Has reality rendered Thomas Pynchon obsolete?
Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By STEFAN BECK
"Thomas Pynchon is up to his usual business,” promised a blurb written by Pynchon himself for his previous novel Against the Day (2006). Promised, that is, or warned, depending on whether the reader is a free and accepted 33rd-degree Pynchonian or a hopeless “normal” who finds the author’s “usual business” a bit predictable, even tiresome. Early on in Bleeding Edge, a character remarks that “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen . . . you can never have too much.” And since paranoia is a major ingredient in Pynchon’s kitchen, this is to reassure the regulars that the menu hasn’t changed, and never will.
the penguin press
Well, there are those of us who believe that variety is the spice of life. Yet that is not to suggest that one must either revere Pynchon or reject him: Even his most exacting critics allow that his novels offer historical and cultural erudition, inventive plots, and crackling (if campy) dialogue and humor. Still, the more Pynchon one reads, the more one is inclined to pick a side, and a skeptic may find in Bleeding Edge proof that the recipe has lost much of its savor. This is, in part, because the manner and matter here are so awkwardly matched. One need hardly be hidebound by propriety to feel that if a 9/11 novel (which is what we have here) can be described as a madcap romp, it will have to demonstrate a clear and worthwhile purpose to earn its audacity and questionable taste.
Does it? Bleeding Edge, which opens in Manhattan in the spring of 2001, is, insofar as it belongs to any recognizable genre, a detective or spy novel. Its dizzying proliferation of characters, connections, and conspiracies amounts to a wilderness of mirrors, to borrow James Angleton’s description of espionage. The reader ought to take notes.
There is, first and foremost, Pynchon’s heroine, Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator and suitably hard-boiled, wisecracking Jewish gal. She has been asked by one Reg Despard, a movie-pirate-cum-documentarian, to look into a dotcom called “hashslingerz,” which seems to be booming while others bust. The company’s head is Gabriel Ice, the novel’s villain, who also owns a luxury apartment building named (oddly after a Mormon word for “honeybee”) the Deseret. Fans of Rosemary’s Baby may wonder if this malign monolith is a nod to the Bramford; fans of 9/11 trutherism will be more interested in the footage that Maxine receives, filmed on the Deseret’s roof, of men practicing shooting down a passenger jet with a Stinger missile.
Assisting and impeding Maxine’s investigation, though that word suggests something more methodical than what transpires here, are Rocky Slagiatt, an investor who is, it seems, also a mobster; March Kelleher, Gabriel Ice’s mother-in-law; Nicholas Windust, a government spook with whom Maxine has an affair; and some forgettable extras who exist primarily to have Pynchonian names (Vip Epperdew, Conkling Speedwell). Maxine dabbles in something called DeepArcher, a sort of immersive parallel Internet. There is a reference to the fabled Montauk Project, but it is never developed or even followed up on. References are also made, incessantly, to late-’90s dross: Beanie Babies, for example, and “All your base are belong to us.”
Unlike Oedipa Maas, heroine of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Maxine is a mother, which makes her notionally more human than many of Pynchon’s cartoonish characters. Yet she is also a type, the consummate New Yorker. (To a line-jumper in a crowded deli: “You must be from out of town . . . here in New York, the way you’re acting? It’s considered a felony.”) Her snappish impatience with “yups,” tourists, and the less-than-wised-up—all of which one suspects Pynchon shares, and is proud of—is suggestive less of a seasoned badass than of an NYU student who just discovered Annie Hall or ate at Katz’s for the first time. It greatly diminishes Maxine’s appeal, leaving nobody, really, to root for.
The novels that Bleeding Edge most resembles in its perambulations around New York are Martin Amis’s Money (1984) and Todd McEwan’s Who Sleeps With Katz (2003). The city is, in each of those books, a character as much as a setting. Pynchon’s epigraph, taken from Donald Westlake, reveals his ambition to give Manhattan such flesh-and-blood life: “New York as a character in a mystery . . . would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” Pynchon’s New York is vibrant—downright effervescent—but it possesses little depth or mystery.
For his part, Pynchon believes he knows the real story and is never shy about telling it. Bleeding Edge evokes the post-9/11 zeitgeist most accurately when it does so by accident: It perfectly embodies the knowing and superior quality that 9/11 brought out in the intellectual class. There is its pedantry: “This was nowhere near a Soviet nuclear strike on downtown Manhattan, yet those who repeat ‘Ground Zero’ over and over do so without shame or concern for etymology.” There is its juvenile snark: “Demand for bagpipers was brisk.” There is its sneering reference to the “quaint belief . . . that evil never comes roaring out of the sky to explode into anyone’s towering delusions about being exempt,” as if the fact that terrorism tends to happen elsewhere makes it a species of naïveté or bad manners to be outraged when it happens at home.
That Bleeding Edge flirts with 9/11 conspiracy theories is far from its most galling or disappointing quality. The trouble with the novel is that, even though Pynchon may have a hyperactive imagination, and even though he may have the paranoid style down cold, a faithful retelling of the events leading up to 9/11 would still have been stranger, more complex, and more frightening than Pynchon’s fantasy could ever hope to be—and everybody knows it. Real life, that evil roaring out of the sky, has rendered his abstract preoccupations banal. Human beings making sense of real life, alternately enduring it or failing to endure it—that is never banal. But human beings are absent from Bleeding Edge, as from most of Pynchon’s novels.
That brings us, finally, to the real nonhuman star of Bleeding Edge: not New York City, but the Internet. Indeed, it is the Internet that may render a writer like Thomas Pynchon obsolete. “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos,” one character prophesies, and “it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.” But never mind YouTube: There will also be Google and Wikipedia; and, in their wake, the ability to string together the history, ephemera, and esoterica of a former time will be about as exciting as a head for baseball statistics.
This may be bad news for Pynchon, whose seemingly encyclopedic knowledge accounts for much of his cult appeal. Even subjects like hawala and the Deep Web, which may have been obscure when Pynchon began writing Bleeding Edge, are now the stuff of Time cover stories. Will Pynchon notice that the world’s paranoia and curiosity have caught up with his own? And will he take note of the ingredient his fiction has been lacking—people we can believe in and care about—and apply his talent to serving up something altogether new?
Stefan Beck writes about fiction for the New Criterion and elsewhere.