up to his penchant for conspiracy, paranoia, and crazy-named characters?
Bleeding Edge is now out in paperback, after securing a finalist spot for last year's National Book Award. Rereading it a year later reveals a book that is tender and funny and dazzlingly entertaining, one of Pynchon's long quest stories (which, of his books is not ultimately a detective story?). It follows Maxine Tarnow from her sons' progressive Manhattan private school to strip clubs, from "Silicon Alley" coder bars to New Jersey garbage dumps, from a shooting range designed for women to a mystical virtual space called DeepArcher where people (and spirits) encounter each other beyond the beyond. But, crucially, the book's main travelogue is through Pychon's ever-astonishing language and through a set of sympathies and worries about our culture that are as gorgeous and on-point here as they were in the works for which Pynchon is most famous.
Here's the story, sort of. Maxine, a recently decertified fraud investigator whose normal work involves reading lots of spreadsheets, is lured by an old friend into looking into a set of curious disbursements made by a tech company to a small affiliate, payments that seem to be hiding their true purpose. The tech company's head, one Gabriel Ice, seems to be making payments that are going through the Middle East in some way, and this draws Maxine into the lives of dozens of characters, each of whom seems to be running from or chasing something terrifying.
When a friend is murdered beneath the penthouse pool in a haunted apartment building, Maxine realizes she’s involved in more than accounting fraud. And as she worms her way into the crime and the conspiracy, things don't become clearer and questions are not narrowed down by answers. Rather, the murk increases like a shimmer after a rain storm, and each partial answer simply implies more and more questions.
As is standard with Pynchon, there are scores of characters (and yes, the crazy names continue: Horst Loeffler, Felix Boingueaux, Stu Gotz, and a classic Pynchon heavy in Nicholas Windust), and the meanderings of the conspiracy and investigation can tax a reader’s patience. The action is fast, and some readers will find it not just confusing but also absurdly unrealistic, as Maxine runs into characters by “coincidence” time and time again.
But these “detective novels” are not hard-boiled procedurals, and the reader is not asked to believe the action as reality but, remarkably and wonderfully, dared to imagine that there is a more astonishing truth that sits behind the very realistic portraits the author paints of New York streets, midwestern arcades, and other actual locales. Bleeding Edge again gives fictional life to spirits who survive after death, who may flicker on the edge of Maxine’s consciousness or disappear in miniature form into an electrical outlet. It suggests that time travel is a (costly) option, and that mysticism is just as true as many other generally accepted ways of seeing the world.
What makes this book — and really all of Pynchon’s later work (since Vineland ) — astonishing is that the despair is leavened with an unsentimental but very real sense of human connection. As with all Pynchon's work, the despair is deep, but it's not infinite. And indeed, Bleeding Edge is one of the writer's most luminous works because Maxine — despite her various intersections with the dark edge of the world (most notably a very Pynchonian weakness for federal agent Windust who turns her on in ways no one will feel entirely comfortable with) — is a mother with a connection to her children that frames the book’s action and requires that she be more than just hiply cynical about the universe.
The book’s temporal and emotional center, of course, is what Pynchon refers to as “11 September”, an event that those of us in the tricky position of being active-duty parents on that day (particularly in DC or New York) recall as not just a tragedy but an unavoidable moment of parental impossibility -- an event you just couldn’t sugarcoat. When we first meet Maxine, six months before 9/11, she's walking her kids to school, probably past the time when she really has to, and in the book’s last scene (six months after the event) they’re off on their own to school. In the middle, there is not only the tragedy, but also the elaborate conspiracy Maxine traces that may or may not have something to do with tragedy. But even if it doesn’t, it is still the story of a new technology and a new society — tarnished, compromised, and full of various machinations of power that kill — that one’s kids inevitably inherit.
Early in the book, Horst, the husband from whom Maxine is mostly separated and a commodities trader who has a eerie ability to see the (commodities) future, takes Ziggy and Otis to see his new office and for lunch at Windows on the World, the restaurant that used to be... you know where. Of course, we readers know what's coming and the characters don't, a device that Pynchon uses not so much to generate dread as to have us putting together bits of evidence and information just like Maxine: a strange videotape of Stinger missiles on a New York rooftop, mysterioiusly dropping airline stocks, random number generators going suddently non-random, Windust's interest in Maxine's Israeli brother-in-law, and a great deal more — precisely the kind of paranoid stuff that has arisen in most of Pynchon's stories.
