Thomas Pynchon Has Written the 9/11 Novel You Never Knew You Needed

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 6 2013 4:22 PM

“A Search Result With No Instructions on How to Look for It”

From the remarkable Thomas Pynchon, a novel of the dot-com era and the end of history.

Illustration by Dalton Rose.

Illustration by Dalton Rose

On Sept. 17, six days and 12 years after the atrocity, we get from Thomas Pynchon a precious freak of a novel, glinting rich and strange, like a black pearl from an oyster unfathomable by any other diver into our eternal souls. If not here at the end of history, when? If not Pynchon, who? Reading Bleeding Edge, tearing up at the beauty of its sadness or the punches of its hilarity, you may realize it as the 9/11 novel you never knew you needed. Who else but Pynchon can indict the sins of power while giving the sinner noogies of love? Who else could invent, as the name for a Queens strip club, Joie de Beavre? Who you gonna call when a screaming comes across the sky?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

Pynchon’s whacked-out magnum opus, Gravity’s Rainbow, treated mass death and the immortality of the individual soul as the stuff of grand dirge and radioactive slapstick. Having accomplished such a novel along those lines—a 760-page novel that is, moreover, only occasionally totally incomprehensible—is clearly a prerequisite for writing a 9/11 detective caper that alternates earnest condemnation of the military-industrial complex with jokes about cops eating donuts. Writing this way about our home turf is Pynchon’s home turf. Bleeding Edge feels a bit inevitable because from the first, in V., Pynchon has been writing history as tragic farce. At the outset, V.’s hero heads for New York with a Mediterranean barmaid whose vision of America is the bare-bones entry-level dream—“enough food, warm clothes, heat all the time, buildings all in one piece.” In Mason & Dixon, the ravishing masterpiece, he mapped our country and our cosmos, as in a conceit supposing that surveying the territory closed off the sublimity of terra incognita, “changing all from subjunctive to declarative, reducing Possibilities to Simplicities that serve the ends of Governments,—winning away from the realm of the Sacred, its Borderlands one by one, and assuming them unto the bare mortal World that is our home, and our Despair.”

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Bleeding Edge is not so major a book as any of those three. It’s more on the order of Vineland—a genre-drunk, ganja-fried study of place and paranoid mood, with a certain ceiling on its explorations of character, a lovely unconcern for those snoots who find its meta-pop sensibilities lacking, and down the home stretch a laggardly quality as the narrative threads of its shaggy-dog subplots get matted. But it strikes me as a necessary novel and one that literary history has been waiting for, ever since it went to bed early on innocent Sept. 10 with a copy of The Corrections and stayed up well past midnight reading Franzen into the wee hours of his novel’s publication day. As I recall, literary history then slept in and woke to an alarmed answering machine exclaiming rare questions and soon was on the roof in Brooklyn, where people watched the “terminal plume” (as Pynchon calls it) from across the river—“from a place of safety they no longer believed in.” This new book gives you more of that, with much broad comedy and fine nuance, plus beauty in the despair and also something called “DESPAIR”—one of those patented har-de-har acronyms the novelist cannot even bother to pretend to try resisting—the “Disgruntled Employee Simulation Program for Audit Information and Review.”

We mingle with the disgruntled because the protagonist of Bleeding Edge is a private eye who sometimes turns her ears to whistle-blowers. And she also registers messages sent on esoteric ultrasonic frequencies. Maxine Tarnow—immediately and adorably palpable in her needs and her chutzpah—is a fraud investigator who operates out of her native Upper West Side. She has been the sole proprietor of Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em since losing her license as a Certified Fraud Examiner in connection with some conflict-of-interest run-ins. Living outside the law, she earns an honest living examining embezzlement, combining cynicism and idealism like any gumshoe in fedora and trenchcoat, and as the book begins in the spring of 2001, she’s picking up a lot of business from Silicon Alley, a neighborhood littered with balance-sheet debris after the bursting of the Internet bubble. We’re not sure of Maxine’s exact age, but she is old enough to be the noodgy Jewish mother of two boys in early adolescence—and old enough to know better than to dally romantically with the men that she has seen since splitting from hubby Horst Loeffler, a Lutheran from the Midwest “emotional as a grain elevator.” The first act introduces Maxine’s Beretta, frequently packed not in a holster but her Kate Spade bag.

The whistle motivating the plot alerts Maxine to suspicious goings-on at a computer-security firm called hashslingrz. (I should think that, invoking the laws of fiction, a prosecutor could indict the company’s billionaire CEO on felony charges simply on the grounds of his archvillainous name, Gabriel Ice.) Working the phones and the legs, wiggling her antennae and her butt, Maxine discovers that hashslingrz has more limbs than a Hindu goddess of destruction—fingers in plenteous virtual pies, hands in many an HTTP cookie jar, tentacles extending to disburse payments to phantom contractors, funnel money to mystery emirs via hawala, play shell games with shell companies, scratch the backs of well-organized criminals, and exchange secret handshakes with clandestine Establishment operators. Maxine discovers rampant evidence of a crime that is arcane, insidious, and omnipresent. If pressed directly, Pynchon would describe Ice’s systematic felony as a little something called “the global economy,” a force against which the book keeps up a blue flame of ire. A cranky activist fumes that “late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale.” A Russian gangster assesses Doom on Game Boy as “post-late capitalism run amok.” The narrator describes an ‘80s New York plagued by AIDS, crack, and “let’s not forget late fuckin capitalism.” Bleeding Edge seems written in the belief that Osama Bin Laden was acting on behalf on the invisible dirty hands of the marketplace.

