The hyper-reader of Bleeding Edge, Pynchon’s latest novel, is Maxine Tarnow. Decertified fraud investigator, quasi-divorced mother of two, New Yorker to the core, she juggles the cynicism that comes from daily dealings with small-time chiselers who overestimate their swindling skills, with an equivocal faith in her ability to pass on to her children a world they can live in. But in the spring of 2001, her life is wrenched out of balance when a new investigation takes her beyond the world of little thugs in littler ponds, to a nightmarish scenario where even those who appear to be major power players turn out to be small fry. This is Thomas Pynchon’s 9/11 novel, and he turns his attention to a “post-late capitalist” military-industrial complex that is all grown up. Maxine’s familiar client, Reg Dispard, a pleasantly amateurish documentary filmmaker whose ineptitude has been mistaken for genius, has found in his current project a series of suspicious gaps in the story he’s trying to tell about an up-and-coming web-security company. The company under discussion, hashslingrz, is that rarest of all beasts, a tech company that survived the bursting of the dotcom bubble. Reg asks Maxine to take a look around. On her way, she stumbles into the usual array of Pynchonian weirdos, sellouts, savants, and freedom fighters. And as she stumbles, she gives the writer the chance to show off his mastery of contemporaneity. He has always immersed himself in the pop culture of his narrative’s time, but we hardly expect him to write a novel about first-person-shooter video games and the light pop of Disney princesses. With Bleeding Edge, he has done just that. At first the references to Britney Spears and the uses of words like “noob” seem odd coming from Pynchon, but he quickly proves just as fluent a speaker of fin-de-siècle geekspeak as he was of Cold War bohemian, and pre-Revolutionary colonial, and all of his other many dialects.
The “bleeding edge” in question is the Dark Web, the Internet space that cannot be accessed by the common user. It is not indexed by search engines, so reaching it requires above-average skills and determination. The Dark Web plays a role that those familiar with Pynchon’s work will recognize. It is that zone of freedom that Pynchon’s characters always seek, a space unsullied by the Man’s grubby fingers—beyond observation and beyond temptation. One can be what, as, and how one pleases. Within this untracked space, a few people have already moved in. For the most part, these settlers are the Beats-style loners for whom Pynchon has always shown the greatest sympathy. They hang out together in virtual space, awaiting the time when it, like all those other zones beyond the Man’s reach, will succumb to the pressure of governmental control and capitalist investment. For now, however, they can enjoy this window of freedom. Some of the visitors even take advantage of this interregnum to create a program by which it can be prolonged: DeepArcher, a program for roaming the Deep Web that carries with it a method to perfectly disguise one’s movements. DeepArcher is the escapist’s dream. It is also the security expert’s dream. Most of all, it is the Man’s dream. For who could want to cover their tracks more than the people in charge? Soon enough the developers feel the pressure of hashslingrz’s money and power, and the very real danger of losing their lives, and they, too, ask Maxine for help.
Her investigation introduces her to tantalizing hints about a looming disaster that we know as 9/11, but which remains unimaginable for the characters. This is a technique Pynchon has employed from the first. His novels create plausible but cracked scenarios for the events that build up to some grand Event. V. is a revisionist history of the onset of World War Two, in which an embarrassingly harmless middle-aged man named Herbert Stencil has a bizarre but crucial role. In Gravity’s Rainbow we see the same war staged almost exclusively for Slothrop’s benefit, and of course his destruction. And with Against the Day, the First World War seems to emerge inevitably from the reading of children’s adventure books.
Any narrative of this sort that takes 9/11 as its Event will run the risk of giving profound offense to those still living with that day’s effects. It also runs the risk of being dismissed out of hand as the work of a conspiracy-obsessed, traitorous lunatic. Even if Pynchon has achieved such standing that most of his readers will think twice before calling him a crank, he sets for himself a considerable rhetorical challenge. I happen to think that he succeeds, but this novel will inspire enough breathless encomia that we can avoid joining in here. But I will claim that starting the narrative before the attack is no cheap fear-mongering trick. Apart from giving the novel an elegant structure, it shows an innovative approach to facing 9/11 in fiction. The novels about 9/11 written by Don DeLillo, Jay McInerney, and Jonathan Safran Foer are stories of trauma. The characters must deal with the pain and horror they and their loved ones suffered on that day. Pynchon’s characters, here as elsewhere, must try to make sense of an Event they don’t even know hasn’t happened yet. It fits his formula, and deflects the emotional charge to a more sober register. It gives him a chance to address the culture’s appropriation of the tragedy without falling into the partisan clichés still employed today.
