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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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”