Unreview: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

11BOOK-articleInlineAnother 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.   Continue reading

Quotes: On Being Really Human

DavidfosterwallaceWhat passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.

–David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest

Short Stories: “A Pursuit Race” by Ernest Hemingway

Vintage-Bicycle-Image-GraphicsFairyOne of my all-time favorite Hemingway short stories is one most people haven’t heard of.  In “A Pursuit Race”* William Campbell is in a pursuit race with a burlesque show.  This means he’s trying to stay slightly ahead of them as they travel from town to town.  He’s the advance man, and as long as he’s slightly ahead of them, he gets paid and doesn’t have to actually do any work.  He uses the money for drugs and booze.  This story was probably my first introduction to tragic satire, which over time has become my main squeeze–both in terms of what I like to read and what I like to write.  William Campbell is a tragic, loser-ish type of guy.  He gets caught in a cheap motel room by the manager of the burlesque show, Mr. Turner, “a middle-aged man with a large stomach and a bald head” who has many things to do. Campbell and Turner proceed to have a very funny, very sad dialog. Campbell remains in bed, hiding under a sheet, as he speaks to Mr. Turner. Hemingway uses the sheet as a comic prop: Here’s an example:

‘I got into this town last night,’ William Campbell said,
speaking against the sheet. He found he liked to talk through
a sheet. ‘Did you ever talk through a sheet?’

‘Don’t try to be funny. You aren’t funny.’

I’m not being funny. I’m just talking through a sheet.’

‘You’re talking through a sheet all right.’

Turner thinks that Campbell is a drunk, but he’s actually a heroin addict. This is revealed gradually through the dialog.  It’s what makes the story sad. But even as things turn more serious and Turner tells Campbell to “take a cure,” William Campbell’s love affair with the sheet remains a central part of the dialog.  When Turner sits down on Campbell’s bed, Campbell tells him “Be careful of my sheet.”

‘You can’t just quit at your age and take to pumping your-
self full of that stuff just because you got in a jam.

‘There’s a law against it. If that’s what you mean.’

‘No, I mean you got to fight it out.’

Billy Campbell caressed the sheet with his lips and his
tongue. ‘Dear sheet,’ he said. ‘I can kiss this sheet and see
right through it at the same time.

‘Cut it out about the sheet. You can’t just take to that
stuff, Billy.’

The story made such an impression on me that it found it’s way into my own writing pretty directly. In my short story “In a World Full of Crazy Talk” Bill comforts himself with a pillow after having an awkward one-night stand with Laura.

They were both quiet. He was resting his head on her shoulder and she was running her hand up and down his back.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t know what it is. I don’t know anything.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have to know anything right now.” Laura wanted to give him some of her thoughts to make him feel better, but she knew it wouldn’t work.
He sighed, and she saw that he was still feeling bad.

He rolled over and buried his face in the pillow. “This is the best pillow,” he said. “This is the best pillow in the world.”

Laura smiled and kept her hand on his back. She was adding things to her list.

Bill said, “In a world full of crazy talk, there is sanity in this pillow.” His voice was muffled in the pillow and his hair was sticking up in the back. She smiled and kept adding things.

He said, “This pillow. This pillow.”

There’s just something about tragedy and bedding that really, really go together. Sad
absurdity, sheets, and pillows.  It resonates.  I love Hemingway’s “A Pursuit Race.”  If you haven’t read it and you’re in the mood for something a little sad and funny (and a sheet) check it out!

*This links to Hemingway’s The First Forty Nine Stories in its entirety, so you have to do a control or command “f” and “a pursuit race” to get to the actual story.

Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s been maybe ten years since my first trip through The Crying of Lot 49 and I think this time around, I got a lot more out of it. My first time I thought it was just a silly book with a typical quest structure and lots and lots of allusions and silly names. Although I can see how some readers might be turned off by the absurd names, I found them hilarious–Genghis Cohen and Koteks are probably my favorite. Oedipa Maas is pretty funny too. I love The Courier’s Tragedy play-within-the-play nod to Hamlet, full of blood and incest, as well as the Beatles references. A guy who couldn’t drive his car because he couldn’t see through his hair? Too funny.

