Carl Watson reviews Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge
Clicking into the abyss
Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel,Bleeding Edge, could be described as a mixture of cyberpunk, yenta detective fiction,New York self-admiration/mockery, and good old Pynchonesque conspiracy/paranoia.Set between the 90s dotcom collapse and the September 11 aftermath, the novel portrays a kind of privileged hyper-connected Upper West Side life; it’s a techno-noir complete with ambiguous bad guys, compromised good guys, numerous facilitators and walk-ons with various agendas and a general air of what the hell is going on and who is in control?The answer to the last question may well be nobody at all. The number of characters is just large enough to make it difficult to keep track of.* Significant people keep reappearing to re-establish their place in the plot, but due to the story’s length and complexity you often can’t remember what their role originally was. That’s okay though because what’s important may only be this confusion, that and the fact that you, the reader, remain caught up in the flowof ramifying possibilities.Pynchon piles on layers of possible meanings and branching narrative lines as the plot moves forward, promising intrigue, laughs, critical insight, etc., most of which is delivered in abundance.
It might be said that many of the characters confirm a criticism that is often leveled at Pynchon: that his novels are peopled byrather shallow cartoons,twisted stereotypesin extremis. We might also say his characters are merelyhyper-real, overdone on the surface, even if psychologically underdone.This is not to say that Pynchon’s people don’t have real-life problems, peccadillos, fetishes, etc., but that such indications of depthoften seem to serve only as markers of authenticity in an increasingly inauthentic mediatedmilieu. It’s also true that whether you believe in them or not is probably unimportant. In Pynchon’s universe they are merely signsof the post-modern human condition, where late capitalism’s vaunted “individuals” (read “consumers”) have basically evolved into a form of the very media they have created and within which they thrive. Allthis goes along with the author’s general tendency to privilege surface over depth, i.e., there isn’t anything but surface, and depth is an illusion, a human construction, a matter of computation, either of the computational brain or some other machine, say the machine of the media brain. All those complexities of character that people value so much inold-time literature are really nothing more than the reactions of biological bags of chemicals reacting to their chemical environment. This may seem a mordantnote, but from this reviewerit’s meant as a compliment.
That said, a partial list of important characters in Bleeding Edge goes like this:
Maxine Tarnoff is a late30ish-40ish something protagonist, living on the Upper West Side where she runs a fraud-hunting agency, called “Tail ‘em and Nail ‘em,” that often has dealings with the various overblown tech companies of the era. Maxinemight be considered a kind of Jewish Marlowe, if Marlowe knoshed at a Broadway Deli and had to escort kids to their liberal private Montessori-like school, Kugelblitz.Yes, Maxine has two sons,with the appropriate hipster names of Ziggy and Otis, and they, like all New York kids from the Upper West Side, are wise beyond their years. She also has an ex-husband Horst Loeffler, who is not exactly out of her life. Horst is a Midwestern transplant, a cliché that is used as relief to show off the cleverness and sophistication of the New Yorkers around him.He moves slower, or at least more deliberately, is less frantic than the others, and apparently likes sports and the outdoors. Described as“A fourth generation product of the US Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator, fatally alluring as a Harley knucklehead, indispensible (God help her) as an authentic Maid-rite when hunger sets in.” That last comment lets you know thatHorst also serves as practical ballast to Maxine’s frenetic life.Maxine’s sister, Brooke, is married to the LikudnikAviDeschler, who if not directly involved in the current plot of the novel may well be involved in some other bit of international intrigue.
March Kelleher, Maxine’s friend, is often an aid in her investigations, but also seems to be caught up in clichéd 20th century forms of conspiracy theory that are inadequate to her era, mostly because they depend on agents who actually have agency, and many people in this book seem to be more like puppets to a technological or capitalist mind that operates far beyond their ability to understand it. March’s daughter Tallis, happens to be in a southbound marriage to one Gabriel Ice, a Bond-like villain/mogul and the brains behind hashslingerz, a super-powerful and somewhat secretive internet company. Hashslingerz’s actual activities are foggy at best, but there is no doubt that through his corporate vehicle Ice is making a bid for internet and telecommunications dominance, both via plain thuggery and by buying up all the bandwidth and infrastructure that he can get, as hereadies his profit margins for the coming techno surge of humanity. Gabriel Ice may be apossible government fixer, but he is also an untouchable Oz, as we know about him only by rumor and hearsay. When he does show up in person, he’s kind of an arrogant dork.
