Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
Published 9/17/13 by Penguin Press
When I bring up the term “historical novel,” what comes to mind might be a poorly written Dan Brown novel, or Manhunt, the semi-fictional book about John Wilkes Booth’s killing of Abe Lincoln and his subsequent flight. Certainly, other classic novels, such as The Great Gatsby or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn might not be thought of strictly as “historical” novels, but they certainly capture, and to a certain extent, define what we know about a given time period. That’s the function of a historical novel: to serve as a portal to some time in the past, usually centered on a distinct era, an instrumental event, or a famous (or infamous) person or group.
Nowadays, however, the concept of historical novel is changing rapidly. A major part of this change is due to the “history accelerator” that exists in our current techno-fetishistic society. What I mean by “history accelerator” is not that time moves faster in our day and age, but that an event or product that happened or was released two years ago seems like an infinite amount of time ago, especially when compared to the newness of something two years after the fact in, say, 1890. Motorola Razrs, which were all the rage eight years ago, now seems like fossilized artifacts. Does anyone even remember when Ipads weren’t a thing?
This “history acceleration” occurs for two major reasons. On the one hand, the technology that is constantly released and improved upon, compared with our increasing willingness and skill to use the Internet and technology for almost everything, causes the technological framework of our society, which is increasingly becoming bigger, to constantly change and morph. This change incessantly tempts us, and succeeds for the most part, to change the ways we work (increase productivity) and interact with each other, making MySpace obsolete and Ipad Square credit card scanners the permanent alternative to old-fashioned cash registers. Secondly, the amount of history that is literally created is much more than it’s ever been. Of course, there have always been numerous publications and newspapers that document numerous events and happenings, but never to the extent that we see on the Internet. Add to that blogging, other forms of internet history-creating, the effect of technology on scholarly research, and the amount of information available to read just to get yesterday’s news, and the amount of historical text-artifacts is absolutely astounding.
Enter novelist Thomas Pynchon. As a 76-year-old novelist, and one of the most celebrated men of letters of all time, for works such as Gravity’s Rainbow and V, one would think Pynchon would have a hell of a lot to say about the Internet Age. In Bleeding Edge, set in Silicon Alley in NYC in the time between the dotcom-bubble burst and 9/11, Pynchon tells a story with enough interesting relationships, twists and turns, and profound insight to keep the reader interested and amazed throughout. While he doesn’t explicitly draw out any criticisms of the Internet age, he suggests many very interesting points about said age by showing how much things have changed in the past thirteen years.
Bleeding Edge tells us the story of Maxine Tarnow. Maxine, a de-certified but still practicing CFE (Certified Fraud Examiner) has been hired by her friend Reg Despard to investigate hashlingrz, a mysterious growing computer security firm run by Gabriel Ice, that Reg has been hired to make a film documentary about. Maxine tracks the financial dealings and footprints of the company, which leads her to many weird and interesting figures, including a computer hacker with an extreme foot fetish, a worker for a website called hwgaahwgh.com, a programmer of zapper fraud, and a “freelance professional nose” named Conkling Speedwell. The deeper she gets into uncovering weird facts about the company, which seemingly has connections to all kinds of weird events and places, the more inexplicable and sinister the actions of the company seem to be.
While most of the book’s interest lies in themes brought up in the plot, Pynchon makes some interesting choices with his writing. An interesting stylistic choice by Pynchon throughout the novel is his use of internet slang-related spelling. Throughout the book, he routinely forgets to capitalize certain words, misspells words, and never says “says,” but rather, “sez.” While at first it may seem that Penguin messed up and didn’t perform a thorough enough spell-check, it is soon realized that these errors were intentional. While I think that the extent to the meaning of this point is to poke fun at our culture that routinely shortens words for text messages, it is certainly representative of the fact that Pynchon has written a novel that is of and about our age.
Throughout , Pynchon gives us less his take on certain issues of society today than write challenging and interesting scenes with certain events and people coinciding and interacting with aspects of this society. His portraits of society come first, and any observations or criticisms are secondary, and usually made not by Pynchon, but the reader.
One issue he brings up is the societal trend for many people, predominately in liberal East Coast areas, to see psychoanalysts to sort through problems. The criticism of such a trend is not that people see psychoanalysts, but of the sheer amount of people who see psychoanalysts, suggesting that there are some people who get help who really don’t need it. It is very clear throughout the book that Maxine is a woman who has her shit together, and does not suffer from any mental illness such as depression or extreme anxiety. Yet, she sees a Zen “Emotherapist” (at the advice of a friend) named Shawn who instructs her to just go with the flow and such whenever she brings up a pseudo-issue. He is painted by Pynchon as a fraud, “compulsive surfer”, whose only “journey to the East (was) by Greyhound, from his native Southern California to New York.” He “speaks less to spiritual authenticity than to gullibility, otherwise seldom observed, among New Yorkers able to afford his fees.”