And it is this critical engagement with a decade of absorption, examination, and appropriation that gives this book its urgency, and, refreshingly, what helps it avoid reading like just another lecture (from left or right) about the miserable state of the nation. Pynchon has found a perfect mouthpiece for the too-wise-not-to-be-angry post-hippie part of himself in the character March Kelleher. A longtime participant in radical politics, she enters the narrative railing against government corruption and keeps at it, accurately but without effect, all the way to the end. It’s through her words that Pynchon reaches out of the page and slaps the reader silly, knowing that we’ll just set the warnings aside to be ignored until a later date when they can be forgotten. Maxine the fraud examiner may be employed to see patterns, but that skill is useless without memory, and it’s March who is the novel’s memory. “She hated Lincoln Center,” Pynchon tells us, “for which an entire neighborhood was destroyed and 7,000 boricua families uprooted, just because Anglos who didn’t really give a shit about High Culture were afraid of these people’s children.” Shortly thereafter we get March’s own assessment: “They even had the chutzpah to actually film West Side fuckin Story in the same neighborhood they were destroying. Culture, I’m sorry, Hermann Göring was right, every time you hear the word, check your sidearm. Culture attracts the worst impulses of the moneyed, it has no honor, it begs to be suburbanized and corrupted.” And later, “The fucking fascists who call the shots haven’t stopped needing races to hate each other, it’s how they keep wages down, and rents high, and all the power over on the East Side, and everything ugly and brain-dead just the way they like it.” Finally, after the tragedy has occurred and after the news has produced a uniform and comforting explanation for it, she invites us to imagine other scenarios, alternatives that don’t fit the nation’s ingrained prejudices. But, she asks, “Who’s in any hurry to imagine?” The relentless 24/7 news cycle creates what might be called “entropy of the imagination.” People turn to facts for explanations of terrible events, unaware that the facts themselves are rigged. Unable to make sense of it ourselves, we accept the stories we see on the screens that surround us. When explanations so consistently fail to satisfy, we either have to go crazy, or learn how to be satisfied with what we first found unsatisfying. At each step we make do with less coherence than what we thought we used to, and the more we make do, the more our understanding of the world suffers. The community loses its ability to make sense of itself, to keep itself in check, and releases its worst impulses on itself and its neighbors, all the while thinking that nothing has changed.
If this seems a little too didactic, rest assured that this effect comes from the telescoping tendency of reviews, not from the novel itself. Though Pynchon has at times dived headlong into the novel-as-lecture form—Against the Day, for instance, often seems like a 1000-page-long anti-capitalist screed, of which, if that’s what you’re looking for, there are better ones around—and though this novel shows a very obvious desire on Pynchon’s part to teach us something, to wake us up, it’s not all that preachy. This balance comes from his investigation of the meaning of freedom. Freedom being an American buzzword, Pynchon finds a wealth of synonyms in the American geek lexicon. It is “the immeasurable uncreated,” the space “off the surveillance matrix,” the “region of no information.” Most pointedly, it is the space “beyond anyplace they’d be comfortable,” and we know by now who “they” are. The troubling piece of this synonym pie is that freedom from observation is the goal for both the sympathetic schlemiels and the monster that wants to observe them. The Man’s desire to evade oversight is just as ingrained as the outsider’s, but He’s got more tools to keep ahead of our politically-engaged scrupulosity. In this narrative where network security inevitably breaks down, where susceptibility to backdoors plays a central role, we are invited to see an analogy between backdoors on the web, and backdoors in the geo-political sphere. This rebel-without-a-cause ideal, the desire to have your own little part of the world where no one can fuck with you, turns out to be the flip side of the imperialist’s conscienceless exploitation of land and people, free from oversight and interference. Still worse, it facilitates imperialism. When Maxine encounters two Deep Web denizens who happen to be in the vanguard of Deep Web advertising, she learns from these frontier speculators that the Beats-style escape is just the means by which the Man opens the door to His invasion. “The colonizers are coming. The suits and tenderfeet . . . Anybody still wants his freedom’ll have to saddle up and head somewhere else.” But if our idea of avoiding the suits and tenderfeet is to saddle-up and move elsewhere, we will always be the bleeding edge of colonization. In this world even our grief is not our own, and subjectivity comes pre-compromised by culture’s trojan horse. The more we look for that way out, that escape into our own little zone of freedom, the more we open the door to the suits who will close it down. That’s the imperial idea of freedom. It is a Ponzi scheme from which, though Pynchon recognizes its appeal and can’t even begrudge us (or himself) the weakness by which we give in to it, we must escape. So long as that remains the ideal, we who hold it remain subordinate to imperialism, and unwitting participants in the imperialist project.