There are other entertaining characters such as Igor, Misha and Grisha, a triumvirate of Russian gangsters who seem to be unallied in terms of the various competing powers. They can be dangerous and bumbling at the same time, and they are both allies and enemies of Maxine; she’s never sure which, and she may even be working for them. There is the foot fetishist, Eric Jeffrey Outfield, a super computer nerd,who Maxine masturbates with her feet after picking him up in a Queens strip bar, where she has posed as a dancer specifically to find him. Eric will be first to take her into the Deep Web. There is Conkling Speedwell, a professional nose who has built an olfactory smell detector of some small importance. Justin and Lucas are California techno-geeks who have invented the webspace called DeepArcher which lives in the Deep Web, and which plays a significant role that will be discussed later in the review. These are just some of the players in this rolling serious farcical who-dun-what.
Given the cast and temperament of the characters, there is much to suggest conspiracy, in the best Pynchon fashion. Things grow increasingly sinister as the threads seem to tighten around an actual plot or revelation. This plot, or rather Maxine’s part in it, begins with the discovery that someone has been syphoning a lot of money out of the hashslingerz revenue stream and Mr. Ice does not take kindly to such actions. A certain Lester Traipse ends up dead gazing up from beneath the pool floor of The Deseret, a ritzy, if sinister,west-side apartment building where Maxine and others take recreational swims. Maxine is sort of hired, or not, to unravel all this.Ice of course is a suspect, but he would never pull a trigger himself and one possible finger-man is Nicholas (Dust in the Wind) Windust, agovernment hit man or fixer who remains rather mysterious throughout, in fact mysterious enough to arouse Maxine’s libido, so that she ends up doing him doggie style in a ratty, west-side safe house, where they conduct a supposedly info-sharing rendezvous.Of course this leads to further intrigues, part of which have to do with a secret DVD video of anonymous individuals manipulating rocket launchers on top of that same building. The DVD is delivered by Marvin, the mystical Rastafarian messenger, who always has very significant deliveries to make to Maxine and which seem to come only from anonymous sources.
All this culprit-chasingplays out in the landscape of New York City, and Bleeding Edge is definitely a targeted NYC-centric novel. Everyone goes to therapists. Maxine goes to an emo-therapist named Shawn, who himself goes to a therapist that specializes in therapist therapy. Everyone in the book is also quite quick on the conversational draw,barely waiting for the end of a sentence before they fire back a knowing and pertinent response, often so larded with cultural references that you might miss the wit, were you not as clued in as they are.Indeed we all know people who do speak or attempt to speak in this way, tying themselves into the pop-cultural universe as a means of self-validation. In Bleeding Edge, people toss such references back and forth as if creating a language of exclusion against those not entranced with the product and entertainment world in which they are ensconced. It’s also true that everyone seems to know way too much for their own good, as they say, and whether or not Pynchon means this as irony, comedy, criticism, or sarcasm even,is for the reader to decide.But this again is a typical Pynchonesque surface affectation posing as depth.
I like to think the knowing banter is meant to indicate a hyper-sophistication reminiscent of those wisecracking old George Cukor movies such as The Philadelphia Story orHis Girl Friday. If you took a Cukor script and updated it to include a great deal of techno-speak and contemporary cultural/product references you would be approaching Pynchon’s style here. With lines like “I thought you loved me for my psychosexual profile,” or “Enough dress code violation to get thrown off the L train,” it makes for great reading if not necessarily realistic human portraits.It might be said that one problem with this type of dialogue is that everyone sort of sounds the same and because Pynchon often fails to provide speaker attribution in the long pages of dialogue it is easy to get lost and discover you don’t know who is talking to whom. Again, this may well be on purpose. It is worthwhile noting here, that Pynchon sometimes tries to write in dialect, or street, generally to poor effect.
While I have been claiming that New York is in some sense a character in this book (in reality no other place exists, except California—another nod to the NYC mindset), it is also important to reiterate that this is a particular New York, that of the turn of the millennium with its attendant events, includingthe dubious Wall Street machinations, the dotcom bubble and bust and the looming shadow of the yet-to-occur September 11. Silicon Alley has crashed and most of these characters are rooting around in the detritus, remembering the elaborate parties and the various highs of money, drugs and sex. Indeed, the glory days of Silicon Alley before the downfall is one of the running themes throughout the conversations of Maxine’s crowd, who were all caught up in the flow of positive futures and the endless web-based possibilities for making huge quantities of money. Web moguls and telecommunications entrepreneurs like Gabriel Ice are the kingpins of this circle, drinking and coking in the clubs with seemingly few consequences while utterly failing to see the collapse right around the corner.What accompanies this period of decline is a sinister sense of foreboding, of things being out of control. Not that the dotcom bust was engineered by mysterious powers, but that there was never any control to begin with. But there’s more to this air of menace than mere economic chaos or social decadence, and this brings us to the looming event that shadows the entire novel—9/11.
