Wednesday, September 18, 2013

A Few Notes On Thomas Pynchon's Bleeding Edge

Pynchon's previous novel, Inherent Vice, was set in Los Angeles at the tail-end of the 1960s, a rambling comedic noir in which a stoner private eye. Doc Sportillo, became involved in a kind-of-or-maybe-not conspiracy after his ex-girlfriend disappeared. Bleeding Edge is a kind of thriller set in New York in 2001, just after the implosion of the dot-com bubble, in which decertified pistol-packing not-quite-divorced self-styled 'Bad Accountant' Maxine Tarnow tries to balance Upper-West-Side family life with an investigation into the dubious finances of hashslingrz, a computer security firm involved in 'Crypto work, countermeasures, heaven knows what-all.'  In Inherent Vice, ARPANET, the evolutionary precursory to the Internet, was Doc Sportillo's occasional oracle. Here, the vast epicycles of conspiracy bleed into the echo chambers of cyberspace, contaminating the primal innocence of its virtual utopias.

Although there, of course, a lot more to it than that, including mobsters, Russian gangsters, a vastly detailed virtual reality, Silicon Alley chancers and casualties, a manipulative operative who may or may not be a kind of time-travelling spy, a nasal forensics expert obsessed with Hitler's aftershave, 9/11, and so forth. As well as the usual plethora of jokes, songs and deliberately bad puns, and esoteric facts too weird to be fictional, and a vast cast of eccentrically-named eccentrics, all armed with conflicting ideas and opinions. It's a very talkative novel; Maxine's investigative techniques primarily involve conversation rather than interrogation, preferably over a nice long meal.

In a genre novel, there would be a steady accumulation of pertinent knowledge - plot tokens - leading to revelation and denouement. Here, the central villain, the tycoon who owns hashslingrz, Gabriel Ice (surely a nod to William Gibson's cyberspace fictions), mostly lurks in the shadows, and instead of answers Maxine's investigations yield an accumulating sense of vast and shadowy machineries half-glimpsed, plots and counterplots that melt away as soon as they're exposed to scrutiny, connections made but never followed up because there's always another connection to be made.

Pynchon's attempt to blend the actual outcome of an actual conspiracy into his umwelt almost works because he doesn't try to document it. It happens offstage, in the last quarter of the novel.  'Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse. All day long.' What we don't quite get, after the event, is the real sense of bad turning to worse - just talk about it, sometimes uncritically invoking truther conspiracies, advancing the theory that 9/11 was an emergent event that could be predicted but not prevented, seized by those in power as an excuse to scare and infantilise. Commercialised and claimed like the unmapped potentials of the Internet.

But besides all that, Bleeding Edge is a beautifully evocative love song to the city so good they named it twice, poised at the cusp between the dirty old New York and the regooded disneyfied version it has become. A city that back then was still a cacophony of cultures and cuisines and languages, where, despite the looming shadows, the tender quotidian and rich eccentricities of human life could yet flourish.


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