Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Dotcom survivors

A book where even the phrase "You are so grounded" takes on significance.

Frightening and frivolous, a mixture of combat centre and bad TV: that’s pretty much how we have come to view the internet – we give our data to Larry Page and our time to Harry Styles – and it’s how Thomas Pynchon presents it in his new novel, Bleeding Edge, as the foundation for “a Web of total surveillance” that eats up all “our precious time”.
 
Pynchon has chosen to start the book in 2001, a year long associated with the future that now belongs to a dusty past in which Pierre Omidyar’s online auction palace is still “that eBay thing”, Madoff Securities an investment firm that offered a suspiciously good return, and a “Napster for videos” something that the heroine, Maxine Tarnow, finds it hard to imagine could turn a profit.
 
Maxine is a single (Jewish) mother and a freelance fraud investigator (being a Pynchon character, she has lost her certified status along the way) who, after receiving a tip-off from her friend Reg Despard, starts rooting around the accounts of the tech company hashslingrz, a dotcom crash survivor, and discovers connections, variously intimate and tenuous, to the glamorous Deseret Building, a website called hwgaahwgh.com, an “application” based in the “deep web” (the internet’s locked recesses, basically) called DeepArcher, and CIA fiddling in South America, as well as, later on, the event that soon acquires the shorthand “September 11”.
 
Silicon Alley, Manhattan’s tech village, is not much different from that piece of shorthand to the south, Wall Street, and certainly no better than it when, abandoning its West Coast principles, it jumps into Wall Street’s arms – technology-plus-late-capitalism being pretty much Pynchon’s formula for hell on earth. He invents acronyms, words, songs and biopics, while the characters who listen to the songs and watch the biopics excel at snipes and wind-ups.
 
It is probably fair at this advanced stage to note that Pynchon has an incurable obsession with language: its capacity for behaving like glass or gauze. The opening paragraph of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) – “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now” – makes a point of stating where eloquence can’t go, either because we don’t hear V-2 rockets any more, or we no longer hear anything that resembles them, or because the only people who might have heard them were dead by the time they got the chance (being supersonic, the V-2 announces its arrival after it has already landed). But then “screaming” is already a comparison, a clarifying anthropomorphic metaphor. Fastforward more than half a century – from 1944 to 2001 – and there are even more phenomena to describe or half describe, more slang to borrow from espionage and economics, erotica and psychiatry. One of the things that Pynchon wants to expose is the way we massage things into metaphor and then forget that we’ve done it.
 
The book’s title, though a term in its own right (meaning new technology with risks attached), is repurposed here as a pun on a metaphor – the word “pun” being, as Gottlob Frege points out in Pynchon’s novel-beforelast Against the Day (2006), “und” upside down and back to front and a good way of bringing things together. Bleeding edge isn’t just a melding of a favoured phrase with the vaguest of themes. A bleeding edge is also an edge that has lost its sharpness, and one of Pynchon’s main subjects has always been identity’s lack of firmness, the habit things have of ceasing to be themselves – in this case, things such as the internet and New York.
 
It is the case that this Long Island native, Cornell alumnus and – for at least the past 20 years – Upper West Side dweller, with a lifelong interest in the flow of capital, has not paid as much attention to the city as you might have expected. Now, he has written a novel suffused with New York places and voices, and it doubles as the novel about Web 2.0 that Pynchon fans have been waiting for. The connection – one of them, anyway – is that, as Maxine discovers with the help of half a dozen Virgils, both “memespace” and “meatspace” have developers after them and are in equal danger of becoming, in the words of one character, “suburbanised faster than you can say ‘late capitalism’ ”.
 
Though Bleeding Edge doesn’t stint on leftish theorising about far-right misdeeds, it also gives the sense that for the first time Pynchon is looking at things from a very great height, as a battle between toy soldiers. The novel reads at times like a whistle-stop tour d’horizon of every development and danger – technocratic takeover, corporate malfeasance, “Beltway connivance” – that its author was right about.
 
