Review: Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”

Penguin Press HC • 496pp. • $28.95 • 17 September 2013

This review has been drawn from the Anniversary Issue of the American Reader, available in our Shoppe.

If you came of age in the 1990s, as I did, you grew up reading a certain set of large-scale, ambitious, and experimentally inclined American writers: Thomas Pynchon, Vladimir Nabokov, John Barth, William Gaddis, William Gass, Joseph Heller, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, and David Foster Wallace. Mr. Pynchon stood out, however. All the others either cultivated a thick self-referentiality largely divorced from contemporary events (in the case of Nabokov and Mr. Barth), or else deployed mild-to-moderate experimentalism on top of conventionally “realistic” characters and narratives (in the case of the others, particularly Gaddis, Mr. Gass, and Ms. Morrison). Mr. Pynchon’s crude pop-culture borrowings, his phantasmagoric imagination, and his refusal to develop psychologically “complex” characters placed him out-of-step with these other authors, even though he was frequently lumped in with them. 

Today Mr. Pynchon looks more contemporary than most of his peers. The increasingly etiolated MFA-produced fiction of the 1980s and 1990s, which adhered to a banal, impressionistic realism, now looks only like a handful of writing teachers’ idea of realism, one which most of America (to say nothing of the world) does not acknowledge. Narrative self-referentiality has, unsurprisingly, ceased to be important to all but a few outside its circle of practitioners.

At one point, Mr. Pynchon’s work might have seemed likely to fade into irrelevance as well. But his new novel, Bleeding Edge, asserts a contemporary urgency that was not immediately apparent in his two prior epic-length monsterworks, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, and certainly not in his brief and puzzling noir excursion, Inherent Vice. Bleeding Edge is set in 2001; it is a novel about dotcoms and 9/11. Contemporary events can be dangerous territory for a novelist (remember John Updike’s Terrorist ?), but Bleeding Edge, perhaps unexpectedly, is a valedictory, updating the author’s thematic preoccupations for this century while stressing their fundamental continuity.

Bleeding Edge succeeds not because conspiracy theories are back in vogue, but because Mr. Pynchon has always been writing about why we construct conspiracy theories, and his explorations have been borne out by the last twelve years. Unlike his peers, he never started from a set conception of the world, but from the detritus of pop culture, science, and art. He did not plot so much as pattern his novels, setting up complementary and clashing resonances and dichotomies in such a way as to refuse any reductive analysis of the narrative. Bleeding Edge uses these tactics in a bit more linear fashion, providing for the most attractive combination of complexity and accessibility that Mr. Pynchon has ever achieved.


Mr. Pynchon writes what novelist-critic Christine Brooke-Rose once termed “polyphonic palimpsest histories,” which she described as being halfway between sacred books and the commentaries on those books: new myths of our history sitting next to unending exegeses on and contextualizations of those very myths. Such works exhibit neither the limited, quotidian vision of contemporary literary realism (characterized by a pernicious extension of the old dictum: “write what you know, and never try to know more”), nor the the solipsistic and cloistered self-reference that continues to plague much “experimental” writing (and which exceeds the restricted scope of realism only insofar as it games narrative conventions). Rather, Brooke-Rose’s “palimpsests” are unafraid of knowledge—of history, of science, of religion—and strive to “stretch our intellectual, spiritual and imaginative horizons to breaking point.”

More than any other American writer, Mr. Pynchon brings the whole cosmos—not only as it’s known to philosophers and poets, but also to science and history—crashing down on his characters. Informed by modern physics, he has always refused to embrace linear cause and effect, in plot or in character. Of course, the author is capable of portraying conventional psychological development, particularly in Slow Learner, his early collection of stories, but this style of character development has rarely been a priority. Rather, he prefers to set his characters up as charged particles and send them hurtling out of a cyclotron, subjecting them to multiple interacting fields to disrupt their movements. Their intentions (their “character”) only play a very small part in their fate, as large-scale macro forces send them hurtling. The more characters he sets going, the more interference there is, and the greater the chaos that results.

Patterning micro-chaos into macro-order requires a large canvas before the macro-order can emerge. I agree with Mr. Pynchon that The Crying of Lot 49 is a weak work: without multiple plots between which parallels can be drawn, the conspiracy theorizing seems arbitrary and schematic, projected onto the characters without greater resonance. With V. and especially Gravity’s Rainbow, he found that he could set up multiple parallels and contrasts simultaneously, letting them coexist in flux while nonetheless cohering as a unity. The choice of noir for his last two novels, then, makes perfect sense in retrospect, as a solution to the problems of Lot 49. Noir novels like Red Harvest, The Big Sleep, and The Outfit (whose author, Donald E. Westlake, provides Bleeding Edge’s epigraph) all work by piling up ping-ponging events over which the narrator has only indirect command at best, assembling a conspiracy without anyone in control. (Unlike detective stories, noir cases aren’t solved, merely survived.)

