Another epic Pynchon adventure, Bleeding Edge takes the reader into New York city in the early 2000s around the time the dot-com bubble pops. We have a female protagonist who, like Oedipa Maas from The Crying of Lot 49, is an interesting mix of street smart, gritty, insecure, and nurturing. We also have lots of little winks from page via Pynchon, including funny names, like hashslingerz.com, the company that is the focal point of this work, along with it’s CEO Gabriel Ice–great name for a bad guy. Rocky Slagiatt changed his name to remove the final “i” for anglification purposes. Eric Outfield is definitely a bit outfield with his foot fetish. Maxine Tarnow, “though some still have her in their system as Loeffler” the protagonist, is sometimes called “Maxi.” Normally, I wouldn’t think anything of this, but the fact that Pynchon has a character named “Koteks” in The Crying tells me that “Maxi” hints at more than just a nickname.
We have jokes galore in this work, as with any other Pynchon adventure. There are the customary plays on language: “When was the last time anybody suggested even this obliquely that she qualified as…maybe not arm candy, but arm popcorn?” (17). Also, plenty of jokey details related to the setting and characters. A bar that serves Zima on tap, for instance, and Conkling Speedwell, guy who happens to be a “professional Nose.” This detail by itself is pretty funny, but it becomes hilarious when Maxine sez* to him, “Can I pick your—never mind.” I also really love the tech jokes infused throughout this novel. For instance, during a party, two nerds fight over whether or not tables or CSS is a more effective tool for formatting digital content. It’s funny because I’m certain that argument happened in real life many times over, and it’s also funny because it really does situate this story almost fifteen years in the past—no one would ever use tables instead of CSS anymore!
There are also the typical Pynchon conspiracy theories in this novel, mainly focused around 9/11 foreknowledge, but also alluding to some contemporary issues like corporate control of the Internet and the way in which digital and analog reality can sometimes merge in an uncomfortable way. Related to these issues, there was also a fair dose of commentary, particularly about 9/11 and post 9/11 activity. For instance, “11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood” (336). And more broadly, a critique of the sometimes hidden costs of globalization: “[What we’ve always been is] living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs…planet wide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering” (339). These critiques come through loud and clear in Pynchon’s voice, and carry a weight with them that is perhaps due to the heaviness of 9/11. Pynchon is a New Yorker, so he was there, making these critiques and observations deeply personal.
One thing that I love about Pynchon is his vision, which is haunting, resonant, and metaphysical, combining science, math, history, and philosophy in a heady, hippie-ish exploration. The vision comes through clearly in Bleeding Edge. In one instance, Maxi and some of the other characters, are on a boat and they pass a garbage island out on the water. The description of this smelly heap evokes not only grossness, but the human tendency to get rid of unwanted stuff without considering where it’s going, or who is going to have to deal with it. The garbage island also echoes the inevitable human decay that we are all moving towards.
Every Fairway bag full of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is up in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything—suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero. (168)
Another spot where Pynchon’s vision really grabs me is after 9/11, and when the simulated reality game DeepArcher has gone open source, thus become accessible by many more people. As Maxine explores the simulated, digital world, she encounters the likenesses of casualties alongside their bereaved survivors.
[Their] likenesses have been brought here by loved ones so they’ll have an afterlife, their faces scanned in from family photos…some no more expressive than emoticons, others exhibiting an inventory of feeling ranging from party-euphoric through camera-shy to abjectly gloomy, some static, some animated in GIF loops, cyclical as karma, pirouetting, waving, eating or drinking whatever it was they were holding at the wedding or bar mitzvah or night out when the shutter blinked. (357)
For me, the image of people bringing their dead into a sim world was absolutely haunting, and resonant. It was the most striking image in this book.
The challenges of reading this book: as with any Pynchon epic, there is a long list of characters to keep track of (thank you wikipedia!) and all of those characters talk with the same vocabulary and in the same rhythms, so don’t expect anyone to sound different from anyone else. I think Pynchon’s characters probably all talk like him. He hasn’t really bothered to update his lingo, as evidenced by the use of “jive-ass” multiple times. There is an element of the convoluted—lots going on, and lots of digressive scenes and passages of dialog. However, Pynchon is pretty good at regrounding the reader. If you get lost just hang on until the next chapter and you’ll get your footing again. Probably the most challenging thing about this work from a technical standpoint, is that this big, dramatic event (9/11) is put off until more than halfway through this almost-five hundred page book. But once it occurs, it becomes a pretty central to everything. The trajectory is actually really similar to the airborne toxic event in White Noise, but DeLillo’s transition is a lot smoother, probably because White Noise is a much shorter novel. Also, the airborne toxic event, although clearly parallel to many of our own human-created disasters, is satirical, where as 9/11 is not. This is a real event that had a deep impact on the consciousness of all Americans, and particularly of New Yorkers. That makes it a bit difficult to digest as a plot twist 300 + pages into the book. Nevertheless, Pynchon explores the before, during, and after of 9/11 in a really interesting and honest way. And he does connect it back with tech, and with the larger plot of the book. The connection is maybe not entirely satisfying, but it does create some interesting movement in the plot and with the characters.
Overall, this novel impressed and intrigued me. I got lost a bit, and confused, but always managed to find my place again. There is a lot to admire in this work, but it definitely takes some stamina to make it through. After more than fifty years since the publication of his debut novel, V., Pynchon’s writing is still resonant, sharp, and crazy-metaphysical.
*Every time Pynchon writes the dialog tag “such and such says” he writes it as “such and such sez” which is definitely another playful Pynchon element.