By Thomas Pynchon
Is there some moral or professional principle that Thomas Pynchon — America’s best-known-for-being-least-known author — has been trying to affirm by shunning interviewers and photographers for going on fifty years now?
Is it that he doesn’t want to be seen as just another media whore in a world where fame is so cheap?
Or is he someone trying to stay in control of his own publicity, jealously protecting his eccentric brand with Oprah-like intensity?
More to the present point, even with a new book out one has to wonder: were he to end his media exile now would anyone care?
Over the last half-century Pynchon hasn’t developed much as a writer. In this reviewer’s (admittedly lonely) opinion his best book was The Crying of Lot 49, which came out in 1966. Favourite among fans is probably Gravity’s Rainbow, which was in 1973. The dates tell you something about where the author’s head is still at.
In these and other early works all of the essential ingredients of Pynchon’s oeuvre, both in terms of style and theme, were in place. Since then the same elements have been recycled in different contexts and settings, albeit with diminishing returns. We now know exactly what to expect: political paranoia mixed with slapstick humour, comicbook characters with cartoon names, lots of silly song lyrics and dreadful puns, a fascination with the dark side of technology and the role of conspiracies in history, and outrageously complex plots that are never fully resolved.
Bleeding Edge is his most contemporary work — it’s set in Manhattan in 2001, just before and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks — but it seems like only the names and dates have changed in forty years. This time out Pynchon’s detective heroine is Maxine Tarnow, a fast-talking Jewish mother and Certified Fraud Examiner “gone rogue.” For Maxine “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen … you can never have too much”: words that she may want to reconsider after getting sucked into a vast right- left- and everything-in-between-wing conspiracy involving the FBI, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorists, hackers, amateur porn producers, and the whole pyramid racket of late capitalism.
Domestic paranoia today tends to focus on two economic sectors — finance and the Internet — whose power and influence have expanded exponentially despite the lack of any clear understanding among the public of what it is they actually do or how they do it. What were in all those collateralized debt obligations? Not even the people who invented them knew for sure, but they rocked Wall Street in the sub-prime mortgage crisis. And just how many people are (at least potentially) spying on you every time you open your Internet browser? Too many to count … even if there were some way of counting, which there probably isn’t.
Pynchon’s main target in Bleeding Edge is this shadowy financial-digital complex, near the center of which sits a villainous dot-com billionaire/CEO cybercriminal named Gabriel Ice. But at least one reader will confess to being unable to tell you much more than that.
There is a method, however, to the muddle. The point seems to be that if we really knew what was going on we’d likely be more depressed than alarmed by “conspiracies” that are really just a lot of stupid, greedy people acting in narrow, mean-spirited and selfish ways. Like Maxine (or her precursor Oedipa Maas) we all harbour a spiritual yearning to believe in powerful unseen forces at work, even if they are totally evil and threaten our destruction. Because if no one is pulling the strings, if no one is really in charge, then we may be in even bigger trouble than we think.
It’s a shame Bleeding Edge isn’t a better book. Like a lot of Pynchon’s major efforts it’s messy and bloated. The plot may be deliberately incomprehensible, but this only makes it less involving. The characters are thin and the attempts at humour fall flat. The writing is clever in spurts, but awkwardly driven by fractured dialogue with odd tics like ending sentences with question marks and including with every movie title mentioned the year of its release in parenthesis.
But underneath it all is Pynchon’s still relevant, sustaining vision: that post-1960s America has lost its innocence and freedom to the forces of big government and big capital. This message was especially clear at the end of his last novel, Inherent Vice, where the Psychadelic Sixties are imagined as a “little parenthesis of light,” a “dream of prerevolution” snuffed out by corporate suits.
That countercultural spirit is also felt in Bleeding Edge. We see it when, for example, Maxine walks through the “new” New York City, discouraged by how real estate developers have made the formerly grubby place “Disneyfied and sterile.” Maxine feels “nauseous at the possibility of some stupefied consensus about what life is to be, taking over this whole city without mercy, a tightening Noose of Horror, multiplexes and malls and big-box stores . . . Aaahh!”
This betrayal of the spirit of the summer of love is part of our pop history now. Today we are all children of the ’80s, not the ’60s. Hence Dr. Evil taunting Austin Powers about how “freedom failed” and telling him that there’s “nothing as pathetic as an aging hipster.” Or the Big Lebowski crowing at Jeff Bridges’ laid-back Dude: “the bums lost!”
And so is it too early to say that the Internet only offered an illusion of individual rebellion, revolution, and freedom? One that turned into a nightmare of corporate and state surveillance as cyberspace became a global prison?
On the contrary, it’s far too late. But who do you think’s to blame for that happening? Us or . . . them?
Review first published in the Toronto Star January 4, 2014.