Given the time setting of autumn 2001, the reader has a particular advantage over the characters, anticipating something, which the characters can’t see. Thus so much of the suspicion/conspiracy atmosphere that surrounds the doings of Gabriel Ice, Windust, the Russians, and even to a degree the program Deep Archer plays directly to the reader’s special knowledge. To say this is a book about 9/11 though would be misleading. The actual event is emphasized less than the way it affects everyone’s life. Pynchon captures well the eeriness of the following days and weeks: the seeming distortions of time and other physical laws, along withthe disorientation many of us felt in our normal environments. 9/11 also allows the author to tie the dubious dealings of these numerous characters, the various ideas and paranoid theories into larger geo-political issues. Maxine and her friends immediately assume, of course, that there is more to know about the attack than is being told, as they circle through many of the now common conspiracy theories, all of which are put forward only to fall into a blasé pool of maybe, maybe-not, and maybe-it-doesn’t-matter. Remember the rockets launchers on the roof of the safe house? Is Ari, with his Mossad connections, somehow involved?The information economy is often questioned—is there just too much of it, so that the significance of every message unit is depleted and nothing means anything? Is that how this happened? At one point even 90s-style irony is blamed, Heidi, Maxine’s friend, writes in the Journal of Memespace Cartography, “As if somehow irony, 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 upon ‘reality.’”
Critics have made note of two important pervasive qualities of Pynchon’s fiction:1) a ludic or humorous undertone that serves as a kind of reflection on, or manifestation of, the great joke of the universe, and 2) the elevation of paranoia to a creative, indeed, almost spiritual state of mind.Both are offered as solutions or perhaps palliatives to the post-modern human condition. Faced with the inscrutable complexity of the world, we humans may have no other alternative but to adopt a vaudevillian comic ethos that grants us parity with the grand laughter;we might as well join the joke, so to speak.Pynchon’s books also revolve around paranoia as a creative force, or as Reg Despard says, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen.” It is something capable of both intensely focusing the mind as well as providing the cutting edge by which we might endlessly divide certainty from itself or reality from desire. In that sense paranoia produces ever-increasing fragmented sub-realities thus actually enlarging our world. We can think of it as a psycho-socialprocess of atomization, and that leads us to the book’s title and underlying theme—that of the Bleeding Edge.The phrase “bleeding edge,” according to Lucas, one of the designers of Deep Archer, refers to technology that has, “No proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with.” The bleeding edge may call into question the purpose of human endeavors, a pertinent theme within Pynchon’s oeuvre, but in this book the author is using the term in a much larger metaphysical sense, something like an infection of quotidian life and communication where information can be manipulated to mean anything, which is the same as nothing at all, which may well be liberating in the end. So I will end this review with some of the possible ways we can read the “bleeding edge” of the text.
One manifestation of the bleeding edge is that of social uncertainty and moral compromise. Every character of consequence has some ambiguity attached to their actions. If there appears to be a general acceptance that things are not what they seem in the event world, it is also true in the world of personality, as most of the characters are not who they seem. We never really learn who they actually are, perhaps half physical agent and half rumor self-assembled out of gossip and media. Their roles are ultimately difficult to pin down.Who works for whom? What is anyone’s real job? Their marriages are all in some state of dissolving or reforming. Their companies and jobs are all in a state of flux. Take Maxine, for instance, who may or may not still be with her husband; unlike her hard-boiled fictional brethren, who often adhered to individualistic moral codes, she is no such knight.It’s hard to say she’s in the business for money because she never seems to actually receive any. She doesn’t solicit the jobs she gets in the novel, and she is never actually contracted to do them, she just sort of ends up as everybody’s agent of discovery. While middle-class, she is definitely attracted to the bad element, especially sexually, but also intellectually. She doesn’t seem to mind humiliating herself for an alliance. She wields a gun to excellent effect when she needs to, despite seeming to have little experience with it. She knows how to be where she needs to be even though it often seems like an accident that she gets there. Gabriel Ice is another example—an internet mogul who may be working with the government or may be working against it. He is either being investigated or he is running the investigation.
