by Whit Frazier
Early in Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge, the reluctant heroine, small-time fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, is rescued from reviewing the file of the “dim and overextended” Uncle Dizzy, a “Crazy Eddie” Antar-like fraudster, by the arrival of an old friend, Reg Despard. She considers herself, for the moment, “Saved. She puts aside the folder, which like a good koan will have failed to make sense anyway.” Of course, this being a novel by Thomas Pynchon, who is known for his labyrinthine plots that obfuscate meaning rather than illuminate it, Maxine is just putting aside one koan for another.
The koan, a brief Buddhist story or parable meant to provoke doubt and uncertainty in the listener, will make various appearances throughout the novel, whether delivered by her friend March Kelleher, a left wing activist blogger, or by Maxine’s personal Guru, Shawn, a flaky mystic with occasional moments of lucidity, who takes the place of a psychotherapist. Although the novel is already peppered with these little parables, the unmentioned koan at the center of this aggressively postmodern novel is Thomas Pynchon’s own early novel, The Crying of Lot 49, which Bleeding Edge unmistakably echoes.
The similarities between the two novels are striking: where Crying concerns the postal service and delivery of information through companies both mainstream and underground, fictional and historical, Bleeding Edge concerns itself with the Internet, and more specifically, the Deep Web, those underground networks unreachable by search engines; and where Crying follows the story of a woman who, one by one, loses the men around her to the mystery confounding her, Bleeding Edge follows the story of a woman who ultimately has to decide between losing her familial attachments, or losing herself down the unsolvable maze of mystery, which is the pseudo-plot of this information-novel.
This mystery involves an Internet company hashslingrz.com, which is run by Internet mogul,Gabriel Ice. Reg is an amateur film bootlegger who has stumbled into respectability, and has been hired by Gabriel Ice to make a film about the dotcom firm, although apparently his access to some necessary data has been restricted, and data which is impossible to find except via the Deep Web. Figuring he’s encountered a problem he needs to take to someone he can trust, he approaches Maxine about investigating the company to see what she can uncover. She doesn’t uncover much. Instead she finds herself burrowing down rabbit holes that lead to more rabbit holes that eventually lead to a possible conspiracy behind the September 11 terrorist attacks. The plot, much like that of Crying, involves not so much a solving of the case, as it does a series of introductions to a varied cast of eccentric and unlikely characters. If Pynchon is rewriting Crying for the Internet age, the question is why.
The obvious answer is that this is perfect Pynchon territory. Where the mail system allowed Pynchon to delve into the fundamentally fraudulent and corruptible network of information we receive from the media via newspapers, the radio, and even personal communication, the Internet allows Pynchon to investigate this deep paranoia in a globalized setting, where the information really is, as Pynchon puts it in Crying, “Ones and zeroes… there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was as an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle into some paranoia.” The second, and perhaps more interesting answer, has to do with Pynchon’s approach to language in Crying, and his approach to language in Bleeding Edge. In the introduction to his book of short stories, Slow Learner, Pynchon writes,
I had published a novel and thought I knew a thing or two, but for the first time I believe I was also beginning to shut up and listen to the American voices around me, even to shift my eyes away from printed sources and take a look at American nonverbal reality. I was out on the road at last, getting to visit the places Kerouac had written about. These towns and Greyhound voices and fleabag hotels have found their way into this story, and I am pretty content with how it holds up… The next story I wrote was The Crying of Lot 49, which was marketed as a ‘novel,’ and in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then.
If we’re to take Pynchon at his word, it seems he feels the high literary prose style he employed in Crying did a disservice to a book that’s considered so central to his vision. In tone, for all their other similarities, Bleeding Edge could not be more different than Crying. Where Crying is hyper-literary, Bleeding Edge is saturated with “American voices,” in particular those of New York City circa 2001. There are references to Britney Spears, Ally McBeal, the Jay-Z and Nas beef, DC’s old punk rock hangout, the 9:30 Club, first person shooter video games, Ben Stiller, Ben & Jerry’s, Edward Norton, and so on. The language throughout is chatty, sarcastic and smart, even when it conveys dread in Pynchon’s peculiar poetry:
They gaze at each other for a while, down here on the barroom floor of history, feeling sucker-punched, no clear way to get up and on with a day which is suddenly full of holes—family, friends, friends of friends, phone numbers on the Rolodex, just not there anymore… the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there anymore, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready.