This time around, though, I detected more notes of sadness and existential angst– echoes of the entropy reference in John Nefastis’s perpetual motion machine. The desire to stop entropy seemed loaded with more desperation than when I initially read it: Oedipa looks in the mirror a couple of times and either can’t find her reflection or sees a distortion of what she thinks she should see–she is losing herself. “Someday she might replace whatever of her had gone away by some prosthetic device, a dress of a certain color, a phrase in a letter, another lover.” Also, some of her thoughts and reflections about Pierce verge on poignancy: “She remembered his head, floating in the shower, saying, you could fall in love with me.” And Tristero/Trystero carried a lot of echoes for me this time around as well: Tristram Shandy–probably one of the silliest books every written–and Tristan and Isolde–the super-depressing Wagner opera based on one sad-ass love story that’s been handed down forever….Triste (sad in Spanish) and tryst (a secret romantic rendezvous); not to say Pynchon intended any of this–it’s just where my brain went.

View all my reviews

Thomas Pynchon on David Foster Wallace

For those of you who are interested in the work of Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, or both, check out this article.  It came out a few years ago, shortly before the release of Pale Kings, Wallace’s posthumous novel.  Thomas Pynchon* has a lot of really interesting things to say about David Foster Wallace and the connections between them.

*Thomas Pynchon did not actually write the article–a little bit of meta-satire, and I was totally fooled, by the way.

Snippet: Documentation Leads Experience in Don DeLillo’s White Noise

Barack_and_Michelle_Obama_dance_at_2013_inaugural_ballI’m co-teaching a course this semester called Digital Identities and Participatory Culture. In class, we’ve been discussing some really interesting themes related to living a life online.  One idea I found particularly interesting is “documentation leads experience.”  Because people are always thinking about their online identities, what they can post or tweet or share, documentation leads experience.  People decide what to do based on how the pictures will be received on facebook. This image of the Obama’s dancing at the Inaugural Ball while EVERYONE in the audience either films it or snaps pictures kind of says it all: you’re at the Inaugural Ball and you’re watching it through a tiny little lens?*  

This immediately made me think about Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, which I’m in the middle of rereading.  There’s a scene near the beginning where Jack and his colleague Murray visit THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA:

We counted five signs before we reached the site.  There were forty cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot.  We walked along the cowpath to the slightly elevated cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits.  A man in a booth sold postcards and slides–pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot.  We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers.  Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.

A long silence followed.

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

No one sees the barn.  They only see a sign of the barn–even as they are photographing it.  Because the barn has been photographed so much, it has ceased to exist as a real thing and has essentially become a simulacrum, or a sign with a referent so distant that the sign actually becomes more meaningful than the thing it refers to.  Reality has been replaced with a representation.  Not only does documentation lead experience, but documentation IS experience.  

White Noise was published in 1985, long before the Internet really became a thing, and long, long before social networks.  

Is it just me, or is DeLillo kind of a visionary?    

Ricky Van Veen makes this exact point with this exact example in his TedTalk.  

David Foster Wallace’s Formative Reading List

An abridged version of David Foster Wallace’s most formative literary influences. In addition to the actual titles of books are some interesting DFW microclods taken from D. T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.


The newly released big biography of David Foster Wallace, entitled Every Love Story is a Ghost Storyand written by New Yorker scribe D.T. Max, gives a nitty-gritty look at Wallace as a troubled, tortured artist and human being. But DTM on DFW is also a primer on the growth of this particular writer — throughout the text we get mentions of the exact books Wallace read, and when, and how they formed his style. Here are just eight of them (one is a short story), along with the relevant excerpt from Max’s book. Follow along to become the next David Foster Wallace — or maybe just a little more well-read.

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