Thomas Pynchon may have finally met his match. I don’t mean that another novelist has superseded him—the wily old postmodernist remains as fine a writer as we have. Rather, in his new novel, Bleeding Edge, Pynchon has encountered a subject that resists even his ample literary capacities.
I am referring to the Internet, which in this curious detective novel is for Pynchon what Los Angeles was for Chandler, a lurid tangle of paths whose only aim is to obscure. Keep in mind, too, that Bleeding Edge is set in the summer of 2001, after the dot-com bubble burst but before the towers fell; the pre-Twitter, pre-iOS Internet of that bygone age seems like Delaware in comparison to 2013’s digital Montana. And yet to write about the Internet, any Internet, is to paint the ocean while underwater. Not only is the medium vast and ever-expanding, but it is gleefully self-referential, loving nothing so much as to talk about itself, on its own terms and turf. It is impossible to explain outside its own experience, sort of like jealousy or the taste of tomatoes in the late summer.
This endlessly connective, suggestive, allusive medium thus poses a problem for a Pynchon, the master of connection, suggestion, and allusion. Nobody has yet written a great Internet novel precisely because the signs and symbols of the Internet do not reduce easily to print. For all the talk of hypertextual fiction, it remains little more than a graduate student’s dream. Outside of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves and, less intentionally, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, there are few novels that even attempt to genuinely reproduce the state of existing online. The latest to try is Tao Lin, whose colloquial, digressive fiction mirrors—for better or worse—the experience of wasting an afternoon on Facebook.
Pynchon does not make much of an effort in that regard. His is the traditional novel about the Internet, rather than an Internet novel about the same. He does faithfully reproduce the dawning of the Age of Google, the way techno-liberation slips into techno-addiction and, finally, techno psychosis, the Internet becoming “a Mardi Gras for paranoids and trolls, a pandemonium of commentary there may not be time in the projected age of the universe to read all the way through.” Or, elsewhere, “a void incalculably fertile with invisible links.”
Into that void Pynchon tosses Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator tasked with looking into the allegedly unscrupulous activities of Gabriel Ice—a “pioneer dickhead,” as one character calls him, or “just another dotcom douchebag,” in the generous words of another. The reader dutifully follows Maxine from hashslingrz to DeepArcher to Tworkeffx to Darklinear Solutions, from “Yupper” West Side apartments to Tribeca lofts where the “Herman Miller workpods [are] already beginning to decompose.” There are some promising allusions to the Montauk Project, a secret military enterprise taking place on the eastern tip of Long Island that has long kept real-life paranoids awake. But nothing comes of it. Nothing comes of any of this, frankly. The effect of the first half of Bleeding Edge is rather like clicking through a long succession of pages, unable to find what you’re looking for, the screen constantly occluded by distracting pop-ups.
I hate to carve up a book into parcels, to evaluate art with that crass finality of the food critic judging course after course. But there’s no other way to approach Bleeding Edge, Pynchon’s eighth novel. The second half of the novel, which takes place in what Pynchon cleverly calls “meatspace” has the more traditional feel of a high-stakes procedural—and yet is far superior to the jumbled comico-techno-thriller that proceeds it. Maxine reunites with her husband, Horst, and her pursuit of Ice crystallizes into something cohesive. A pair of Russian rappers-cum-mafiosi help move the narrative along, as does an ethereal operative named—in classic Pynchon fashion—Windust.
And then, a September morning. Pynchon can’t help but engaging in some 9/11 trutherism, with the villain Ice potentially facilitating the movement of terrorist-related funds; the man flocks to conspiracy theories like a bear to honey. But overall, Pynchon’s treatment of a vulnerable, wounded New York is surprisingly humane. On occasion, it is outright beautiful, a reminder of how lyrical he can be when not making cornball jokes about Anal Teen Nymphos Quarterly or Christopher Walken starring in something called The Chi Chi Rodriquez Story, the latter being a strand of celeb-biopic jokes that runs fruitlessly throughout much of the novel.
In moments of calm and discipline, the man can write with genuine insight about “the landfill of failing memory” into which our private New Yorks are eternally shoveled, “the childlike hope and depravity” of late-capitalism Manhattan, and the Internet, “that vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of.” He also pulls one of the trickiest novelistic feats, an accurate yet original description of the sky, describing it over New Jersey as “a pale battle flag of the ancient nation of winter.” Yes, Tom. Yes.
It is a crime to have the capacity to write such sentence and yet resort to MILF jokes—and yet Pynchon, ever the hyper-puerile teenager, does. Also, jokes about Britney Spears dressed as Jay-Z (or is it a Britney Spears imitator…you know what, forget about it), Carmen Electra and several at the expense of poor, unloved Zima. I suspect that in part, this is because, as a writer who came of age during the countercultural Sixties remains suspicious of seriousness as the value of squares. It may be so. But humor unchecked is simply silliness.
As for the inevitable ranking of Bleeding Edge in the Pynchonian oeuvre, let’s just say it is no Gravity’s Rainbow or V or Lot 49. Those who care about such things will know exactly what I mean. It is more serious but somewhat less enjoyable than his last effort, the gently stoned Inherent Vice. I think there remains in the man at least one more huge, great novel.
When Pynchon first started writing fiction in the late 1950s at Cornell, a good number of Americans still did not have televisions. Today, I have all of Pynchon’s novels on a device the size of a deck of cards (Penguin released his novels as e-books last year). And though Pynchon’s curiosity is unrivaled, his themes have largely stayed the same, centering on a sweaty quest for the unspoken unattainable that propelled his first novel, V. What others call his paranoia I think is merely curiosity unchecked. “Dark possibilities are beginning to emerge,” he writes at one point in Bleeding Edge. They always are.