While for most of the novel, he seems to simply and exclusively spout meaningless pseudo-Zen facts on and on to the point that Maxine wants to just walk out on him and his sessions, he is very much on point when discussing 9/11 (which weirdly seems connected to hashlingrz, via Reg Despard’s covert film documentation) shortly after the event itself. When he talks to Maxine at one point about 9/11, he compares the Twin Towers to two twin statues of the Buddha he had talked about in a previous session: “The Trade Center towers were religious too. They stood for what this country worships above everything else, the market, always the holy fuckin market.” Shawn goes on to say, “Do you remember that piece of footage on the local news, just as the first tower comes down, woman runs in off the street into a store, just gets the door closed behind her, and here comes this terrible black billowing, ash debris, sweeping through the streets, gale force past the window… that was the moment, Maxi. Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.” His criticisms extend to himself: a lot of the self-helpy things that we do will be of no help if and when tragedy strikes. 9/11, in a way, put things in perspective.
It is extremely conspicuous that this character, labeled all but an idiot by Pynchon, who literally cut an appointment with Maxine short so he could catch a Brady Bunch marathon, straight turns in to an intelligent disciple of Slavoj Zizek and quite poignantly slams our society’s market worshipping, which has recently accelerated to never before seen levels when paired with today’s techno-consumerism and a priori “progress” being granted to any new technology. The tension between the former Shawn and the Shawn that critiques our society through 9/11 makes it very likely that this is a point that Pynchon really wanted to make, and may be close to his own views.
Following closely behind Shawn’s views on 9/11 is the most obvious tension at the heart of Bleeding Edge: that between technological progress and physico-emotional tragedy. No matter what kind of technology we develop, be it skyscrapers, iPhones, tanks, or cars, we are still very much vulnerable to the perils of the natural world, be it physical violence, depression, or events such as 9/11. Technology never affords us total protection. Of course, the form of this tension is represented in, and suggested by, the book by 9/11 and our time’s rapid technological progress . Walter Benjamin, near the end of his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, states, “The destructiveness of war furnishes proof that society has not been mature enough to incorporate technology as its organ, that technology has not been sufficiently developed to cope with the elemental forces of society.” As I’ve stated, I don’t believe that the destructiveness of war is the only thing that proves such a hypothesis. In any case, by looking through the lens of Benjamin at this central tension of Bleeding Edge, it is clear that it would serve us best if we avoid, as Shawn suggests, making technology a “god” and to lower our expectations of what we expect from it: another 9/11 could theoretically happen at any time, and it won’t be technology, or anyone’s fault. But we can certainly do more harm than good by blindly expecting technology to protect us from catastrophe, a view that we as a society are certainly closer to adopting. Hell, we already expect that throwing money into educational technology is what is going to help our students learn best, instead of ignoring the basic human elements that make good teachers.
While what Pynchon seems to suggest about our society is intellectually thought provoking, I am even more pleased by the way in which he brings up and discusses issues. Pynchon’s way of bringing up issues is the difference between critiquing by telling and critiquing by showing and suggesting. One of the goals of literature should be for us to interact with texts for the purpose of critiquing ourselves. When an author goes on lengthy diatribes about his or hew views, with the plot being secondary, then this goal of self and societal critique is not being tackled effectively. The best form of critiquing, and I should add that this is my opinion, is for the author to paint a vivid portrait of the recreated world in question not with her criticisms (if she has any) blatantly in the open, but for the text to function as a non-judgmental pseudo-mirror for the reader herself to create her own criticisms of. As you could see in the above section, Pynchon used Shawn to provoke thoughts in me, and my own thoughts and connections brought me to any conclusions or societal criticisms I have.
Pynchon’s form of subtle social commentary is very much welcome in an age where social satire is as annoying as it has ever been. Nowadays, we have skilled writers, such as Ben Fountain, who take some sort of event or issue, and satirize the shit out of it (In Fountain’s case, the Iraq War, in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Most people eat this stuff up: it is enjoyed both because of the high quality of writing skill of the authors and because the viewpoints expressed, which are hardly ever controversial, are almost always shared by those reading. The views function as a praise of the reader’s political views (Hey you hate Fox News! Me too!!!!!!). Pynchon gives his insight without shouting anything at us (unlike Jonathan Franzen in his recent The Kraus Project. Do not get me started on this. But of course, Franzen’s project is not a novel). Pynchon simply paints us a vivid picture of New York a little over ten years ago, and in doing so gives us the opportunity, as I’ve said before, to come to our own conclusions.
At the end of the day, for all of the suggestions the novel makes, Bleeding Edge is simply one hell of a novel, and one to be thoroughly enjoyed by those who enjoyed its close sibling, Crying of Lot 49. It is a joy to read, and takes us back to a time that, while only 10 years ago, seems like ages ago, and helps us a society to be more self-aware, especially as our framework is constantly changing. In this time of historical acceleration, we need authors like Pynchon who provide us, in such a way that we are challenged to come up with our own societal criticisms and not told what to think, with operative portals to times that we need to be increasingly aware of to intelligently progress during the Internet Age. If providing such a portal is one of the goals of Bleeding Edge, then it has certainly succeeded.
Note: This piece was originally published in the Swarthmore Review in 2013.
- Image taken the book’s wikipedia page.
- Image of Pynchon taken from Vice.
- Image of Zizek taken from The Charnel-House.
William Lennon is a writer based in Cleveland, Ohio.