Of course, the cost of the noir model is the imposition of a strictly limited and linear single-character perspective—that of the investigator stumbling through the conspiracy. Mr. Pynchon had only adopted such a limited perspective before in Lot 49, but Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge flow far better and are less antiseptic. The characters are allowed to breathe. But while Bleeding Edge is more complex than Inherent Vice, their linearity raises a question when placed next to the epic V., Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day: where did the rest of the universe go? 

Indeed, in Inherent Vice, the greater cosmic context seems entirely absent for the first time. Inherent Vice feels like a love letter to a particular time and place (late-1960s Los Angeles). The conspiracy is kept local and humanly comprehensible. Pop culture and counterculture mix with comparable impunity; the authorities are reduced to G-men and hooligans. The book’s soundtrack, which begins with Country Joe and the Fish and ends with Fapardokly, paints the most relaxed setting of any of the author’s novels, albeit a still menacing one. At one key moment, surrounded by vacant burnouts watching cable television, private eye Doc Sportello fantasizes about “how the Psychedelic Sixties, this little parenthesis of light, might close after all, and all be lost, taken back into darkness…how a certain hand might reach terribly out of darkness and reclaim the time.” That’s Doc’s Sixties, of course, not most people’s, but Mr. Pynchon largely restricts his narrative to the register of the idyll, puzzling readers—myself included.

Bleeding Edge, meanwhile, does not hold the rest of the cosmos at bay. The linear plot masks its far greater sprawl, which reaches out to the world even though it remains geographically confined to New York City and its environs.

The information age has seemingly put the cosmic scope of Mr. Pynchon’s other novels within the perspective of one person, information blasted at a person’s pupils at a rate exponentially greater than could have been experienced a century ago. Private eye Maxine Tarnow is privy to a breadth of information that no single character in Gravity’s Rainbow could have ever obtained; the lines of communication simply did not exist whereby this could become possible. Maxine is the child of lefty ’60s parents, culturally Jewish but wholly secular. She would have grown up reading Pynchon if Mr. Pynchon’s characters ever read. She lives on the Upper West Side and operates a fraud investigation business. She has a piggish investment banker ex-husband named Horst Loeffler and two very lovable kids named Ziggy and Otis.

Notably for the author and for noir, this PI is a woman. With a few exceptions, Mr. Pynchon has focused on men, androgynes like V. and Oedipa Maas notwithstanding. But Maxine and her inner circle here are concertedly female, and while the world around them is not so different, the emphasis on female agency is unprecedented, and a welcome development after the guys-only-please Inherent Vice.

The novel is infused with the flavor of 2000-2001:, Krispy Kreme, Software Etc., and Dr. Zizmor subway ads (though the name sounds like a Pynchon fabrication, said dermatologist is real and still around). As usual, the author has done his research and the details are mostly on the mark, though a few technical infelicities and anachronisms (the nofollow tag and the Sony VX2000, neither of which existed in 2001) seem too trivial to be intentional. It includes a few affectionate nods to computer geeks who read his novels, like the designers of cult conspiracy game Deus Ex, who name-dropped Mr. Pynchon and G. K. Chesterton while giving you, the cyborg protagonist, the choice of whether to join the Illuminati, instigate neo-Luddite anarchy, or initiate the Singularity.

Mr. Pynchon, polymathic as ever, explains Benford’s Law, which states that in real-life data sources, more numbers will begin with 1 than any other number (a handy tool for the PI!), and makes plot use of Princeton’s wacky but very real Global Consciousness Project, which monitors random electronic noise to see if any patterns emerge from psychic vibes stemming from major global events (like, for instance, September 11).

The novel’s MacGuffin is Gabriel Ice, young CEO of super-sketchy startup hashslingrz, currently in a nasty divorce and custody dispute with Tallis Kelleher, daughter of Maxine’s conspiracy-mongering friend March Kelleher. March is gaining something of a following on her website Tabloid of the Damned with the latest iteration of Masonic/Illuminati/MK-ULTRA conspiracies, which have begun to encompass hashslingrz. There is no mention of the NSA’s Echelon, Numbers Stations, or hipper conspiracies, but I believe this to be an intentional omission, not the author showing his age. Mr. Pynchon paints March as hopelessly behind the times on conspiracies, stuck in a confrontational Us-vs.-Them 1960s viewpoint that assumes that there is only one clear-cut Them to fight. (Spoiler: there isn’t.)

