Blog about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge

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I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.

Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.

Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…

Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:

She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.

Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.

And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.

Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.

The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.

That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).

The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.

Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoiainvisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.

Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.

Indeed, many of the characters in Bleeding Edge come off as mouthpieces for Pynchon’s own viewpoints, whether it’s Ernie riffing on ARPANET or the decline of labor in the US, or Maxine’s zen therapist Shawn, who rails that late capitalism is a scam headed towards its own exhaustion at the price of our planet. It’s the arrangement of these voices that makes the novel strong though—Pynchon shows the complicity of each voice, even as he shows their resistance to the ideological machine they were born into.

It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.

Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.

I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.  But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.

There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.

Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.

Getting away cheap | Thomas Pynchon

“You remember those twin statues of the Buddha that I told you about? Carved out of a mountain in Afghanistan, that got dynamited by the Taliban back in the spring? Notice anything familiar?”

“Twin Buddhas, twin towers, interesting coincidence, so what.”

“The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market.”

“A religious beef, you’re saying?”

“It’s not a religion? These are people who believe the Invisible Hand of the Market runs everything. They fight holy wars against competing religions like Marxism. Against all evidence that the world is finite, this blind faith that resources will never run out, profits will go on increasing forever, just like the world’s population—more cheap labor, more addicted consumers.”

“You sound like March Kelleher.”

“Yeah, or,” that trademark sub-smirk, “maybe she sounds like me.”

“Uh-huh, listen, Shawn . . .” Maxine tells him about the kids on the corner and her time-warp theory.

“Is that like the zombies you said you were seeing?”

“One person, Shawn, somebody I know, maybe dead maybe not, enough with the zombies already.”

“Hmm yes, but now another, you’d have to say insane, suspicion has begun to bloom in all the California sunshine around here, which is, suppose these “kids” are really operatives, time troopers from the Montauk Project, abducted long ago into an unthinkable servitude, grown solemn and gray through years of soldiering, currently assigned to Maxine expressly, for reasons never to be made clear to her. Possibly in strange cahoots also, and why not, with Gabriel Ice’s own private gang of co-opted script kiddies . . . aahhh! Talk about paranoid jitters!

“OK”, soothingly, “like, total disclosure? It’s been happenin to me too? I’m seeing people in the street who are supposed to be dead, even sometimes people I know were in the towers when they went down, who can’t be here but they’re here.”

“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.

“I’m sorry, Shawn. What do you think it could be?”

“Besides how much I miss them, beats me. Is it just this miserable fucking city, too many faces, making us crazy? Are we seeing some wholesale return of the dead?”

“You’d prefer retail?”

“Do you remember that piece of footage on the local news, just as the first tower comes down, woman runs in off the street into a store, just gets the door closed behind her, and here comes this terrible black billowing, ash, debris, sweeping through the streets, gale force past the window . . . that was the moment, Maxi. Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”

“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”

“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs . . . planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”

After a while, “You’re not going to explain that, or . . .”

“Course not, it’s a koan.”

From Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

Insufficiently serious | Thomas Pynchon

Heidi has been working on an article for the Journal of Memespace Cartography she’s calling “Heteronormative Rising Star, Homophobic Dark Companion,” which argues that irony, assumed to be a key element of urban gay humor and popular through the nineties, has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening. “As if somehow irony,” she recaps for Maxine, “as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip on ‘reality.’ So all kinds of make-believe—forget the delusional state the country’s in already—must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.”

“Yeah, the kids are even getting it at school.” Ms. Cheung, an English teacher who if Kugelblitz were a town would be the neighborhood scold, has announced that there shall be no more fictional reading assignments. Otis is terrified, Ziggy less so. Maxine will walk in on them watching Rugrats or reruns of Rocko’s Modern Life, and they holler by reflex, “Don’t tell Ms. Cheung!”

“You notice,” Heidi continues, “how ‘reality’ programming is suddenly all over the cable, like dog shit? Of course, it’s so producers shouldn’t have to pay real actors scale. But wait! There’s more! Somebody needs this nation of starers believing they’re all wised up at last, hardened and hip to the human condition, freed from the fictions that led them so astray, as if paying attention to made-up lives was some form of evil drug abuse that the collapse of the towers cured by scaring everybody straight again.”

From Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

 

A kind of boot camp for military time travelers | Thomas Pynchon

The colonel’s face fills the screen, broken up sporadically, smeared, pixelated, blown through by winds of noise and forgetfulness, failing links, lost servers. Its voice was synthesized several generations back and never updated, lip movements don’t match the words, if they ever did. What it has to say is this.

