The Magazine

Imaginary Novelist

Has reality rendered Thomas Pynchon obsolete?

Feb 3, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 20 • By STEFAN BECK
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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.