But the point is not, here or in the other books, that Pynchon believes the conspiracies necessarily (or not all of them). Here, the speculations are multiple: that Bush is behind 11 September; that Israelis knew beforehand, that Gabriel Ice is funding it, or pretending to; that Windust is on Ice's trail even as he seems the likely murderer but for reasons unclear. But, just as "solving the crime" in Inherent Vice was not the point, this latest book is more a meditation on the larger systems of culture that make our existence dehumanizing, and our various (and often fringe) ways to seek out humanity outside those systems.
These hidden worlds are where Pynchon often loses his more literary readers, the book critics who have come to see him as a kind of hippie existentialist, sympathetic to dopers and ghosts and other non-serious stuff, a highbrow Tom Robbins. In Bleeding Edge, these matters are explored brilliantly. Maxine, on the one hand, is a no-nonsense accounting type, likely to be jokingly overliteral with people (as when her Zen therapist Shawn asks "Are we seeing some wholesale return of the dead" and Maxine cracks, "You'd prefer retail?") and therefore always properly skeptical of the unseen or mystical.
When she travels into these zones, they are zones we actually know: dreams, strangers on the street who remind us of the recently deceased, and then Deeparcher, a piece of software buried in the "deep web", a portion of the Internet largely hidden from commercial interests and browsers in the book's 2001 by code that covers the tracks of those who venture there. It's in this virtual space — a netherworld that could not have realistically existed in any of Pynchon's other novels — that Maxine encounters ghosts and alternative realities that reflect both the despair and hope of real people. These passages, often beautifully written and deeply moving, call back to worlds from other Pynchon books (the New York City sewers and down-the-toilet worlds of V. and Gravity's Rainbow, for instance, or the civilizations explored beneath the desert or under the Earth's crust "flown" by Against the Day's Chums of Chance) in which characters otherwise cast out of the world seek hope and adventure.
Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is rich in these worlds and finds ways to present them without undue weirdness, maybe because our own world, in good and bad ways, has finally become nearly as strange as this writer's imagination. We travel to fantastical bathrooms fashioned with full-service bars and to simple New York streets illuminated with wonder. Ghosts or time-traveling kidnapped children might appear in either place. And when we're told that the avatars of the dead are given voice by those who grieve them and are given photographic image by cycling GIFs that are loose in the deep web, is that so unbelievable, and is not the power of sorrow and fear that animates that invented world not our, uh, reality in 2014?
For Pynchon fanatics, Bleeding Edge serves to remind us that the author is authoritatively in on the joke at all times. Early in the novel, there are references to alternative mail systems (a blunt reference to The Crying of Lot 49), to banana-based meals (reminding us of Pirate Prentice from Gravity’s Rainbow), and lines like “[P]aranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.” Not to mention a certain self-mocking like this: “One fateful day in Washington Square, Reg happened to sell one of his cassettes to a professor at NYU who taught film, who next day came running down the street after Reg to ask, out of breath, if Reg knew how far ahead of the leading edge of this post-postmodern art form he was working, ‘with your neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis.’” Pynchon mocks himself, his acolytes, everything, just in case you were in danger of thinking that he takes it all too seriously.
And that is the beautiful juggling act of Bleeding Edge, a hilarious and self-conscious book about ghosts and computers and consumerism and New York and a culture that makes you realize how silly it is to even imagine that anyone ever could keep their kids safe, even if that impulse is so strong in you that it makes you see what isn’t there. Or not see what is.
Thomas Pynchon was born in 1937, which suggests that he has little business writing with savvy and insight about the effect of the Internet or the way that Red Bull gets abused in bars of 21st century America. But this author — one of our very best even if he’s as out of fashion these days as the over-complex rock/jazz band Steely Dan (two of whose songs he cites in Bleeding Edge) — is dashingly light on his feet and up to date. If the complaint about younger generations tends to be that they are self-obsessed, then Pynchon proves that an author with some perspective may know more about contemporary culture than a whole Amazon shopping cart full of Jonathan Franzens and Jonathan Safron Foers.
Pynchon is still doing what he has always done, with antic humor and utter seriousness: showing us the larger picture, the bigger design, the systems of our mortality. Why shouldn’t it take a detective, and detective story, to tell that story?