Thomas Pynchon, 2013
With Bleeding Edge I can say that I have read every book in the grand scope of Thomas Pynchon’s wild paranoia-driven postmodern world and Pynchon becomes the only author of whom that I have read in full. This accomplishment may be meaningful only to myself, but it is an accomplishment. Pynchon’s encyclopedic, historical-arching, genre bending body of work has spanned vast historical time periods from pre-revolutionary America to the hippie-stoner nineteen-seventies. Set in post dot-com bust 9/11 New York, Bleeding Edge finds its own unique place in that expansive body.
One of the many elements of Pynchon’s writing that has drawn me back to him through the years is his ability to make poignant the obscure with references to forgotten events that were newsworthy during the historical setting of his questionable plot. True, any review of a Pynchon book must acknowledge that his narrative style breaks the expectations of plot and cohesiveness. The fun in reading Pynchon isn’t found in the plot, it is found in the telescoping narratives, goofy charades, and meandering escapades through an altered view of history. His characters use slang of the day and listen to music that was popular during their lifetime to set the tone, but the real meat in the writing is his use of history as an artistic mortarboard to both satirize and illuminate the present day.
Gravity’s Rainbow first exposed me to the horror of the Herero genocide and Against the Day illuminated the mining strikes that ignited Leadville, Co. These are just a few of the countless historical references that my feeble memory can recall from those past readings, but the Pynchon universe is saturated with seemingly obscure references expressed by a witty and intoxicating narrative voice. With a turn of expectations Bleeding Edge focuses not on the obscure, but finds itself taking place in the memorable recent past of 2001. Any reader will readily digest the familiar pop-culture references to furbies, beanie-babys, Pikachu, and Britney Spears all gravitating around the salient devastation of the 11 September attack. This book is unique in that out of all of Pynchon’s novels that explore different periods of American and world history, the recent history of Bleeding Edge is a time that I have actually lived through.
I had a vague idea of the historical background before I began the book, and didn’t quite know what to expect. Yet by the second page I found myself enjoying the familiar Pynchon narrative time warp that had stemmed from a background reference to the Kugelblitz School elementary school as a namesake to an “early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle,” into a moment imagined some one hundred years prior imagined as a conversation between Freud and Kugelblitz. The telescoping references to historical events is a characteristic stylistic device found in all of Pynchon’s body of work, and being transported from a scene describing a mother dropping her two boys off at school to an imagined argument between Freud and his protege put a smile on this reader’s face. However, throughout Bleeding Edge, the telescoping, time-warping narratives are not as prominently used as they are in Pynchon’s larger and more “difficult” works such as Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, or Against the Day. That early Freud reference ended up serving as a tease, since Bleeding Edge relies less upon long narrative digressions than it does on dialogue and forward moving plot progression.
Overall, this was a fun and quickly paced book but it isn’t Pynchon’s best. Despite its lesser status, it is actually in the realm of books that I would recommend to new Pynchon readers because it is approachable and easily digestible. Yes, Bleeding Edge has hundreds of characters that appear and disappear as a reflection of the myriad population of human life and the multiplicity of characters that is a Pynchon staple. Yet, few Pynchon books have what is considered a main character but Bleeding Edge gives us a believable and likable female protagonist in Maxine Tarnow, a separated mother of two, private-eye fraud investigator, who actually manages to capture the reader and writer’s focus and attention. As characters come and go through the narrative, we always come back to Maxine and her professional and personal troubles.
And what of the narrative? It is focussed on a possible conspiracy that ties a wealthy dot-com CEO that manages a computer security firm that may or may not be tied to the 11 September tragedy. Pychon’s persistent insistence to use the expression “11 September” rather than the culturally expected “September 11th” may be a satirical nod towards the fictional acknowledgment of Pynchon’s own blend of paranoia and backward looking perspective. The dot-com conspiracies vaguely pan out, and the paranoia is less significant when reflecting upon the intriguing perspective buried with the character’s dialogue about the event:
“Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing? 11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” (336)
In reflection thirteen years out from the tragedy, the true impact isn’t the the loss of life that occurred that day, the impact has resonated through many cultural waves such as the change in security policy that has conversely caused each “free” American to suffer the usurpation of political freedom in order to permit our governmental protectors greater powers to protect us. What better way to express the motivations that allowed that power grab than to describe this process as an infantile motivations of fear?
Now, aside from the focus on 11 September, Bleeding Edge is also an exploration of the cultural change ignited by the proliferation of the internet age into our cultural identity. As is expected of a paranoia-driven Pynchon narrative, all is loosely connected via some suspicious agency, but in reading the views imagined by the Pynchon’s characters, there is an eery familiarity to the present day state of culture and economy driven dependence upon the technology promised by the up and coming presence of the internet. From vague references to social media as a never ending yearbook of bullying to reflections upon the idealized promise of the internet’s possibility for human connection via communication, Bleeding Edge is focused on the technological redefinition of cultural identity. This is best expressed in the following conversation between the protagonist, Maxine, and her father as they discuss the development and expansion of the internet in our cultural lexicon:
“But History goes on, as you always like to remind us. The Cold War ended, right? the Internet kept evolving, away from military, into civilian – nowadays it’s chat rooms, the World Wide Web, shopping online, the worst you can say is it’s maybe getting a little commercialized. And look how it’s empowering all these billions of people, the promise, the freedom.”
“Ernie begins channel-surfing, as if in annoyance. “Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tray’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the Future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.” (420)
These are the paranoias one comes to suspect from Pynchon, but what is eery about the paranoia is that with the current event revelations by Edward Snowden, the ongoing fight for net neutrality, and everyone’s addiction to their smartphones demonstrate that we really do live in a brave new world that should be suspect for a healthy dose of paranoia. The interconnected world is a commercialized world, that has redefined commerce and interaction. Some may say it is a world of vague disingenuity where it is easy to escape the “meat space” of the person next to us to escape into the technological promise of freedom via the screens in our hands.
This Bleeding Edge narrates the the cusp of the dot-com proliferation as a faint mirror of the true impact of the internet age on our culture, and for this Pynchon has written a sardonic satire upon our present day. However, through my reading, it wasn’t the overt exploration of the internet to culture or the sly inversion of 11 September paranoia that made this book enjoyable. Those elements were actually kind of disappointing and at times overbearing. Bleeding Edge isn’t simply about culture or the paranoia of cultural change. Bleeding Edge is about a mother with children in a vast city of possibility, a mother with children witnessing the world change around her, a mother with children who lives among the unknown masses and is part of the masses. The most poetic moment throughout the novel was a moment of anonymity that had little to do with paranoia or idealization of technology. It was the following passage that describe a moment of pure human awareness and connection:
“Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine’s riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or an express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her. The Scholar, The Unhoused, The Warrior, The Thief, The Haunted Woman . . . After a while Maxine has come to understand that the faces framed in these panels are precisely those out of all the city millions she must be in the hour be her own – they are the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions. Each messenger carrying the props required for their character, shopping bags, books, musical instruments, arrived here out of darkness, bound again into darkness, with only a minute to deliver the intelligence Maxine needs. As some point naturally she begins to wonder if she might not be performing the same role for some face looking back out another window at her.” (439)