“There is a terrible prison, most informants believe it’s located here in the U.S., though we also have Russian input comparing it unfavorably to the worst parts of the gulag. With classic Russian reluctance they will not name it. Wherever it is, brutal is too kind a description. They kill you but keep you alive. Mercy is unknown.

“It’s supposed to be a kind of boot camp for military time travelers. Time travel, as it turns out, is not for civilian tourists, you don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor, and loss, and there is no redemption—of, or from, anything.

“Given the lengthy schooling, the program prefers to recruit children by kidnapping them. Boys, typically. They are taken without consent and systematically rewired. Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit the higher levels of command who have sent them out.

“They need to be prepared for the extreme rigors of the job. They are starved, beaten, sodomized, operated on without anesthetic. They will never see their families or friends again. If by accident this should ever happen, during an assignment or simply as a contingency of the day, their standing orders are immediately to kill anyone who recognizes them.

“Standard strategies for deflecting public attention are considered to be in effect. Rapture by UFOs, disappearance into the correctional system, MKUltra-type programs have all proven useful as diversionary narratives.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge.

“A Parable Nobody Is Supposed to Get” — Thomas Pynchon

She’s wearing desert-camo fatigues and her signature snood, today a sort of electric green. Her commencement speech turns out to be a parable nobody is supposed to get.

“Once upon a time, there was a city with a powerful ruler who liked to creep around town in disguise, doing his work in secret. Now and then someone recognized him, but they were always willing to accept a small handful of silver or gold to forget all about it. ‘You have been exposed for a moment to a highly toxic form of energy,’ is his usual formula. ‘Here is a sum I trust will compensate you for any damage done. Soon you will begin to forget, and then you’ll feel better.”

“At the time, out and about in the night, there was also an older lady, probably didn’t look too different from your grandmother, who carried a huge sack full of dirty rags, scraps of paper and plastic, broken appliances, leftover food, and other rubbish she collected off the street. She went everywhere, she had lived out in the city longer than anyone there, unprotected and in the open regardless of the weather, and she knew everything. She was the guardian of whatever the city threw away.

“On the day she and the ruler of the city finally crossed paths, he got a rude surprise—when he offered his well-meant handful of coins, she angrily flung them back at him. They went scattering and ringing on the paving stones. ‘Forget?’ she screeched. ‘I cannot and must not forget. Remembering is the essence of what I am. The price of my forgetting, great sir, is more than you can imagine, let alone pay.”

“Taken aback, somehow thinking he must not have offered enough, the ruler began to dig through his purse again, but when he looked up, the old woman had vanished. That day he returned from his secret tasks earlier than usual, in a queer state of nerves. He supposed now he’d have to find this old woman and render her harmless. How awkward.

“Though he was not by nature a violent person, he had learned a long time ago that nobody held on to a job like his unless they were willing to do whatever it took. For years he had sought new and creative methods short of violence, which usually came down to buying people off. Stalkers of imperial celebrities were hired as bodyguards, journalists with nasal-length issues were redesignated ‘analysts’ and installed at desks in the state intelligence office.

“By this logic the old woman with her sack of garbage should have become an environmental cabinet minister and someday get parks and recycle centers all across the realm named after her. But whenever anyone tried to approach her with job offers, she was never to be found. Her criticisms of the regime, however, had already entered the collective consciousness of the city and become impossible to delete.

“Well, kids, it’s just a story. The kind of story you were likely to hear in Russia back in the days when Stalin was in power. People told each other these Aesop’s fables and everybody knew what stood for what. But can we in the 21st-century U.S. say the same?

“Who is this old lady? What does she think she’s been finding out all these years? Who is this ‘ruler’ shes’s refusing to be bought off by? And what’s this ‘work’ he was ‘doing in secret’? Suppose ‘the ruler’ isn’t a person at all but a soulless force so powerful that though it cannot ennoble, it does entitle, which, in the city-nation we speak of, is always more than enough? The answers are left to you, the Kugelblitz graduating class of 2001, as an exercise. Good luck. Think of it as a contest. Send your answers to my Weblog, tabloidofthedamned.com, first prize is a pizza with anything you want on it.”

From Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge. The (commencement) speaker is committed leftist March Kelleher.

Read the First Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Forthcoming Novel, Bleeding Edge

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