Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
One hallmark of postmodern literature is a willingness to mingle high and low registers, and to subvert popular and recognizable genres of literature with material that might seem foreign or that frustrates customary expectations. By any standard, Thomas Pynchon is one of America's pre-eminent postmodern novelists, and his 2013 novel Bleeding Edge follows both of these customary procedures. I hope to demonstrate that Pynchon's purpose in Bleeding Edge is twofold: he is engaged in "historical fiction," but of a peculiar sort -- writing about the very recent past, in a novel that covers the events of September 11, 2001 -- and he is also writing a postmodern detective novel. In both ways, Pynchon is able to indulge a crucial theme which critics have identified as being central to his work as a whole: the idea of paranoia.
On the surface, Bleeding Edge would appear to be a novel about very contemporary obsessions: set in New York City in the years 2000-2001, it focuses on the tech community in Manhattan's "Silicon Alley." But the choice of information technology as a central subject is designed by Pynchon to highlight the notion that he is, in a very real sense, writing about the historical past. The fact that the September 11 events occur as part of the plot of the novel makes the reader aware that the time period is historical in the large sense, in terms of containing a large and significant historical event. But on the smaller level, Pynchon is engaged in a different sort of historicity: writing in 2013 for a country obsessed with smartphone apps and social media platforms, Pynchon is looking at the historical past of American Internet usage, making it clear just how technologically different the world of 2001 is from the world of 2013. But what is most interesting about Pynchon's approach to the subject is the question of the novel's form. Bleeding Edge is recognizably a detective story, although it updates or subverts most of the conventional tropes of the genre. The detective here is not a hard-boiled man in a trenchcoat, but Maxine Tarnow, a Jewish divorced mother of two small boys. Maxine is indeed a professional investigator, but she does not follow the normal practice of a novelistic detective: her area of specialization is cases of financial fraud. This would seem to be a dry subject for a novel, but in fact Bleeding Edge is a fast-paced thriller and works on the basic level of detective fiction in most ways (but not all, as will be demonstrated). The joke here is actually that Maxine is tipped off to the shady financial dealings of Internet businesses, when her friend Reg Despard tips her off early in the book to the dealings of the Internet billionaire Gabriel Ice, a sort of chilly mash-up of Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. Despard informs Maxine that Ice and his crew are not only financially dubious, they also do not seem to fit the profile of usual tech geeks:
A little evasive, "These people are not…what you usually find in the tech world."
"Nowhere near geeky enough, for one thing."
"That's…it? Reg, in my vast experience, emblezzlers don't need shooting at very often. Some public humiliation usually does the trick."
"Yeah," almost apologetic, "but suppose this isn't embezzlement. Or not only. Suppose there's something else."
"Deep. Sinister. And they're all in on it together."
"Too paranoid for you?"
"Not me, paranoia's the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much." (Pynchon 11)
In this passage, however, Pynchon reveals his larger thematic purpose in adapting a detective story to the purposes of more serious artistic fiction. This novel about the Internet and September 11 is also going to be a novel about paranoia -- the mental delusion that a gigantic plot exists, generally organized into a larger system. The question in Pynchon's novel is whether this is indeed a delusion or not.
Critics of Pynchon have written exhaustively on the role of paranoia in the novelist's earlier work, where it plays a central role. Bleeding Edge, published in mid-September of 2013, is still too recent as a work of fiction to have developed a substantial critical response (beyond initial book reviews) as of April 2014, but in some sense the novel can be most usefully be approached by reading it with an eye to the existing criticism handling the topic of paranoia in Pynchon. For a start, it is worth noting that the title itself would appear to be a play upon a phrase used by Pynchon in an earlier work dealing with paranoia, which is...
Technology can collect the information necessary to draw connecting lines among the most disparate data, and the drawing of those lines depends on what might be called a conspiratorial interconnectedness among those interested in data collection. (Bersani 102).
The title of the novel, Bleeding Edge, is a legitimate term in the Silicon Valley tech community today -- it refers to any form of technology that is so new, it runs the risk of damaging those who adopt it due to unforeseen consequences (like unreliability) of being forced to take it on. But the phrase itself is a pun on "leading edge," which -- as Bersani's citation from Pynchon's 1973 novel Gravity's Rainbow demonstrates here -- is used by Pynchon as a synonym for what paranoia is. Paranoia, according to Pynchon, is merely the "leading edge…of the discovery that everything is connected." Bersani glosses this paranoid worldview here as being one of "invisible interconnectedness" -- and although these quotations date from 1973 and 1989, it is astonishing how well they apply to the world of the Internet. In some sense, Bersani's analysis of Pynchon -- with its reference to the "conspiratorial interconnectedness among those most interested in data collection" -- sounds spookily prescient for having been written in 1989. It almost seems that, if the Internet had not existed, Thomas Pynchon's imagination would have had to invent it.
It is worth noting that, as an approach to the art of fiction, paranoia can also be used as a serviceable metaphor. What does a novelist do apart from imagine plots? The notion of seeing all events as interconnected sounds like a potential approach to reading a novel -- especially a detective novel -- when what is crucial is attempting to find the right answer. This is where Pynchon's use of the recent historical past becomes most interesting in Bleeding Edge, because in some sense he is able to toy with a number of profound dramatic ironies. Sizing up the Internet geek community in 2001 begs the reader to measure it against how important that community has become in 2013, and also sizing up criminal plots from the standpoint of how they seem in retrospect. For example, when Maxine Tarnow is following her investigation of Gabriel Ice, she happens to connect with a Mafioso named Rocky Slagiatt and his Russian mobster associate Igor. (Many of Pynchon's character names are jokes, and here "Slagiatt," which is described in the book as an Americanized Italian name, is also a popular Internet acronym: "Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time.") This leads to the following exchange, to be read remembering that Maxine's specialty as a detective is in financial fraud:
"Ask her," Rocky leaning in towards Igor's ear, "Go ahead, she's OK."
"Ask me what?"
"Know anything about these people?" Igor slides a folder in front of her.
"Madoff Securities. Hmm, maybe some industry scuttlebutt. Bernie Madoff, a legend on the street. Said to do quite well, I recall."
"One to two percent per month."
"Nice average return, so what's the problem?"
"Not average. Same every month."
"Uh-oh." She flips pages, has a look at the graph. "What the fuck. It's a perfect straight line, slanting up forever?"
"Seem a little abnormal to you?"
"In this economy? Look at this -- even last year, when the tech market went belly-up? No, it's got to be a Ponzi scheme, and from the scale of these investments he could be front-running also. You have any money with him?" (Pynchon 140)
Again, the timing of Pynchon's historical fiction is crucial -- the novel is set in 2000, but was published in late 2013. The revelation that Bernie Madoff's Wall Street investment firm was a vast fraud operation did not happen until late 2008 or early 2009. This is merely a moment in Pynchon's overall novel, seemingly unrelated to the central plot, but the purpose is clear: Maxine Tarnow is trained as a financial fraud investigator, but she is not presented as a genius. Pynchon's point is that the fraud perpetrated by Madoff would have been obvious to anyone with Maxine's…
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