This is, naturally, the feeling at the bottom of many of Pynchon’s novels, especially Crying of Lot 49. The language here, however, is Pynchon at his most colloquial and contemporary. The colloquial, chatty American voice is one he has employed before, most notably in Mason & Dixon, which is written as oral history; but now, because it’s so close to the present moment, it’s startling. Pynchon’s novels generally deal with crucial times in American history. What makes Bleeding Edge different is that Pynchon not only tackles a time that’s very near to us, but also one that, because of its proportions, makes it a very ambitious task, especially when attempting to do so with such a relaxed vernacular.
This event, of course, is September 11, 2001. In Pynchon’s universe, conspiracy has to lie at the heart of the attacks, even if it’s only in the public imagination. The event doesn’t occur until the last third of the novel, and it seems somehow tied to the video Reg Despard is shooting, the enormous financial empire of hashlingrz.com, and the people involved in the very conspiracy Maxine is investigating. Nevertheless, we are all guilty. Maxine’s friend, March Kelleher, who increasingly finds herself at the margins of society after the attacks, posts the following on her blog:
But there’s still always the other thing. Our yearning. Our deep need for it to be true. Somewhere, down deep at some shameful dark recess of the national soul, we need to feel betrayed, even guilty. As if it was us who created Bush and his gang, Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld and Feith and the rest of them – we who called down the sacred lightning of ‘democracy,’ and then the fascist majority on the Supreme Court threw the switches, and Bush rose from the slab and began his rampage. And whatever happened then is on our ticket.
In the meantime, every conspiracy theory from the early days after September 11 makes an appearance: Bush and company conspiracies, Mossad conspiracies, Corporate Capitalism conspiracies. The mystery basically remains, like all mysteries in a Pynchon novel, unsolvable. Perhaps the only thing that can be said is not to believe everything you read in “the Newspaper of Record… Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge.” But to remain entangled in the conspiracies, without any direction or idea of where to look, or how to go about investigating the events that occur to us, leaves us at an impasse. Either we can find ourselves increasingly distanced from our lives and our society, like March Kelleher, or we can stay suspended in a state of semi-consciousness, like Maxine Tarnow appears to be at the end of Bleeding Edge:
Maxine has a quick cup of coffee and leaves March and Tallis with a tableful of breakfast to revisit their food issues. Heading back to the apartment to pick up the boys and see them to school, she notices a reflection in a top-floor window of the gray dawn sky, clouds moving across a blear of light, unnaturally bright, maybe the sun, maybe something else. She looks east to see what it might be, but whatever it is shining there is still, from this angle, behind the buildings, causing them to inhabit their own shadows. She turns the corner onto her block and leaves the question behind. It isn’t till she’s in the elevator of her building that she begins to wonder, actually, whose turn it is to take the kids to school. She’s lost track.
It may turn out to be impossible to write an entirely satisfying novel about the Internet, and especially about September 11. Both the Internet and 9/11 involve looping webs of information and misinformation that become confused in the very visceral way they continue to impact our day-to-day lives. Pynchon has taken the shrewd tactic of writing his book as an historical novel, thus allowing himself to document the fear, paranoia, hysteria and confusion of the time, as well as the more superficial and lazy ways we’ve learned to interact with each other. In doing so he manages to write a book that at the very least won’t become dated as the technology changes more rapidly than any novelist can keep pace with, and as the theories about September 11 fall more and more into the realm of inaccurate memories and political and historical rewriting. But he has also failed to write a satisfying novel about these events, either on a personal or political level. He may not have been interested in such a novel. This is a novel full of chatter; memories, along with personal and political narratives, get lost in the thick of it.
How are we supposed to read this novel then, other than as a bizarre fraudulent, fictional documentary that employs hundreds of pop-culture references and genre nods, from the Chandleresque to the Gibsonian? In the face of a historical narrative we are increasingly more distanced from, the question of personal remembering and narrative become especially important, and Pynchon likes to leave us feeling the same impasse his characters feel. The Crying of Lot 49 achieves this end more successfully and poignantly than Bleeding Edge, which leaves us mostly with a feeling of spiritual exhaustion through an excess of chatter, and a shortage of self-determination. The characters are here one day, and gone the next, only to reappear again in different form. They die, only to reappear again as avatars; they shapeshift without warning, and apparently without even the realization that they are doing so. Self-determination is impossible.
