Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon


Just like everyone seems to know where they were when JFK was killed or when the Twin Towers went down,  Pynchonites can usually recall  their first encounter with the man's writing.  For me, it was sitting in my Yellow Cab at the San Francisco airport at three a.m, reading The Crying of Lot 49,  hoping no one would ask for a ride back to the city. Reading Pynchon at an airport in the middle of the night seemed, at the time, more than fitting. Ironically, Bleeding Edge, an incendiary recollection rather than a prescient bombshell, turns  "where were you when..." on its head, portraying New Yorkers- from the manic, obsessive and greedy to the politically radical or absurd- in the days leading to and just after 9-11.

Centering almost entirely on Maxine, a discredited fraud investigator and Jewish flaneur,  Bleeding Edge depicts  America at a tipping point. The dot com bubble has burst, Bush and Cheney have only recently begun their onslaught, and the culture as a whole is rapidly moving off the edge. In that sense, it's a snapshot of a particular time and place, and of a condition from which we've yet to fully emerge. It's also an homage to the Jewish New York novel- perhaps the last of its kind. Even if Bleeding Edge isn't  as prescient as V, Gravity's Rainbow and the Crying of Lot 49, a line could still be drawn from Crying of Lot 49  to Bleeding Edge and it would make perfect sense, but only if  Pynchon hadn't written those other, later novels, which range from the mediocre  (Vineland, Inherent Vices) to the ingenious (Mason & Dixon) to the  impressive but unreadable (Against the Day). Something of a throwback, yet  a thoroughly welcome one, replete with the author's early trademarks: that smart and biting humour, a plethora of warning signs, riffs, and pop culture references, and an emphasis on  social control, synchronicity, and paranoia ("the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much of it."), all chaotically wrapped in Marx brothers urban hipsterisms which tend to highlight that which separates Freedonia with the Land of the Free.

As Gramsci once said, with the old world dying, and new yet to be born, a variety of morbid symptoms appear in the interregnum. Whether boom and bust, crash and burn or shock and awe. And, as Bleeding Edge illustrates, perhaps  cyberspace is the most morbid of them all. Yet as that symptom expands so do the fissures and possibilities, though not all necessarily for the better. For the power of capital to adapt or reinvent itself remains.

"DeepArcher also has developers after it. Whatever migratory visitors are still down there trusting in its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends."

Reading Bleeding Edge in conjunction with Edward Snowden's revelations only gives that quote, and the book, added meaning. And those various Gramscian mutations could have otherwise gone undetected, at least to those old-school enough to appreciate literature and linearity. Not surprisingly, Bleeding Edge is as much a black hole as a narrative- characters come and go, some are lost and others found, while linearity, though it exists, is given a typically rough work-out. Still, despite the cartoon cut-outs, the circumlocutions and great American shit-storm, the novel manages to hang together, as does its critique. Moving through generations, Pynchon's novel  really does end up bleeding at its edges. With an array of characters navigating  the city, the emphasis, from pre-9-11 to post-9-11, gradually shifts from the street to the computer screen. Yet Pynchon's characters, whether on the street or screen, remain recognisable, whether by the reader or by Maxine. After all, what is fiction other than a form of virtual reality. Significantly, the novel ends with the next turn of the wheel and what remains after the wreckage.

As far as I'm concerned, Pynchon's latest is essential reading and maybe the first real novel of the post-9/11 era, one in which you might might meet yourself or some doppelganger from Pynchon's past.  Noir?  Could be.  Or simply a dystopia in which  that light at the end of the tunnel grows dimmer as wealth becomes more concentrated and technological advances become more enticing. After all, Bleeding Edge takes place is a city that never sleeps, played by a character actor familiar but beyond identification. Which is why Pynchon opens his novel with a quote from the great Donald Westlake: "New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn't going to tell." Which is the point.  Who will tell?  Indeed, who is capable of telling? Bleeding Edge might as close to that telling as we're going to get.

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