In Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, lovable lead and burnout Los Angeles private investigator Doc Sportello stumbles across an early iteration of the world wide web. A young kid named Sparky, which in the Pynchon universe may be a nickname or an actual name, helps Doc use the emerging technology to track down a lead on a missing person, and adds that “someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”
The line felt like a teaser for Pynchon works to come. Expectations (mine, at least) went higher when it was made known that Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge would be set in 2001, his first foray into the networked age. It was reasonable to assume that the novel would center around precisely the kind of monitoring and manipulation that has paranoiacs and libertarians and even average citizens riled up these days. The approach would be perfectly consistent with his well-worn subjects of paranoia and conspiracy, not to mention journeys, as skips try to find places to skip to.
Which explains why it takes a while to realize that paranoia is not really what Bleeding Edge is about. It is not about shadow organizations like the Masons or the Pony Express using new tools and vulnerabilities to pull the levers of history. The internet in Bleeding Edge is not a monstrosity of ominous possibilities. Pynchon may one day write that book, but his focus in Bleeding Edge is on something different.
The book begins in the Spring of 2001, and follows Maxine Tarnow — another wisecracking PI in the Sportello mode, but this time an Upper West Side mother of two with an on-again-off-again marriage. The year-long span covered in the book captures a moment when the internet was severely weakened, and its great promise was being questioned. The primary reason for this discouragement was that a lot of people had lost a lot of money and influence in the dotcom bubble and bust of the preceding years. But the internet is also weaker here simply because it’s still in version 1.0. Recall, if you can, that these were days before everyone’s everything was on Facebook and Twitter; before online banking was the norm; when AOL was still the most powerful player in the mainstream web. Again, if you are old enough, you may remember that the web of those days was still a place that offered some semblance of anonymity, where we all goofed around under screen names and avatars, and well before anyone thought their online presence was anything that might come up in a job interview. Bleeding Edge almost feels like a period piece — where the poor bastards actually have to get to a phone if they want to call someone.
The point is that the internet of Bleeding Edge is a place where people can go to be unobserved, specifically, by venturing into a richly rendered Second Life-ish zone called DeepArcher where much of the action takes place. In the real world, or “meat space” as some of the kids here call it, the shadowiest of the characters hail from a previous and pre-digital era of the Cold War: former KGB who’ve gone private sector, and the kind of guy who once sparked coups and installed dictators on behalf of 1980s capitalism. The most sinister presence throughout is a potentially haunted apartment building (which, given its UWS location, I can’t help but assume is the building from “Ghostbusters”). This is still Pynchon, so there is still paranoia — it’s “the garlic in life’s kitchen…you can never have too much,” says Maxine early on. There is also mystery and history and politics; technology and gun fire and sex; there is possibly a band of time traveling child assassins; and there are what appear to be webs of causation — or at least, correlation — between individuals whose names appear again and again and Maxine and the haunted apartment building. And September 11th.
So what, then, is Bleeding Edge really about? To be honest, I didn’t really get it until after I finished reading the book (I said it takes a while) and came across Michael Chabon’s thoughts in the New York Review of Books. I strongly encourage reading his entire piece, but the important part to me was this:
Bleeding Edge is best understood not as the account of a master of ironized paranoia coming to grips with the cultural paradigm he helped to define but as something much braver and riskier: an attempt to acknowledge, even at the risk of a melodramatic organ chord, that paradigm’s most painful limitation.
Which is to say that Bleeding Edge is about September 11, 2001 as a serious and traumatic event that transcends conspiracies and paranoia. When Chabon talks about Pynchon acknowledging his “paradigm’s most painful limitation,” what I think he means is that Pynchon is chronicling the point at which the current of irony that propelled the culture in the 1990s shifted from being a product of boredom and hipness to being a product of overwhelming fear. If my meaning is not clear, try to remember how it felt to know that a man elected on the qualification of being “more fun to have a beer with” was suddenly thrust into the role of wartime commander-in-chief. Or trace the evolution of our collective sense of American-ness on September 12 to the dip shit swagger of ‘Murica that it’s become today. Or ask yourself which news sources you trust more: FOX, MSNBC, or the Daily Show. Absent any satisfyingly serious response to what happened, we stopped being able to take much of anything seriously. What does a little conspiracy and paranoia matter? Nobody cares if nobody cares.
Throughout Bleeding Edge, Pynchon refers to the event as “11 September.” I would call this brilliant, but it retrospect it seems almost obvious in its necessity. To return to the stunned aftermath, we must clear away 13 years of politics, history and branding. The inversion serves the purpose of returning us to the few days of sadness and genuine fellowship before anyone had offered solutions like “go shopping” and “keep traveling America,” or later, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” When someone said “Let’s roll” back then, it was a sad reminder of duty to the dead, and not just something that Optimus Prime says in a “Transformers” sequel.
It is this kind of transformation — where the gritty and painful truth gets sanitized and marketed into palatability — that appears to be happening all over Bleeding Edge. In its structure the novel follows the familiar route of a hard-boiled mystery, which is, I think, meant to demonstrate the hollowness of assuming that there are puzzle pieces to fit together. For once, the idea of a coordinated effort to do harm feels safer than the alternative, that a random group of malcontents can decide one day to cause such tremendous damage. But the real storyline that is unfolding is the larger cultural shift. I already mentioned the Cold War guys, who are now rich businessmen. In a brief moment in Times Square, Maxine goes on an extended internal rant about it being “Disneyfied” at the hands of “Giuliani and his developer friends and the forces of suburban righteousness,” and that she “can’t avoid feeling 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.” The same thing eventually begins to happen in DeepArcher, and the latest frontier starts to become Disney’s Frontierland. Hard refresh. Clear history.
Finally, the most important transformation, as Chabon helpfully illuminated for me, is a personal one. Before anything even happens in Bleeding Edge, we get a strange, almost clunkily idyllic opening in which Maxine is walking her two sons, who are “maybe past the age where they need an escort,” to their school up the block. She points out to them a pear tree that has been lit up by the morning sun; they are not terribly impressed, deadpanning “Awesome, Mom” and “Doesn’t suck.” Then: “At the corner, by reflex, she drifts into a pick so as to stay between them and any driver whose idea of sport is to come around the corner and run you over.” It is the first day of Spring 2001. And Maxine could no more shield her boys from a speeding SUV than she can protect them from what is coming.
– Michael Moats