Every schoolday morning on the way the Kugelblitz, she’s been noticing the same three kids waiting on the corner for a school bus, Horace Mann or one of them, and maybe the other morning there was some fog, maybe the fog was inside her, some incompletely dissipated dream, but what she saw this time, standing in exactly the same spot, was three middle-aged men, gray-haired, less youthfully tuned out, and yet she knew, shivering a little, that these were the same kids, the same faces, only forty, fifty years older. Worse, they were looking at her with a queer knowledgeable intensity, focusing personally on her, sinister in the dimmed morning air. She checked the street. Cars were no more advanced in design, nothing beyond the usual police and military traffic was passing or hovering overhead, the low-rise holdouts hadn’t been replaced with anything taller, so it still had to be “the present,” didn’t it? Something then, must’ve happened to these kids. But next morning all was back to “normal.” The kids as usual were paying no attention to her.
Essentially, all of Pynchon’s novels, have at their heart, the necessary human task of self-determination, a process that is inherently political – whether that be through a renunciation of political affiliations and activism, as is the case with Maxine Tarnow, or an alienating embrace of activism, which can only lead to circles of paranoia and doubt, as in the case of March Kelleher—and also inherently spiritual, as any process of self-determination requires the individual to take responsibility for her own personal narrative, despite living in an historical age when any form of communication is potentially a form of miscommunication. “Spiritual exercise,” as Maxine calls her preparation for work on Uncle Dizzy’s case near the beginning of the novel. And while Maxine is admittedly, as she herself recognizes, not the most spiritually empowered individual, she does develop by slow degrees. At the end of the novel her attitude toward the political and the spiritual is contrasted with March Kelleher’s in the aftermath of having Gabriel Ice at gunpoint. Maxine decides to let him go.
“March lights a joint and after a while, paraphrasing Cheech & Chong, drawls, “I woulda shot him, man.”
“You heard what he said. I think this is in his contract with the Death Lords he works for. He’s protected. He walked away from a loaded handgun, that’s all. He’ll be back. Nothing’s over.”
No, nothing’s over. It’s worth remembering that only forty-five days after September 11, the United States passed the Patriot Act. This Constitutionally questionable (at best) Act allows the United States Government unprecedented authorization to track phone, Internet, and wire communications, as well as unprecedented authorization to freeze and seize assets of suspected terrorists, and detain terrorist suspects, potentially indefinitely, without trial. If we look at the history of presidential doctrines since World War Two that have preceded this act, from the Truman Doctrine of 1947, in which Truman promised to help stop the spread of Communism worldwide, with military force if need be, to the Carter Doctrine of 1980, in which Carter proclaimed, “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” a pattern seems to emerge, in which all these Doctrines appear to be in service of expanding the United States’ power and influence in the Middle East, with Communism as the scapegoat. In a post Cold-War world, there is no one left to fight for control of the Middle East other than the inhabitants themselves. The passing of the Patriot Act not only effectively makes any Arab a potential terror suspect, with or without trial, thus rendering them an enemy of the state, it also gives the United States the benefit of being able to actively monitor and regulate the newest bleeding edge technology, Internet communication, giving the government primary control of the way the world disseminates and receives narrative information.
That of course reads as a conspiracy theory so thick it seems to lack probability. The slimy character Windust puts it this way: “You people want to believe this was all a false-flag caper, some invisible superteam, forging the intel, faking the Arabic chatter, controlling air traffic, military communications, civilian news media – everything coordinating without a hitch or a malfunction, the whole tragedy set up to look like a terror attack. Please. My wised-up civilian heartbreaker. Guess what. Nobody in the business is that good.”
It’s the response we expect from Windust’s character, but maybe he has a point. It’s the same question Oedipa Mass, after all is confronted with at the end of Crying of Lot 49, and which she at first dismisses as ridiculous. “Has it ever occurred to you, Oedipa, that somebody’s putting you on? That this is all a hoax, maybe something Invariarty set up before he died?” But how can that be? Then again, how else to explain the inexplicable?
In the absence of any larger narrative that makes sense, where all channels of power, money, government and communication are intertwined, and the media’s attempts to untangle them seem, at best, as naïve and groping as we are, and at worst, blithely complicit, the need for a narrative that makes sense to us, either personal or political, becomes crucial, life or death. In Pynchon’s vision, this only leads us back full circle to our two examples: Kelleher, the political on the one hand, and Tarnow, the spiritual, on the other. And neither one of these women seems comfortable with where they land.