Mr. Pynchon rather brilliantly indicates March’s obsoleteness by having her misquote Stewart Brand’s maxim, “Information wants to be free”, as “Information has to be free.” That is, information needs liberators: liberators like March. Even anarchist programmer guru Richard Stallman only modified it to “Information should be free,” reflecting moral philosophy rather than militant activism. March is a general without an army, and her paranoia does not act as a spur to knowledge, but as an obstacle. So when she gets her hands on something really good, like some men testing rocket launchers on the top of a New York apartment building, she really has no clue what it could mean.

Maxine, on the other hand, sees through the flood of information to acknowledge her own inability to correctly piece together the chaotic processes that run the world. After one of Ice’s corporate flunkies, Lester Traipse, turns up dead in that same apartment building, Maxine uneasily gets on the case.

Conspiracy theories are now easier to debunk. We now have enough knowledge to see the inadequacy of our own minds. March does not see this, and this makes her an anachronism. However, to a certain extent the world has passed Maxine by as well. There is very little email in the novel, and the web itself remains ancillary. People are always meeting in person in new exotic locales, taking trips out to Long Island or sneaking into buildings, even as the business of the world is becoming increasingly located outside of any geographic location whatsoever. While Inherent Vice did not subvert noir in any substantive way, such subversion is the very root of Bleeding Edge: Maxine knows that the PI archetype which she embodies is not in a privileged and disinterested position of objective knowledge, but another careening particle in the cyclotron like any other, prone to breaks in logic and a blinkered view of the world. And she acknowledges her ignorance. Maxine is a knowing old fogey, aware of people and motivations but now, to a greater extent than any other Pynchon character, aware of just how little that allows her to comprehend.

It takes sex to knock Maxine out of her cynical gumshoe pose. Where the typical PI would fall for the femme fatale prior to realizing her deviousness, Maxine falls prey to masculine wiles in spite of knowing exactly what she’s dealing with. For two hundred pages, Maxine skillfully interrogates corporate flunkies, foot fetishists, and olfactory precogs, and then abruptly throws herself into the arms of the far more malevolent überspook and “federal penis” Nicholas Windust. Creepy, overbearing, and charmless, with a long track record of state-sponsored torture and murder, Windust has only to mumble a few words breathily, and Maxine, or more precisely Maxine’s libido, falls hard for him. 

This is not a new story for Mr. Pynchon. Here is a sampling of how often he has used it:

Pynchon Graph 1

The woman-jerk motif is just one prominent case of how Mr. Pynchon uses recurrent patterns rather than linear plotting to structure his novels. Regularities emerge not on the micro-level, where plot developments often seem random and pointless, but on the statistical macro-scale level. For any individual woman, the motivation provided never seems sufficient—sometimes no explanation is given—but it keeps happening, like a law of nature. In Vineland, Frenesi and her mother Sasha Traverse speculate that their attraction to uniformed men is an “ancestral curse…as if some Cosmic Fascist had spliced in a DNA sequence requiring this form of seduction and initiation into the dark joys of social control.” Mr. Pynchon later gave further credence to this theory by having their great-aunt Lake Traverse enact a very similar betrayal in Against the Day. Many of these women repent; some, like Katje, even try to undo the damage. But Maxine’s self-awareness puts her far beyond anyone else in the above table. Maxine is puzzled at her own compulsion, and feels a mixture of self-disgust and helplessness. She is not so puritanical as to loathe her own libido, but neither is it within her conscious control: “she must have been wet without knowing it.” Unlike Frenesi in Vineland, she is not so dumb as to believe she can redeem Windust, and so she does not endanger her family and betray her principles as Frenesi does. We are a far ways from Frenesi’s shrug, “You know what happens when my pussy’s runnin’ the show.” 

Maxine finds she can’t resist, but her exasperating compulsion spurs a will to understand and forgive—not only Windust, but Horst. Her understanding cuts the federal penis down to size. Attempts to control are, after all, the cruel and ultimately futile efforts of scared little boys; the information age gives Maxine the wisdom to understand this. It does not, however, give her the power to change it. As so often in game theory, additional knowledge can be a handicap to action, not an aid. Even as March drowns in conspiracy theories only to gain conspiracy freak followers, Maxine keeps a keenly skeptical eye on everything and sorts through the information, only to find that it is impossible to master and does not cohere.

In Inherent Vice, for contrast, Doc doesn’t have the whole world impinging on his daily existence like Maxine does. Sexual politics really don’t occur to him. There’s hardly even evidence of what lies beneath, as Doc more or less gets simple explanations for what’s going on. Only a couple references to Internet-progenitor ARPAnet (“it’s like acid, a whole ‘nother strange world”) hearken to out-of-control conspiracy. The thugs amount to noirish cartoons closer to the book version of Kiss Me Deadly than the movie: no atomic bombs in this one.


