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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times