To lay the foundation for an alternative definition of freedom, Pynchon draws on the lessons he’s learned from his other novels. In the roughest breakdown, Pynchon’s oeuvre can be split in two: there is one half that might be called “real Pynchon,” and the other that is a sort of “Cliff’s Notes to Pynchon.” One is for the initiated, the other for the novice. So, The Crying of Lot 49 is taught in introductory undergraduate courses as Baby’s First Pynchon, but Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon arouse the die-hard fans. That was a pretty reliable breakdown until the publication of Inherent Vice, which is neither a good introduction to his work because it’s not really anything like his other work, nor likely to thrill the veteran Pynchon reader because it’s just plain boring. With Bleeding Edge we have the mirror image of Inherent Vice. It is far from boring. The prose is as sharp, surprising, and funny as anything else Pynchon has written, and yet this book is much easier to get through than any of his doorstop tomes. That is not just due to its contemporaneity. Nor is it owing to a significantly less complicated narrative. More important are two elements that have always been in play in Pynchon’s novels, but that receive unusual attention in Bleeding Edge: the matter of detective fiction, and the larger matter of parenthood. Inherent Vice is a straightforward detective story, but a bad one, like an early draft of The Big Lebowski. Bleeding Edge, on the other hand, is a detective story so good that it reveals something about the nature of his other novels: they’re detective stories, too. It’s not just that they have investigations at their center; it’s that they are genre fiction, though not of the sort you’re likely to see in your local bookstore’s Mystery/Suspense aisle. Like the Coen Brothers, Pynchon stays within a genre in order to wrench it, which might explain why he has managed to remain less insufferably fixated on himself than John Updike and Philip Roth, and how he never falls into the adolescent cutesiness of “deconstructions” of the genre like Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Pynchon shows us what a detective story can be. In doing so, he reminds us that literary fiction is just genre fiction gussied up to fool High Culture.
Pynchon’s conflation of highbrow and lowbrow, whereby sophisticated wrangling with philosophical problems mingles with adolescent indulgence in bad puns and toilet humor, is as old as his earliest stories. Those elements, found in his work and in the work of contemporaries like Don DeLillo and John Barth, have come to define, for those who wish to define it, postmodern literature as a whole. That’s the High Culture angle. With this novel, however, he shows us a clearer picture of the way his brand of detective fiction works. By letting his characters blunder along into a tragedy the reader can’t not know, he shifts our investment away from plot closure—the traditional goal of putting a detective on the case—and toward a more mature approach that resists the entropy of imagination. The detective story is not supposed to resolve our anxieties, to answer all the questions, to give us closure so we can sleep at night. We have to learn how to get to sleep without the comfort of closure. We expect detectives to solve the crime, to tell us who did it. But Pynchon’s detectives are trying to solve a crime that hasn’t happened yet. They are reading these data not to explain what has already happened, but to prevent something worse. Unfortunately for them, they usually don’t know that. But we needn’t share their blindness. The detective’s allegiance—and here is the connection to parenting—is not to the past but to the future. Neither the detective nor the parent pass on a better world. They can’t. But they can try to pass on a world where there’s still room for memory and imagination. Pynchon’s alternative freedom supports this effort. It is the freedom that comes from the capacity to endure, rather than escape, the pressures of our world. This won’t lead to a glorious future where all is sunshine and happiness. It might, however, help us follow Maxine’s lead. She manages to keep from panicking when faced with her complicity in the Man’s atrocities, and that keeps her from making the situation worse. If that’s the goal, however, it won’t be achieved by reading a review. The creative product itself, the story he tells rather than the wisdom of his message, will invigorate your imagination. Go read it.
Jonathan Sudholt has a B.A. from Yale University. He is working on a Ph.D. at Brandeis University, where he studies the philosophy of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel.