Reading Bleeding Edge was a perplexing return to my late childhood of long dial-up loads, collectable plushie toys, F.R.I.E.N.D.S, and an unhealthy relationship with video-game consoles. Written fifty years after his first novel, V, Pynchon transposes his familiar devices of character mayhem and narrative confusion this time to the awkward millennial space around the dotcom boom and 9/11. The novel bleeds (haha) with post-millennial syntactically corrupt internet memes (such as 1337speak and AYBABTU), jokes about the awkwardness of technologies’ new-fangledness, nods to video game characters (and enemies), and obscure pop-culture references that even I recognised from the most impenetrable parts of Pynchon’s prose to which I naturally caressed my thick-rimmed glasses out of self-congratulation.
We follow Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator with the multi-tasking skills and abilities of a Swiss-Army penknife, who hones her detective expertise on the peculiar behaviour of a computer-security firm, hashslingrz, founded by the mysterious Gabriel Ice, all the while juggling bringing up her two sons, and making time for a rainbow of other quirky characters who either assist or distract her from her mission.
It would be too sloppy and inaccurate to say that Bleeding Edge is basically a modern retelling of The Crying of Lot 49. Much like that novel of the 60s, there’s a female protagonist on a mad chase throughout a world of secrets and conspiracies, dashing to rendezvous with one eclectic character to the next, wading through an obfuscating mire of obscure cultural jokes and ironic references, only to conclude that the way in which the big bad world governs over everything ought to be revealed and countered.
As I say, this is inaccurate. Bleeding Edge departs from Lot 49‘s familiar countercultural conclusion and it even departs from the usual sprawling headache of narrative clusterfuck. Bleeding Edge seems to come as a new novel for a new century where the actions and reactions of the past can no longer operate as effectively as they used to.
As expected, the novel reads like his others. There is a point in a Pynchon novel where you finish a chapter, where the sentence structure all makes sense as you read, and you pick up a joke or two, you keep reading till the end, and then you realise in summary you have no idea what happened from what you just read. It’s a bit like a lull, but it shouldn’t be a lull, because there was no point where you felt you had to stop or go back and reread what you didn’t understand. Anyway, this is the hard-to-describe magnetic and yet soporific effect of Pynchon’s prose. It is confusing yet entrancing, without really knowing why. But there was one point in the novel where the prose shifted from its usual tangles into a style that came as a bit of a contrast, once Pynchon touched upon 9/11.
Pynchon takes a dramatic departure from wise-cracks and razor dialogue for all of a chapter or two. 9/11 is a game-changer. Maxine’s journey is given a new and much more serious context to bounce off of instead of the mysterious nameless lightness of an indirect and illusory higher power of governmental control and surveillance. Serious shit is happening now with visible proof.
Everybody is still walking around stunned, having spent the previous day sitting or standing in front of television screens, at home, in bars, at work, staring like zombies, unable in any case to process what they were seeing, A viewing population brought back to its default state, dumbstruck, undefended, scared shitless.
And so Pynchonian binaries come into play, as characters and situations throughout Maxine’s journey can be interpreted to imply that the U.S. government were complicit in 9/11, and of course, the converse is also true. The interruption of 9/11 also challenges the modern day consumerist lifestyle dependent on all sorts of banal cultural detritus, collectables, wacky and diversified restaurants and venues and cocktails (or lunches, “a corrupt artifact of late capitalism”), and most importantly, emergent technologies. As the swamped phonelines worry and disappoint anxious citizens and surviving bystanders seek refugee status in New Jersey thanks to basic human nature, how much can technology really help us?
“The day was a terrible tragedy. But it isn’t the whole story. Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing? 11 September infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.”
There is little resolve to Bleeding Edge. The novel ends far from the conclusion of Lot 49, where Oedipa decides to “keep on bouncing” – finding a middle-ground between complicity in the all-powerful mainstream governmental systems in place and fighting for countercultural micro-political recognition. There is no fight against anything really anymore, there is no “us” versus “them” dichotomy, or even a squat to pass out safely in à la V‘s The Whole Sick Crew. The twenty-first century’s acceleration of technological knowhow and the increasingly publicised lives led in all conceivable realities mean that everything is out in the open and there is nowhere left to hide and retaliate. The novel’s title, by the way, refers to new technology released into the mainstream with a high risk of unreliability. How apt. Bleeding Edge is nostalgic for a time where Rolodexes could be used unashamedly against a barrage of wireless systems and cameraphones, before technology potentially dooms us all. Maxine wraps it all up and accepts her own lot, as it were, and the novel ends with the burden being passed to the future generation to figure out what to do. Thanks, guys.
If you thought this “review” was just magical, be sure to check out my other one on Pynchon’s “V”.