The Decoherence Event 

Rain drips, soaking into the floor, and Slothrop perceives that he is losing his mind. If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia, there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.
                                                                                                  —Gravity’s Rainbow

Bleeding Edge has an atomic bomb: September 11. For anyone who lived through the paranoiac onslaught of dirty bombs, anthrax, crop-dusters, Sufi-bashing, and god-knows-what-else in the months following September 11, Mr. Pynchon’s normally aberrant fugue narratives became terribly real, one anomalous event triggering a seismic alteration of America’s collective consciousness whose wretched consequences we are still feeling a decade on.

The novel telegraphs its destination by declaring the Spring Equinox of 2001 on its first page. Early on, Horst takes his and Maxine’s two boys up to the top of the WTC (where he works) and elder son Ziggy observes, “Seems kind of flimsy up here.” Mr. Pynchon has never used dramatic irony so bluntly. With September 11 in full view, his conspiracy-mongering seems at once appropriate and irrelevant. Perhaps the book is his response to the many critics who have accused him of privileging paranoia over real life: to say, in effect, that his version of real life encompasses paranoia and normality alike, and his critics are small-minded.

The detonation occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, nearly exactly the same place that the Tunguska Explosion occurs in Against the Day, a similarly far-reaching and unprecedented event experienced by all characters simultaneously, and one for which they similarly struggle to find an explanation.

And looking back, the two-thirds marker seems to have always held a special liminal significance for Mr. Pynchon as a place where, instead of coming to a climax, his narrative signals its dispersal with what could be called a Decoherence Event, in which our working models of reality cease to function together. ((Decoherence is sometimes identified with quantum wavefunction collapse, but decoherence is merely an explanatory model for, among other things, the observance of wavefunction collapse, generated by the loss of a local system’s information to its surrounding environment. In this analogy, we lose the coherent  superposition of our (conflicting and incomplete) accounts of the world to a decoherence event. The difficulties in avoiding unwarranted causal assumptions in interpretations of quantum mechanics—as well as the sheer abstraction of the underlying models—may be why Mr. Pynchon has avoided using quantum mechanics in his novels.))

The realms of death and life blur during these events. There are ghosts or other undead entities (TV zombies, Anubis, deaf-mutes, brainwashed narcs), devoid of personality and “scattered” like Slothrop. The final third of each novel then deals with tentative attempts to piece back together the tenuous order (any order, really) which this moment shattered. 

Warning: the chart below reveals key plot points of several of Mr. Pynchon’s novels.

Pynchon Graph 2

Following each event, one or more characters are brought to the state before conspiracy begins to emerge: anti-paranoia, the most frightening state of all. The state where we realize that, for all the machinations we may attribute to “Them,” “They” are nothing but a hypothetical posit, no more real than phlogiston or ether, to wrap around the uncontrolled chaos that may bear down on us at any time. That gaping void of anti-paranoia—the loss of all sense in the world—is not only what drives conspiracy theories, but also the conspiracies themselves. Both are attempts to exert control over the world and provide linear explanation where none exists: even Fresnei’s “Cosmic Fascist” is just one such posit, while the machinations of supposedly powerful men are merely, in the words of V’s Fausto, “metaphors devised to veil the world that was.”

By focusing on open-ended narrative “patterning” rather than schematic narrative plotting, we are able to see how these inadequate “metaphors” come about and take hold in the minds of people. This narrative strategy also ensures that Mr. Pynchon’s novels do not become simply larger instances of the same explanatory positing in which his characters engage. Steadily avoiding any pat answers, his patterns provide a surfeit of incompatible explanations for his novel’s events. The Decoherence Event, as in quantum physics, is the shattering moment when our collective, unified—yet contradictory and inconsistent—knowledge irreversibly leaks into the greater surrounding environment. This is not a resolution, but a collapse. Providing any sort of final resolution would render Mr. Pynchon’s books self-satisfactorily ignorant toward that unknown surrounding environment, slanting everything toward a single (inevitably inadequate) explanation, and so the author never provides one.

Instead, the author gives us three indefinite motifs which can take a variety of forms. The first of these, the Decoherence Event, serves as a fulcrum around which the other two flow: the Dynamo (of which the Cosmic Fascist is one version, as well as any and all power structures; it might best be understood as the vital movements of power that necessitate the hypostatized “Them” of conspiracy theorizing), and the Idyll (of which Doc’s ’60s is one instance, as well as any idealized refuge from the Dynamo and Decoherence Event both). ((Remember, however, that these are all human posits, not metaphysical entities. These names are mere conventions we use for approximately recurring patterns in a dynamic system, patterns we pick out not by synthesizing the totality of the system, but by excluding most of its contents and rearranging the rest into a humanly comprehensible form.))

Here is how they work in Bleeding Edge.


Deseret: The Dynamo

The dynamo is the locus classicus of a conspiracy theory. In Henry Adams’s usage, heavily influential to Mr. Pynchon, the dynamo steamrolls freedom and individuality while trying to establish its tyranny of order. For Adams, the dynamo looked to be winning. For Mr. Pynchon, every dynamo ultimately fails—it is no match for a Decoherence Event—but each does plenty of damage in the process.

As a minor character in Mason & Dixon tells it, the increasingly noticeable gaps between religion and reality have loosed a realm in which boys cavort with fantasies of making themselves gods.

As God has receded, as Deism has crept in to make the best of this progressive Absence, more and more do we witness extreme varieties of human character emergent,— Cagliostro, the Comte de St.-Germain, Adam Weishaupt,— Magicians with Munchausen tales and ever more extravagant effects,— Illuminati, Freemasons, Elect Cohens, many of whom, to my great curiosity, have found their way into Pennsylvania. They wander the town streets, they haunt the desert places, they are usually Germans. Woe betide the credulous countryman who falls under their influence,— or, as in the case of Peter Redzinger, is transform’d into one of them.

Adam Weishaupt (Ger. Whitehead, just as “Blicero” Weissmann’s name is Whiteman) was the founder of the Illuminati, that old favorite of all conspiracy-mongers. Mr. Pynchon invokes him here to illustrate that the gaps between religion and reality have made all of us prone to elevate those boys to gods through our conspiracies, even when the boys hardly deserve it. We need some explanation for that one-eyed pyramid on the dollar bill. We need to avoid anti-paranoia.

The dynamo, the conspiratorial focal point, in Bleeding Edge is the Deseret, an impossibly elite Upper West Side apartment building, part-owned by Gabriel Ice, in which all sorts of evil doings seem to have taken place, most notably that testing of a rocket launcher. Mr. Pynchon is frequently helpful in naming things, and this is a particularly ingenious choice on his part.

Mormon prophet Joseph Smith claimed that the word “Deseret” was etymologically derived from the Egyptian word for honeybee, and the hive is a perfect metaphor for conspiratorial dictatorship, with each worker doing its task mindlessly, and yet effortlessly fitting into an organized, functioning whole. ((Deseret was also the provisional state established in 1849 by Mormon “Moses” and bee-fan Brigham Young, encompassing most of present-day Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. Brigham Young—terrorist, 54-time polygamist, and ancestor of Orson Scott Card—banned blacks from the priesthood and took his congregation out west for the sake of “religious freedom,” i.e., unquestioned fundamentalism.))

Mr. Pynchon does not over-emphasize the Mormon parallel with American Puritans or with Israel, but it’s clearly there—in Maxine’s Likudnik brother-in-law Avi, in Windust’s terrorist activities in Latin America, in wheeler-and-dealer dynamo Gabriel Ice, in Tallis’s marrying Ice.

Deseret is the homeland for every oppressed group that battered away the thumb of the Man only to recreate the exact same oppressive racket once freed. It is the embodiment of the dehumanizing dynamo, referenced by Mr. Pynchon in V. and ubiquitous in all his work since (save Inherent Vice, where its near-total absence leaves the novel feeling strangely light). Bleeding Edge gives a large presence to Judaism, and particularly to two divergent paths of Judaism. Here, Mr. Pynchon’s Jews, so often the powerless scapegoats of so many conspiracy theories (including the granddaddy of them all, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion), are either the perennial sad observers like Maxine and her parents, or else aggressive powermongers like Gabriel Ice and Maxine’s Likudnik brother-in-law Avi. The author’s loyalties are obvious; he doesn’t demonize Avi, but he hardly cares to redeem him either. It should be remembered that, within days of 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz led the charge to link Iraq to the attacks with absurdly contrived conspiracy theories, a sad fate for a man whose father lost most of his family to the Holocaust.

Mr. Pynchon, if anything, idealizes the streak of self-preservation and resistance to oppression that has characterized Jewish culture throughout history, which is evident in Maxine’s father’s almost unprecedented aura of wisdom. The incessant intellectual curiosity, obsession with texts, and inability to let things be are all positive traits for him, all traits he portrays in opposition to the Eretz Israel mindset. The promised land was not intended to be a dynamo, but an idyll.


DeepArcher: The Idyll

Our explanations for the world, paranoid or not, are what stop us from being anti-paranoid “zombies”. But beyond paranoia proper, anti-paranoia also produces a second and more humane response, which is the faith in a safe haven, a space that resists the dynamo’s control and attempts to embrace the wretched of the earth. Mr. Pynchon does not believe in the reality of such spaces, but he believes in the therapeutic worth of the ideas of such spaces. 

In Bleeding Edge, the space is called DeepArcher, an online world invented by two hacker wunderkinder named Lucas and Justin. They quickly face a moral issue forced by Mr. Pynchon in uncharacteristically personal and clear-cut terms: should they cash in on DeepArcher, or release it to the open source community? It is a seemingly contrived moment, and the idea that DeepArcher is some amazing technology that could not be copied overnight makes it about as realistic as Imipolex G or Vineland’s Puncutron acupuncture-resurrection machine.