Does Maxine get to the bottom of things? No—there is no bottom, but as we track her sleuthing, we see many sides of the “meatspace” (as opposed to cyberspace) that was Gotham, with its cozy greasy spoons and its existent middle class. Yes, Pynchon can be slightly dreary when going on about what Giuliani and Goldman Sachs did to New York. He can seem like another crank with a Zabar’s bag when describing Times Square as “Disney Hell,” discussing the “diseased Hamptons fantasy” of affluent leisure, and railing about the vapidity of the Upper East Side. Sophisticated people have made peace with these elements of New York, you think—and then maybe wonder if that peaceful sophistication implicates them as part of the problem.

His view of the tech world is captivating. Though he doesn’t attempt any grand-scale Balzacian social analysis of Silicon Alley, he gives the full Fitzgerald swoon to passages describing the ritual sacrifice of innocence on the altar of IPO ambition and also to a dot-com party that unfolds on Saturday, Sept. 8. The theme is “1999,” and guests pretend that the bash of the boom isn’t already over. The novelist imagines Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as the tune playing the partygoers out the door, but he evokes the jangly energy of the end of the end of that era like he’s spinning the Strokes’ first album:

“Former and future nerdistocracy slowly, and to look at them you’d think reluctantly, filtering back out into the street, into the long September which has been with them in a virtual way since spring before last, continuing only to deepen. Putting their street faces back on for it. Faces already under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamor of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not be lost, the 3:00 am kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the start-up parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night—which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fiber and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces public and private, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of—to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions on how to look for it?”

Thomas Pynchon guest starring on The Simpsons, 2004.
Thomas Pynchon

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

Pynchon is grimly wacky with some details in his postgame analysis of that dot-com mania. I need to point out to the youngsters that he is not committing hyperbole in giving one of Maxine’s contacts a line of dialogue reminiscing about the party-time splurges of the dot-com heyday: “That time they had all the naked chicks out in the freight elevator covered with Krispy Kreme donuts?” Naturally and wonderfully, the novelist—always eager for a chat about communication and to go kabbalistic when assembling knowledge about information systems and intelligence communities—further arranges for Maxine to receive mysterious tapes and files from a bike messenger laid off by Kozmo.com, that great exemplar of boom idiocy referenced above, with its business model promising one-hour free delivery of impulse purchases.

And then there’s DeepArcher. Among Maxine’s contacts and collaborators—who include mobbed-up VCs, hapless hackers, self-made Zen masters, WASP idiots at Langley, friends’ boyfriends at One Police Plaza, and a seductive sadist from some nameless and godless U.S. secret agency—is a mom from her kids’ school, recently transplanted from California. Back in Palo Alto, her husband and his business partner developed a utopian underworld of an app—“a virtual sanctuary to escape to from the many varieties of real-world discomfort”—called DeepArcher. It exists way down on the Web, beneath the attention of bots, as an adventure-game maze of unretraceable pathways descending infinitely. On the splash screen, the title figure peers into an abyss that is not an absence but “a darkness pulsing with whatever light was before light was invented … the immeasurable uncreated.” When Maxine sends her avatar plunging into it, hard-core Pynchonians may recall a dream that V.’s Benny Profane had shortly after his arrival in Manhattan: “Walking on a street at night where there was nothing but his own field of vision alive.”

What’s down there? Nothing and everything, and metaphysics that are handsomely coherent and readily legible, by Pynchonian standards. (I mean, the book is Out There, but that’s where the Truth is.) The feeling of the space of the no-space of DeepArcher foreshadows the vibe Maxine picks up when tiptoeing through the cellar of Ice’s Long Island hideaway (which may connect to a hush-hush government installation). And of course it rhymes with our consciousness’s collective free fall into the future. And especially it suggests the twilight state where Pynchon thrives, lucid dreams bleeding into the obscure “reality” and the nightmare of history.

Bleeding Edge, then, says Kaddish for old New York and slow boils a noir fantasy pointing toward the character of America’s future. It has the ring of a valediction and the heft of a summa in the way it insistently directs the knowledgeable reader elsewhere in the Pynchon corpus, to his earlier riffs on heat death and harmony and encounters with the infinite. In particular, these helical slides of reference and dotted throughlines of theme carry us back to The Crying of Lot 49, which was until now the recommended entry-level Pynchon—a relatively straightforward introduction to the master of the labyrinthine, with his hard facts and otherworldly hunches. The protagonist there was Oedipa Maas (another woman decoding the ciphers of the Man), and the new book pointedly and repeatedly pushes us back to the moment of a crucial phone call Oedipa received: “She'd been up most of the night, after another three-in-the-morning phone call, its announcing bell clear cardiac terror, so out of nothing did it come, the instrument one second inert, the next screaming.” It is very often 3 a.m. in the world of Bleeding Edge with the terror more present than ever, and the reader in want of the basic comforts—food and clothes and heat all the time, buildings all in one piece.

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Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press.

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