Thomas Pynchon’s novels create a warped world ruled by paranoia and conspiracy. Pynchon rarely bothers to describe life as most of us experience it. He prefers to describe the irrationality of his own imagination, and his work violates almost everything we expect from a novel. He rejects straightforward narrative, coherent characters and clear motives for behaviour. His people are often streetwise weirdos with a streak of schizophrenia. Nothing hangs together in Pynchon’s world. Everything is unexplained.
Bleeding Edge sees Pynchon plug himself into the weirdness of the internet. The novel is perhaps his most realistic work, if only because the internet is already warped by paranoia and conspiracy. There are the usual 500 or so pages of Pynchon madness: the shady secret agents and shifty fraud merchants, the bizarre coincidences and broken connections. But the big surprise of Bleeding Edge is how tender it is. The novel makes an appeal for the survival of innocence in a hostile world. Pynchon wants to find a way out of paranoia and conspiracy, even as he forces the reader deeper into them.
The novel opens in spring 2001 as Maxine Tarnow, a decertified fraud investigator, walks her two sons to school on New York’s Upper West Side. The time and place announce that this is a novel which sooner or later deals with the destruction of the World Trade Center. But for now the streets are disturbed by nothing more sinister than the usual New York commotion. Pynchon establishes an almost idyllic scene. Sunlight falls on a pear tree as Maxine, in a reflex of parental protection, walks closest to the street to shield her boys from any wayward city traffic.
Pynchon’s high-velocity style is in evidence immediately. He has a great ear for dialogue, and the rapid-fire banter — particularly between Maxine and her sons, Ziggy and Otis — is one of the novel’s chief pleasures. When Maxine pauses in the street to appreciate the blossoming pear tree, Pynchon breaks into dialogue:
“Mom?” Ziggy in the usual hurry. “Yo.”
“Guys, check it out, that tree?”
Otis takes a minute to look. “Awesome, mom.”
“Doesn’t suck,” Zig agrees.
Ziggy and Otis’s voices help you see them standing on the footpath, impatiently rolling their eyes at boring old mum and her boring old tree. Elsewhere, in a neat touch, Pynchon describes the voice of the mysterious secret agent Nicholas Windust as “phoney as a cold call on an answering machine”.
There is too much going on in Bleeding Edge to provide a sensible synopsis. Most of the action concerns Maxine’s investigation into the dotcom billionaire Gabriel Ice, whose computer-security firm may or may not be in cahoots with the US intelligence services. The investigation brings Maxine into contact with hackers, bloggers, Russian mobsters, Mossad sleeper agents and trendy code writers. There are also plenty of paranoid conspiracies about the September 11 terrorist attacks. All of this comes together in the end, although it’s difficult to work out how.
But since this is a Pynchon novel, it doesn’t really matter whether it all comes together or not. Irrationality is what Pynchon’s world is all about. His relentless verbal energy and fascination with irrelevancies can certainly wear the reader down, but he rarely goes on for too long without nailing something which rewards your patience. Pynchon writes like an assault rifle with its trigger jammed. The bullets fly all over the place, often missing by miles and whizzing through the air. But occasionally they strike bang on target and the effect is spectacular.
Here’s Pynchon describing the moment Maxine enters DeepArcher, a virtual world buried online beneath the reach of conventional internet search engines:
The screen begins to shimmer and she is abruptly, you could say roughly, taken into a region of permanent dusk, [. . .] underpopulated streets increasingly unlit, as if public lamps are being allowed to burn out one by one and the realm of night to be restored by attrition. Above these sombre streets, impossibly fractal towers feel their way like forest growth toward light that reaches this level only indirectly . . .
There are many pages of freewheeling description of life inside DeepArcher’s virtual world. They have a lyrical beauty which serves no great purpose to the novel beyond being fun to read. In this way they are akin to DeepArcher itself. The place was conceived by two of Maxine’s Silicon Alley friends as a “virtual sanctuary to escape . . . the many varieties of real-world discomfort”.
This relationship between the real world — which Pynchon dubs “meatspace” — and the internet is central to the novel. After September 11, more people find their way into DeepArcher. Maxine wonders if they’re in retreat from the real world. She picks up a “chill sense that some of the newer passengers [in DeepArcher] could be refugees from the event at the Trade Center”. Pynchon spends very few pages describing New York as the towers come down. He’s far more interested in how the atrocity distorts the public imagination, and over time DeepArcher begins to display the same levels of paranoia Pynchon sees everywhere offline. It’s in this context — amid the twin conspiracies of the internet and meatspace — that the novel considers what kind of future exists for boys like Ziggy and Otis in such a hostile world.
“There’s no innocence,” Maxine’s father Ernie says in the novel. “Anywhere. Never was.” Maybe so, but Pynchon’s preoccupation with family connections in Bleeding Edge shows that he wants there to be. Time and again the novel returns to the domestic scene: Maxine walking the boys to school, Maxine having dinner with Ernie and the family, Maxine’s concern for her semi-estranged husband in the hours after the Trade Center is hit. This is an unusual emphasis for Pynchon; the novel really feels like the work of a writer coming to terms with the world. And while he may not like much of what he finds out there, he wants there to be a place for innocence somewhere. As everything falls apart, there’s a real yearning in Bleeding Edge for at least some things to hang together.