Princeton’s Global Consciousness Project figures into the plot of Bleeding Edge, based around analyses suggesting that on September 11, the random numbers it put out ceased being random. These analyses have since been debunked, and Mr. Pynchon knows it. Devastating for the first world’s psyche but negligible in terms of death and destruction, September 11 pales next to the horrors visited daily on the third world. Yet its anomalous nature renders it far more important to us “first”-worlders. Since Mr. Pynchon is chronicling the human mind and not reality, he pretends that September 11 did activate the human mind sufficiently to reverse entropy and briefly bring orientation to the undirected collective mass of human thought. It didn’t, but it sure felt like it did.

Similarly, DeepArcher doesn’t make sense as a real technology, but only as a mythic dream of freedom—a poetic idyll—in the minds of techno-libertarians and depressed lefties. In allegorical terms, DeepArcher is a Gnostic gateway into another place. That other place Mr. Pynchon terms the Deep Web, but it is no Deep Web that has ever been known. The real Deep Web houses drug dealers and child pornography. Mr. Pynchon’s utopian Deep Web is another of Mr. Pynchon’s amorphous liminal Zones, “history-free,” where ghost avatars of the recently dead congregate, where people are free to explore and exist without being seen by greater authorities.

As a Russian gangster says, “It is asylum, no matter, you can be poorest, no home, lowest of jailbirds, obizhenka, condemned to die…DeepArcher will always take you in, keep you safe.” Yeah, right. In fact, DeepArcher is the latest iteration of the Telluric Hollow Earth, the concave inner side of our planet which figures in both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day. Such dream-spaces disappear as soon as they are found to be scientifically impossible. ((In Mr. Pynchon’s work, such spaces also exist in more abstract forms. Against the Day’s Yashmeen Halfcourt writes skeptically of mathematics as “a reflection of some less-accessible reality, through close study of which one might perhaps learn to pass beyond the difficult given world”—until Cantor and then Gödel bring that idyll crashing down as well. I believe this is why Mr. Pynchon picked the Riemann Hypothesis for Yashmeen’s epiphanic moment: not only because it is a statistical approximation of the chaotic distribution of prime numbers, but also because it is still an unsolved problem, neither fixed in place nor shown to be unprovable. The Riemann Hypothesis still exists as an open door of the sort that we seem to need so badly. Unsolved problems are idylls.)) The pinning down of phenomena in scientific terms, whether it is Pavlovian conditioning, nuclear science, or even the postal system, functionalizes it so that it can be incorporated soullessly into the miserable ideology of your choice: capitalism, socialism, monarchy, democracy, you name it. Plato’s vision of the ordering of the soul, the high hopes of Kepler for cosmic harmony, and even Alan Turing’s dream of a computer indistinguishable from a human all derive a mythic resonance from the doubts that such things could ever be. More bleakly, Leibniz’s glorious dream of universal computation was finally killed by Kurt Gödel, just as Darwin had murdered the humanist idea of man existing halfway between animal and God. Likewise the pantheistic visions of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Goethe cannot seize us so totally now that they have been decisively shorn of absolute truth. The idyll maintains its shimmering, alluring quality precisely because of our lack of knowledge of it, as in Mason and Dixon:

          “Once the solar parallax is known,” they told me, “once the necessary Degrees are
          measur’d, and the size and weight and shape of the Earth are calculated inescapably
          at last, all this will vanish. We will have to seek another Space.”

By the end of Bleeding Edge, DeepArcher has become a resurrection machine, housing ghosts of dead characters, and the noir plot has dissipated into a more abstruse novel about collective memory, erasure, and power. Mr. Pynchon has always been obsessed with history’s losers, but he also realizes that history’s losers are lost to history. Their histories are overwritten and rewritten by the victors. As Fausto writes in V., “No continuity. No logic. History is a step function.” DeepArcher is a metaphor for how people “remember” the losers, how we reinvent them while imposing order on history, and how we occasionally realize the horrors of the process as we ourselves are sorted into winners and losers to be remembered and forgotten.

Lucas and Justin must decide whether or not to betray the “freedom-from” Idyll of the Deep Web and turn it into a capitalist Dynamo “freedom-to” (market, profit, colonize, oppress, observe, etc.). They touchingly make the right decision, but by the end of the book, this “Deep Web” is being colonized by commercial interests regardless, and it’s unclear what the actual effect of their decision has been. Perhaps it will turn into another Deseret. This is typically Pynchonian, effects being unpredictable from causes. But it also underscores the ephemeral nature of any idyllic haven: it is the idyllic idea that keeps us warm at night, that makes us think that the forgotten, and ourselves, can be remembered.