The book isn’t just a rewriting of his 1966 novel The Crying of Lot 49 (female detective gets laid, makes friends and goes bar-hopping in pursuit of an evil corporation) with the Manichaean crudeness scrubbed away and added doses of agility and charm. It is also the closest that Pynchon has yet come to writing a “traditional realistic novel” – the only kind “worth a shit”, he suggested in a letter 50 years ago; the kind he hoped he would “some day” write. OK, OK, so Maxine is still a shaggy dog surrounded by wild geese – Pynchon hasn’t had a personality transplant or anything – but there is a narrative arc that can be followed, just about, and even the names are plausible if you allow for a whole extended community whose parents had a thing for porn and comic books (the villain is called Gabriel Ice).
 
In the novel’s beautifully settled final moments, Maxine, walking the Upper West Side after an all-nighter, spots a “blear of light” reflected in a top-floor window: yes, it’s probably the sun but it might be “something else”. Then she turns the corner and “leaves the question behind” – as Pynchon seems to be leaving behind his past, brilliant but narrowly extrovert, with its virtually exclusive focus on the world as distinct from the self.
 
“Go to your room . . . you are, like, so grounded,” Maxine’s son tells her when she gets home, and it’s the rare Pynchon pun that comes without a flag. The choice that Maxine faces and gets right isn’t between a transcendent meaning or the earth. It is between the old Thomas Pynchon kind of meaning, which exists far afield, on the top floor, or in “the depths”, and the meaning at the end of our noses. 
One World Trade Center stands amongst buildings in New York. Image: Getty

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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Doing a Radiohead: how to disappear online

The band has performed an online Houdini in advance of its ninth album – but it’s harder than it looks. 

At the beginning of May, the band Radiohead’s web presence – well, its Twitter, Facebook, and website, at least – went offline.

Lead singer Thom Yorke has repeatedly criticised streaming, and the future of online music in general, and it's clear that his opinion fed into this month's decision to reject social media in favour of sending individual cards to the band's fans in the post. 

However, it’s also a clever publicity stunt in the run up to the rumoured release of the band's ninth album, since it plays into a growing paranoia around the lives we live online, and quite how permanent they are. In reality, though, Radiohead has done a pretty terrible job of disappearing from the internet. Its Facebook and Twitter accounts still exist, and widely available caching services actually mean you can still see Radiohead.com if you so wish. 

These are the steps you’d need to take to really disappear from the internet (and never be found).

Delete your acccounts

Radiohead may have deleted its posts on Facebook and Twitter, but its accounts – and, therefore user data – still exist on the sites. If this was a serious move away from an online presence, as opposed to a stunt, you’d want to delete your account entirely.

The site justdelete.me rates sites according to how easy they make it to delete your data. If you only hold accounts with “easy” rated sites, like Airbnb, Goodreads and Google, you’ll be able to delete your account through what justdelete.me calls a “simple process”. JustDelete.me also links you directly to the (sometimes difficult-to-find) account deletion pages.

Failing that, delete what you can

If, however, you’re a member of sites that don’t allow you to delete your account like Blogger, Couchsurfing or Wordpress, you may be stuck with your account for good. However, you should at least be able to delete posts and any biographical information on your profile.

If this bothers you, but you want to create an account with these sites, Justdelete.me also offers a “fake identity generator” which spits out fake names and other details to use in the signup process.

Go to Google

Search results are the hardest thing to erase, especially if they’re on sites which published your details without your permission. However, thanks to the European Commission “Right to be forgotten” ruling in 2014, you can now ask that certain search results be deleted using this online form.  

Ditch your smartphone

Smartphones tend to track your location and communicate with app and web servers constantly. For true privacy, you’d want to either disconnect your phone from all accounts (including iCloud or Google) or else get a basic phone which does not connect to the internet.

Give out your passwords

The artist Mark Farid decided in October 2015 to live without a digital footprint until April 2016, but was aghast when he realised quite how often our data is collected by our devices. As a result, he decided to live without bank accounts, use a phone without internet connectivity, and use an unregistered Oyster.

When I saw him speak at an event just before his off-grid experiment was due to begin, he announced that he would also be handing out the passwords to all his online accounts to the public. The kind of “bad data” which randomly hacked accounts would show would actually make him less traceable than a radio silence – a bit like how words written over other words mask them more than simply erasing them or scribbling on them would.

Accept that it probably won’t work

Even if you managed all this, the likelihood is that some of your daily activities would still leave a trace online. Most jobs require internet activity, if not an internet presence. Bank accounts are, let's face it, fairly necessary. And even Radiohead will, I’m willing to bet, reappear on the internet soon after their album arrives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.