Pynchon’s ‘Bleeding Edge’ is a masterpiece of post- and pre-9/11 paranoia

Chuck Twardy

Five stars

Bleeding Edge By Thomas Pynchon, $29.

From V, published 50 years ago, to his latest, Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon has teased the notion of shadowy forces at work in the world—financial, political, even metaphysical. In 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, antihero Tyrone Slothrop finds himself a fugitive pawn during and after World War II, both manipulated and sought by what he can only imagine as Them. Pynchon gives him five Proverbs for Paranoids, the last of which, slightly cleansed, reads: “Paranoids are not paranoid because they’re paranoid, but because they keep putting themselves … deliberately into paranoid situations.”

This is wisdom you wish Bleeding Edge protagonist Maxine Tarnow would heed. Repeatedly, the fraud investigator plunges into peril while telling herself she knows better. “A paranoid halo thickens around Maxine’s head, if not a nimbus of certainty,” but she packs her Beretta and heads out to Montauk, not coincidentally the locus of shady military shenanigans and the site of a home being built for Gabriel Ice, the face of Them in Bleeding Edge.

Digital entrepreneur Ice owns hashslingrz, a firm whose government-security contracts shovel funds to mysterious Middle Eastern groups, but his very palpability suggests he could be a tool, too—though he assumes not. As hashslingrz gobbles up dot-com crash bargains, it peoples the novel with the fearfully disgruntled, all with typically colorful Pynchonian names. Meanwhile, what’s left of Manhattan’s “Silicon Alley” and the rest of the city tumbles toward 9/11.

Intimations mount that They Knew, but not in the obvious way. For three pages after the low-key unfolding of “11 September,” the author unloads on post-attack society. “The Internet has erupted into a Mardi Gras for paranoids and trolls, a pandemonium of commentary,” Pynchon writes, seemingly dismissing garden-variety paranoia. His target: “… forces in whose interest it compellingly lies to seize control of the narrative as quickly as possible …”

As Maxine navigates this pre-and-post landscape, fending off threats to herself and her tech-wise boys, Ziggy and Otis, her fascination intensifies with DeepArcher, a virtual-landscape portal to the “Deep Web,” which itself deepens from a hackers’ playground to something—well, metaphysical. She encounters avatars of 9/11 victims, “... some no more expressive than emoticons, others expressing an inventory of feeling ranging from part-euphoric through camera-shy to abjectly gloomy, some static, some animated in GIF loops, cyclical as karma, pirouetting, waving, eating or drinking whatever it was they were holding at the wedding or bar mitzvah or night out when the shutter blinked.”

And yes, there’s that jazz-riffy prose again, sometimes off-hand and often elegant—itself a clue that something well beyond cheap conspiracy theorizing is afoot. Something like what Slothrop imagines near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow: “M-maybe there is a Machine to take us away, take us completely, suck us through the electrodes out of the skull ’n’ into the Machine and live there forever with all the other souls it’s got stored there.” That would be a DeepArcher.

Find more by Chuck Twardy at chucktwardy.com

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