Yet there is another and more enduring idyll that emerges over the course of Bleeding Edge, which is family. Through it we reinvent our ancestors and anticipate our progeny, but it is a more benign process, in this case tempered with humanity and love.

After the WTC collapses, Maxine’s two boys, offstage for much of the middle of the novel, reappear for good, and she makes a quick detente with her wayward ex Horst, whom she fears died in the collapse. Her paranoia is quickly supplanted by sheer worry about him. Explanations can wait. Horst, who initially appeared as a repellent capitalist epigone, shows himself to be something far more pathetic—and therefore far more worthy. As Pynchon men go, he’s ultimately not so bad.

So Mr. Pynchon emphasizes the one unreconstructed archaism that predates all science and appears to refuse science’s questioning: family, and specifically child-rearing. Humanity does not specifically require any of our shattered and dying idylls in one particular form—be it God or universal computation or anything else—but one behavioral imperative is necessary sheerly for humanity’s continued existence, which is that we must have offspring and (to a point) care for them. Human babies do not survive without care, and so that behavior, at least, is with us as long as evolution controls us.

Have we come to the end of a Pynchon novel only to be told what Laclos said over two hundred years ago, “There is no happiness outside the family”? Mr. Pynchon’s version is closer to “There is no sense outside the family.”

It is a very conditional affirmation because the family cannot stand up to the rest of the world, and Maxine knows it. Several touching conversations with her father are among the most earnest and straightforward pieces of dialogue Mr. Pynchon has ever written, and perhaps function as the author’s testament to the good children of the planet who have not yet realized what the cosmos is really like: the sad shrug when parents first tell a child that they can’t fix things this time.

No Map of the World: The Three Motifs in Play

Pynchon Graph 3

The linear structure of Bleeding Edge masks its basic continuity with Mr. Pynchon’s mammoth tomes. The three structuring motifs—the Decoherence Event, the Dynamo, and the Idyll—remain central as ever. The strength of that vision, which is as powerful here as it is in Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, puts Mr. Pynchon far above superficially similar novelists (Messrs. Barth, DeLillo, Powers, Franzen, you name it) who either can’t keep their characters and plots from becoming transparently schematic representations of their novels’ monodimensional social arguments, or else collapse into free-floating and inconsequential self-referentiality and solipsism (in the case of Mr. Barth). Mr. Pynchon’s “polyphonic palimpsest histories” portray our give-and-take negotiation of shared social mythologies, rather than a structured thesis.

The interaction of the three principles occurs not once but many times in his novels; in terms of a Decoherence Event, 9/11 is just a particularly massive instance. Every government and corporation is a dynamo, just as Mr. Pynchon’s silly songs and Marx Brothers references are idylls—when Russian gangsters Misha and Grisha express their love of Yuri Norstein’s Hedgehog in the Fog, life pauses for their brief idyll. There are large-scale and small-scale events, dynamos, and idylls, and their interactions generate the tremendous complexity and chaos of Mr. Pynchon’s novels, while harmonizing evanescently.

It is an analogical vision. Mr. Pynchon’s heavy use of myth and mysticism in Gravity’s Rainbow (exemplified by his frequent allusions to Rilke) does not represent any particular allegiance on his part to supernaturalism, romanticism, or the irrational. DeepArcher is merely the latest iteration of such sentiments. He accepts that we all live in an era of all-encompassing scientific rationality and that only a bird-watching fool could deny it. Science didn’t win in a fight, it simply supplanted inferior systems which had gone before it by working better. Previous systems produced fewer predictions, offered less control, and less possibility of knowledge, but you cannot pretend not to have these things once you obtain them. You can’t unchew the fruit of knowledge.

Though critics have often accused his characters of being one-dimensional cartoons, Mr. Pynchon has just refused to adopt an idea of “character” that is restricted to the minds of liberal arts majors and a certain subset of Western readership. It can be a rich and complicated notion of character, but it by no means has an exclusive lock on truth. Rather, its hold is decreasing by the day.

Mr. Pynchon’s portrayal, appropriately, tends to be more functional. Traditional, internal character development is rare in Mr. Pynchon, and when it happens, as in Mason & Dixon, it’s tremendously noteworthy, very much feeling like a violation of the laws of physics: a particle or an object has managed to change itself through will alone!

Mr. Pynchon’s comparative lack of nihilism and enduring relevance do not reside in his characters. They stem from his unstinting expansiveness and unyielding effort in lining his novels up with reality. I am talking about reality in the loosest sense: the collective, shared consciousness and unconsciousness of Americans and other peoples.

