False starts and red herrings

Thomas Pynchon’s cult novels are magnificently complex but ultimately empty
September 18, 2013
Bleeding Edgeby Thomas Pynchon (Penguin Press, £20)

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With Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon stays true to form—which is to say, he stays true to formlessness, stuffing his eighth novel with a madcap jumble of characters and conspiracies. Amid all the calculated disorder, the most discernible plot is this: during the interim between the dotcom bust and 9/11, a Manhattan-based fraud examiner named Maxine Tarnow starts looking into “hashlingrz,” a computer-security company under the control of a mysterious billionaire. Something strange seems to be afoot—money transfers to shell companies, ghostly creatures in the CEO’s wine cellar, Arab men huddled in a hidden lab on hashslingrz’s premises.

We know what will happen on 11th September, and some of the people in this novel sense it too. One “proösmic” woman has “been going around in a state of panic, short of breath, waking up for no reason, probed gently but insistently by a reverse sillage, a wake from the future.” A random-number generator starts spitting out non-random numbers—“abruptly, drastically, no explanation”—on the evening of 10th September. A week before the attacks there’s a sudden surge of put options on United Airlines and American Airlines, amounting to a massive bet that their stock prices are about to go down.

This potted summary makes it sound as if Maxine’s quest is a matter of connecting the dots, a steady advance toward a revelatory conclusion. And even though this is one of Pynchon’s shorter and more accessible books, he doesn’t go much for revelation, or conclusions for that matter. Every time Maxine closes in on a connection between hashslingrz and 9/11, her attempt to make sense of it all fizzles out. Other threads are left similarly loose—paranoid innuendo that simply vanishes from the narrative, dissipating into the ether. Even the examples of the random-number generator and the surge in put options, both of which were taken from real life, amount to little more than a Google-enabled case of “Hey, look at this weird thing I found!”

Critics have celebrated this quality in Pynchon’s work—this elaborate profusion of ideas without any clear winner—as evidence of a magnificent complexity, a visionary brilliance that cannot be denied. The critic Michael Wood notes that the later novels “diffuse paranoia by multiplying plots and suggesting the very notion of conspiracy is too simple.” His discerning observation is elegantly put.

But it elicits another question: so what? So what if the manic abundance in Pynchon’s novels—the false starts and red herrings and relentless conspiracy-mongering—reflect reality? So what if Pynchon knows that the world is full of cranks and fools, some of whom are right and some of whom are wrong, and maybe we’ll never definitively learn which is which? These insights might have been a scarce commodity when Pynchon first started writing in the late 1950s and early 60s, overshadowed by the bland stodginess of the Eisenhower era and the rigid ideologies of the Cold War. But today such knowledge can be had on the cheap; we can readily catalogue the weirdness of the world by submitting to the miscellany in the newspaper, or watching the non-sequiturs on television news, or spending a few bewildering minutes among the crackpots online. Boundary-pushing is defined by what the boundaries are at any given moment. Writing graphic sex scenes used to be revolutionary too—now, instead of obscenity trials for Lady Chatterley’s Lover, we have bookstands in supermarkets stocked with 50 Shades of Grey.

As a university student at Cornell in the 1950s, Pynchon first studied engineering physics, switching to English after two years. His best work does more than capitalise on his impressive facility with data; swaths of Gravity’s Rainbow, for instance, exude a palpable sense of comic despair—of information digested, rather than simply consumed. The Crying of Lot 49, which he later bemoaned for being too schematic, nevertheless vibrates with a compact intensity. But ever since his first novel, V., was published in 1963, Pynchon has been praised largely in terms of his encyclopedic knowledge; he seems to have an intimate familiarity with everything from 18th-century Malaysian condiments to the second law of thermodynamics to the early hits of Britney Spears. When asked to expand on their enthusiasm, his admirers will immediately enumerate his novels’ many wonders, marvelling at the connections between his works. They’ll cite the obsessive punning, the libidinous humour, the multitude of zany characters with zany names. A few years ago, one heroic soul named Patrick Hurley even took it upon himself to compile Pynchon Character Names: A Dictionary, registering more than 2,000 entries, from 187 (“see Barf, Billy and the Vomitones”) to Zwitter (“as Weisenburger points out, Zwitter means ‘hermaphrodite’ in German. Since we are given no information specific about his sexuality, we may read the name as one of many non-specific derisive names”).

I suppose it’s the unflagging amazement that amazes me, as if every scrap of Pynchoniana were startling and profound. At the same time, the experience of reading a Pynchon novel, what it actually feels like, is something that even his most ardent fans are hard pressed to describe. So I will say that Bleeding Edge elicited in me feelings of curiosity, amusement, boredom and exhaustion. I was gently entertained by turn-of-the-century arcana that we might do well to forget, such as Furbys and ironic trucker caps. I was worn out by an extended joke about Maxine accidentally ending up on a yearly cruise of the American Borderline Personality Disorder Association, visiting “literal geographic borderlines” (five points to the first critic who says this refers to the drawing of borderlines in Pynchon’s 1997 novel, Mason & Dixon) while a DJ repeatedly spins Madonna’s “Borderline.” I was mystified by the inane caricature of Maxine’s assistant, a black woman who watches the “Afro-American Romance Channel (ARCH)” at work and says things like, “Whoo!” and “Oh, you back? Listen, some muthafucker with white attitude called about 10 minutes ago.” Near the end of the book, we’re informed she “suspends her comical-Negro shtick for a minute” and directs Maxine to a case of pension fraud—and nope, having her wash off the blackface momentarily doesn’t make it knowing or funny.

Tucked between the conspiracy theories and vaudevillian comedy are a few arresting passages. An old uptown neighbourhood, slowly yielding to the relentless march of gentrification, will eventually be “demolished and bulldozed into the landfill of failing memory.” The “unnumbered 13th floor” of an ageing building “belongs to a disaster always about to happen, a buffer space constantly under threat of inundation from above if the pool—concrete, state of the art back then, grandfathered exempt from what today would be a number of code violations—should God forbid ever spring a leak.”

Pynchon has a particular gift for apprehending a scene, for conveying the resonance of objects and understanding their role in our lives. For all of the classified schemes and the hidden machinations that characterise a Pynchon novel, it’s often the visible world that seems to move him most. That won’t stop critics from reading all kinds of occult meaning into Bleeding Edge, but we might pay closer attention to Maxine’s filmmaker friend, whose chance discovery of the zoom feature on his camcorder has turned him into a favourite among film profs. While they construct theories on his “neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis,” he’s just doing as he pleases. “You can watch my stuff ‘til you’re cross-eyed and there’ll never be any deeper meaning,” he says. “I see something interesting, I shoot it is all."