The characters are all in some wayindeterminate because their environment is. Part of this is undoubtedly something to do with obscene wealth and its manipulation of public and private morality. And while money affects business and personal morals it also changes the landscape itself, as March Kelleher says: “Between the scumbag landlords and the scumbag developers, nothing in this city will ever stand at the same address for even five years, name me a building you love, someday soon it will either be a stack of high end chain stores or condos for yups with more money than brains.” Another environmental cause of indeterminacy has to do with the nature of mediated existence as it ruthlessly fragments and reproduces infinitely iterated forms of information.Bleeding Edge may be a detective novel, but for all the leads or evidence that come Maxine’s way, or anybody’s for that matter, it’s impossible to pin anything down. Facts move around like electrons through cyberspace, they can be steered into accounts of the truth or into false scenarios, just as money is steered into various bank accounts.The line between puppetry and agency is increasingly blurred. Eventually most of the characters are contentto just go home, if they can determine where that is. One is reminded of what Jack Ruby said in the aftermath of the Oswald shooting: “The world will never know the true facts of what occurred.”
Another of the obvious bleeding edges is the frontierthat lies between physical meatspace life and virtual webspace.Webspace, the new, superior reality, is fluid and hallucinogenic, to a degree that seems somewhat prescientgiven the time setting of 2001.Maxine is introduced at some point to what is called the Deep Web, the web under the surface web that most user/novices know. One might see the Deep Web as a possible stand-in for thesubconscious but it’s not really, although it can be quite dreamlike. Within the Deep Web runs the program or webspace or game known as Deep Archer, which can be accessed by those in the know(or ultimately by hackers). Deep Archer is a mystery wrapped in an enigma: it seems to have no goal or point to it. It’s designers claim it is a sanctuary and possibly a landscape for spiritual quest, but if it is, it is also a space subsumed to late capitalism and its unstoppable insidious crawl. After agonizing over whether to go full-blown capitalist and sell for billions, the creators, Justin and Lucas, take the nobler path of going open source, only to find that Deep Archer, once out of their control, sadly capitalizes itself, becoming a kind of Times Square buried deep in the Deep Web like a virtual Atlantis. Certainly it is the “place” where meatspace bodies become avatars and where they can interrelate in disembodied way. But it is also the location of the final bleeding edge, where even the avatars eventually find themselves standing at the lip of a digital abyss that does not, nor cannot, resolve itself into a meaningful goal, where form gives way to chaos and reality leaks out into endless plurality—either that or nothing.
Maxine goes to the Archer for answers but also for sanctuary.Out there (or rather in there) she converses with an avatar, who claims to be on a mission to the edge of the universe, but who is also pissed off about the commercialization overtaking the space:
All these know-nothings coming in, putting in, it’s as bad as the surface Web. They drive you deeper, into the deep unlighted. Beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable. And that’s where the origin is. The way a powerful telescope will bring you further out in physical space, closer to the moment of the big bang, so here, going deeper, you approach the border country, the edge of the un-navigable, the region of no information.
What she’s talking about is the fact of being driven out and to the furthest edges of her digital Eden, driven out of her sanctuary by the craven masses and that there may be some positive result to such a flight. The idea, that one can plumb the digital depths, or as one character puts it, “douse the Void,” until you reach the end of information is repeated numerous times in the novel when the subject of Deep Archer comes up. Indeed, the object of the Archer may be precisely to arrive at this ambiguous frontier of space/time. As one avatar puts it: “the edge of the great abyss . . . far from an absence, it is a darkness pulsating with whatever light was before light was invented.” Maxine, in one of her explorations, finds herself watching, “the unfolding flow of the starscape, Kabalistic vessels smashed at the creation into all these bright drops of light, rushing out from the singular point that gave them birth, known elsewhere as the expanding universe.”It is interesting here how Pynchon has linked light to information and that there is in fact an information horizon that we can (hope to?) reach, be it via outer or inner space, a frontier where we can look over and find peace from all the enmity that definition and categorization brings. This light could be said to be literally nothing but pure potential, but it is also a place to escape to, which is why so many of the characters seem to find themselves searching for it. As one avatar asks herself, “how long I can stay just at the edge of the beginning before the Word, see how long I can gaze in till I get vertigo—lovesick, nauseous, whatever—and fall in.”
Pynchon seems to be saying that what awaits us is not necessarily the apocalypse of terrorism, but a kind of existential wasteland of ambiguous meanings, where we will each eventually find ourselves as if we arrived at the furthermost regions of the codeable universe, gazing into a void of reality. This may be a good thing if we arrive there by choice. Or it may be forced upon us as a form of annihilation, because the wasteland will eventually impose itself on surface reality. This is probably the most pertinent and possibly frightening message the book has to offer.
* For a guide to the characters see: http://bleedingedge.pynchonwiki.com/wiki/index.php?title=H