Mr. Pynchon’s motifs play out not in character development but in a pageant of thematic oppositions—not because binaries exist, but because whenever one thing or character changes, we are conditioned (in Hume’s sense) to intuit a micro-causal pattern whether or not one really exists.

So while Tyrone Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow may or may not get an erection at a site before or after a bomb containing Imipolex-G (or not) hits it, that causal linkage is only hypothetical, set up to be questioned and undermined. Yet the postulation of that linkage sets up binaries (life/death, man/machine, white/brown, up/down, sex/death) that establish the spinal infrastructure of the novel. Mr. Pynchon is some sort of genius for having come up with this acausal model of narrative, because it makes his novels as inexhaustible and as elusive as Hamlet or Moby-Dick—though, evidently, not as “human.” We aren’t that human anymore. His emphasis on the dynamic systems of human society, portrayed in opposition and contradiction, makes him the heir to modernist writers like James Joyce, Robert Musil, Laura Riding, David Jones, Alfred Döblin, and Marcel Proust.

A novel like Gravity’s Rainbow is a tightly-bound succession of myths and countermyths duking it out with the powers that be, such as the indelible “Shit ’n’ Shinola”:

          Shit, now, is the color white folks are afraid of. Shit is the presence of death, not
          some abstract-arty character with a scythe but the stiff and rotting corpse itself
          inside the whiteman’s warm and private own asshole, which is getting pretty in-
          timate. That’s what that white toilet’s for. You see many brown toilets? Nope, toi-
          let’s the color of gravestones, classical columns of mausoleums, that white porce-
          lain’s the very emblem of Odorless and Official Death. Shinola shoeshine polish
          happens to be the color of Shit. Shoeshine boy Malcolm’s in the toilet slappin’ on
          the Shinola, working off whiteman’s penance on his sin of being born the color of
          Shit ’n’ Shinola.

Mr. Pynchon then compares the Hiroshima atom bomb impact to “a giant white cock, dangling in the sky straight downward out of a white pubic bush,” as the white death bests the brown death, Captain “Blicero” Weissman’s vision triumphant: “They saw him white: bleaching and blankness.”

These patterns play out in more relaxed fashion in Bleeding Edge, at least until 9/11 hits, but Mr. Pynchon’s structural principles have not changed. This time, though, Maxine, her father, and others see the pattern, and bemoan their simultaneous freedom and impotence: a world at once determined and chaotic, the same old shit recurring for an infinity of different reasons, impossible to predict and impossible to change. History remains impenetrable: the problem is not a lack of explanation but a surfeit of inadequate ones. Why did 9/11 happen now rather than at any other time? There is no sufficient reason. A million possible causes lined up and one happened to hit the jackpot.

This is the view briefly offered to the Chums of Chance in Against the Day, when they board Dr. Zoot’s time-machine:

          They seemed to be in the midst of some great storm in whose low illumination, presently,
          they could make out, in unremitting sweep across the field of vision, inclined at the same
          angle as the rain, if rain it was—some material descent, gray and wind-stressed—undoubt-
          ed human identities, masses of souls, mounted, pillioned, on foot, ranging along together
          by the millions over the landscape accompanied by a comparably unmeasurable herd of
          horses. The multitude extended farther than they could see—a spectral cavalry, faces dis-
          quietingly wanting in detail, eyes little more than blurred sockets, the draping of garments
          constantly changing in an invisible flow which perhaps was only wind. Bright arrays of me-
          tallic points hung and drifted in three dimensions and perhaps more, like stars blown
          through by the shock-waves of the Creation. Were those voices out there crying in pain?
          Sometimes it almost sounded like singing. Sometimes a word or two, in a language almost
          recognizable, came through. Thus, galloping in unceasing flow ever ahead, denied any fur-
          ther control over their fate, the disconsolate company were borne terribly over the edge of
          the visible world….

Divorced from both dynamo and idyll, this vision is much closer to the cosmos as it is, incessant motion wherein individual trajectories can sometimes be traced but universal laws remain inscrutable.

There is a paradox in Mr. Pynchon’s work. If the universe really is the godless, incomprehensible gumbo he portrays—and there seems to be every chance that it is—then it’s kind of silly to blame humanity for what it does. It’s like blaming the lottery machine for not giving you a winning ticket. This is where the critique of Mr. Pynchon as amoral is strongest: not in his paranoia, but in the ultimate lack of agency he attributes to humanity as a whole. He sees attempts to control and improve human destiny as intrinsically corrupt and corrupting. The bleakness comes not from the ruling powers themselves, but from the futility of human effort and rationality.

Bleeding Edge perhaps offers a ray of hope, that technology might provide greater awareness of our ignorance and so, perhaps, might let a greater degree of sanity through; that family might provide enough solace to hold us through the moments of anti-paranoia. It is a very dim ray.

The American Reader stopped publishing in 2015.
This is a living archive of our work.