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.