Friday, October 04, 2013

Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (2013)

The first question any Pynchon nerd would have about Bleeding Edge: does it continue the tradition of including at least one character from one other Pynchon novel?  All previous Pynchon novels have been connected this way (Mason & Dixon, the chronological outlier, featured an ancestor), so we can say they all take place in the same universe.  Now, keep in mind that, though I've read most of Pynchon multiple times, my memory for the names of the hundreds (thousands, I suppose) of minor characters is far from perfect, and therefore I could be missing something, but as far as I can tell, the answer is an extremely disappointing "no."  Given the novel's politics, it would've been so easy to have one of the radicals from Vineland make a cameo…but alas!  Not all is lost, however: at one point, some characters sing a snatch of a song of Pynchon's invention that was playing on the radio at one point in Inherent Vice (as of right now, even the capacious Pynchonwiki does not make note of this.  Scooped!).  So we can still make a connection, however tenuous.  But the only possibility if we want to continue the "character" streak is for Pynchon to write another novel featuring both someone from Bleeding Edge and from one of the others.  Make it so!

Bleeding Edge takes place from Spring of 2001 to early 2002.  It is about Maxine Tornow, fraud investigator and sort-of-divorced mother-of-two, who is engaged to investigate shady doings at a computer security company called hashslingrz (the story is mainly focused on hackers and other tech-geek-types).  In a surprise twist, it turns out that this shit goes deeper than expected.  

The most impressive thing about the novel is the way it effectively historicizes 2001, letting us see it as a separate age rather than just another part of the Now.  Of course, history, especially such recent history, is part of the now, but we can't really understand it if we can't conceptualize it as being in some fundamental way separate from us.  Or so I think!  And Pynchon really does paint a vivid picture of an era, in the same sort of hypersaturated colors that he used to depict the sixties in Inherent Vice.  Even by his standards, the book is positively drowning in pop culture references, and while it's somewhat surreal to see Thomas Pynchon making reference to Dragon Ball Z or Daikatana, I must say, it works for the most part.  It only occasionally feels like he's trying too hard, and he rarely if ever seems like an out-of-touch old guy trying to connect with The Kids (which, given that this is the sort of detritus that I and people my age grew up with, seems like an especial danger from the perspective of someone like me). 

When I reread Inherent Vice this past spring, I felt like my opinion of it was confirmed: fun, but lightweight and by far his least essential.  But now with Bleeding Edge here, man, I don't know.  It should be kept in mind that I wasn't all that enthusiastic about Vineland the first time I read it either, but that I was blown away upon rereading, and that now I bristle at the idiots (YES!  I SAID IT!) who persist in calling it "minor Pynchon."  So my opinion of Bleeding Edge could similarly improve.  I absolutely intend to revisit it one of these days.  But my initial opinion: underwhelmed, I am very sorry to say.  There are obvious basic similarities between it and The Crying of Lot 49: both feature a female protagonist trying to deal with a seemingly straightforward problem and ending up getting bogged down in conspiracies and rings within rings.  But, while Maxine is a generally well-drawn character (no Oedipa Maas, though!), the problem is that while things seem to, and clearly are meant to, be getting deeper and more confusing, they're really not, particularly.  There's just a long series of characters and companies and mysteries that she just sort of bounces between, and there's no sense that any of this is leading in any particular direction.  It gets…a little tedious, I have to say.  Certainly it's his most plotless novel.  Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of compelling characters (exception: Maxine's sort-of-ex-husband Horst.  I feel like a book concentrating on their relationship would've been more compelling), and very little really emotion.  The constant, monotonous use of extremely stylized, clever-clever dialogue (the same as in Inherent Vice, only more so) doesn't help either.  Effective occasionally; tiresome often.

Oh yeah, and it's a 9/11 novel, isn't it?  Well…yeah.  Kind of.  It happens about two thirds of the way through, and Pynchon wisely doesn't spend a lot of time wallowing in the tragedy itself.  But a lot of characters express a lot of strong opinions about the events, and there's a lot of seemingly unrelated yet vaguely ominous foreshadow-y kind of stuff.  But--and it kind of kills me to say this--I'm really not convinced it actually adds up to anything.  Of course, that indeterminacy is a postmodern hallmark (the whole point is that we cannot know whether Tristero's a real thing or an elaborate delusion), but here it just feels like, man…if you have something to say about 9/11, great, but if not, well…again, my opinion may well change upon rereading.  I hope it does.  But here is where we are now.

And hey (as long as I'm criticizing an author I Iove), it sure is kind of creepy the way Pynchon keeps depicting female characters with a yen for a very particular kind of degrading sex.  Not that there aren't women who are submissive in that way, and not that there's anything wrong with that, but gosh--when we keep seeing it over and over, it starts to look more like male fantasy than anything else.  You could argue that it actually makes thematic sense in Vineland and even more so in Against the Day (and I did just that in one chapter of my dumb ol' dissertation!), but in Inherent Vice and Bleeding Edge?  It's just kind of there for the hell of it.  Being creepy.  Bah.


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