Thomas Pynchon is now a family man. Probably. We’ll likely never have a photo of his wife and child beaming out at us. But traipsing through Bleeding Edge, Pynchon’s latest novel, one notices that we only brush by the ragged blind energy of Pynchon’s early work. Gone are Tom’s four-day lease-breaking parties that end in drug-laced epiphanies, drunken Navymen howling for hoorhouses, meditations on heat-death… Now his protagonists would rather skip the whole orgy thing, order take-out, and put on an old Bette Davis movie.
This isn’t a book about a family—Pynchon isn’t writing a generational story about immigrant farmers—but the narrative sway the Family has in Bleeding Edge is new for Tom. Bleeding Edge is a roomy detective story that follows Maxine, a single mom, as she investigates the shady operations of Gabriel Ice and his vaguely internet-y empire, hashslingrz. The year is 2001. It’s Silicon Alley, NYC’s response to the Other Coast. Everyone has just been raked over the coals by the dot-com bust, but Ice has managed to burst out of the bust with more cash than ever, everything about him shrouded in a throbbing darkness, one that seems to be somehow chuckling at you…
Of course, any self-respecting Pynchonite would recognize Ice’s vague, riotous success as the Black Hat in the Cowboy Movie. It takes Maxine a little longer, but not too long. The world begins to take on a haze, a general unnerving quality as a byzantine of plots and a litany of characters emerge. Mysterious tapes arrive by mysterious messengers; a death squad CIA spook pops in on her elderly parents, leaving his card; there’s a murder at a hotel with occult overtones, or are those undertones (…?); a game named DeepArcher emerges down in the Deep Web, a massive multiplayer game that seemingly allows both the living and dead to log on in and kill time…
It’s a haze that will be familiar to Pynchonites, the breeding grounds of his particular strain of paranoia, a labyrinth where you are asked to short-circuit the billionaire survivors of the dot-com bust with avid Beanie Baby collectors.
But I’m making it sound hard. It’s actually a page-turner. It’s zany and hilarious. There is no denying that Pynchon has made his paranoid world more palatable for the average reader. In Gravity’s Rainbow, we slam into sentences that marathon across pages and pages, chained together with ellipses and digressions. In Bleeding Edge, Pynchon is decidedly “literary fiction.”
This, actually, was my big complaint reading the book. We know that Tommy P can rip a sentence, write us into a zen paradox that leaves us utterly breathless and haunted with the unbridled effervescence of the line. No dice here. This book is vanilla, style-wise. It’s fancy pulp writing, with a writer who can wield words with the best English speakers this world has ever birthed. For all of Pynchon’s relentless critiquing of the capitalist structures, I couldn’t help wondering if he was trying to co-opt the language of Them to sell a few more books (or—let’s give him more Pynchon-faithful motivations—bend a few more ears to his howling paranoid vision).
Furthermore, the characters are decidedly more “literary fiction” than Pynchon’s earlier creations. They have depth, for one thing. But take this example: Maxine sleeps with a CIA black ops agent in a vaguely arousing/disturbing fashion, and then ruminates on this encounter for the remainder of the book. The characters in Gravity’s Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 49 or “Entropy” are humping the good and the bad like filthy rabbits! I cannot imagine Tyrone Slothrop ruminating about one chance sexual encounter, let alone one as tame as Maxine’s.
And while we’re at it, let’s throw this critique at Pynchon: the reveals are decidedly tamer, too. Think about this example from Gravity’s Rainbow. Franz Pökler is a German rocket engineer that’s been forced to work for the Nazis. How? They’ve kidnapped his daughter, Ilse, and put her in a concentration camp. Every year, they send her back to him, but he gets to thinking…how does he know that they’re sending him his daughter? Couldn’t it be just any old girl…? It reaches a head when they give Franz a weekend vacation at a German Disneyland-like place and he acts on his anger against Them by having sex with the girl, who seems too willing…
No, that’s actually not what happens. What happens is that Franz imagines this (and Pynchon writes the incest vividly with lines like, “the parental plow found its way into the filial furrow…”), and then resists it. He realizes that both this girl and he are bound up in this horrible machine and that there is little for them to do but treat each other well, that They would like nothing more than for him to inflict pain on this poor girl from a concentration camp.
This story has haunted me for years. It distills Pynchon’s ethos and preserves the narrative gut punch of his best writing. It’s like one of those video game Special Moves—a gigantic fist smashing across the screen. It’s also what I believe is at the crux of Gravity’s Rainbow—all the hilarity of the first half is turned into a hysterical scream after Pökler goes searching for the girl in Dora, the concentration camp, the piles of dead bodies looking out at him “…each face so perfect, so individual, the lips stretched back into death-grins, a whole silent audience caught at the punch line of the joke…”
It’s brutal. We don’t get moments like these in Bleeding Edge, despite an obvious opportunity for catharsis: 9/11. The event takes place in the middle of the book (like Pökler’s episode) and of course Tommy P cuddles up with Truthers, but in Gospel Pynchon fashion, he leaves us with more questions, disturbing and somehow vaguely arousing, directing us Normals to darker complexities, interlacing enigmas burned into films of indeterminate origins… Yes. It’s all very Pynchon. But the pay-off in Bleeding Edge feels like it’s missing some unnamable component of catharsis. It just lies flat on the table.
Maybe it’s because Tom’s characters are caught between the wildly unpredictable world of his early work, and ordering take-out for the family.
Pynchon, the family man, displays a dazzling love of human beings. His writhing hatred of the shadowy systems that run the world has not diminished. Not at all. But his love for humans has increased dramatically—to the point that he couldn’t drag his characters through too much muck? I hope not. Young P could never have written a family, would never have cared to write a family.
And why would I, Young P retorts in my imagination, when there are things so much more important to write about?
Old P just gives the young whippersnapper a grin.
I don’t think he’s found the balance in Bleeding Edge. It’s a good book, don’t get me wrong—it just doesn’t have the punch for which I return to Pynchon again and again.
The guy’s 72, so he’s got a book or three to figure it out, to balance his deep paranoia and blazing imagination with a story about real human beings in a family, characters who get up off the operating table and breath and care about each other.
Let me give you my totally unsolicited suggestion, Tom—less labyrinth, more catharsis.
Take my advice or don’t. I still love you.