Sunday, October 13, 2013

Bleeding Edge

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon is back with what everyone notes is his first New York City novel, despite the fact that he has hidden in plain sight here for years. Given his penchant for technology and paranoia, it's almost inevitable that 9/11 is Bleeding Edge's fulcrum, and given that he rarely writes about cultural moments at their heyday, it's fully inevitable that the aftermath of the dot-com bubble casts a long shadow over the scene - never nostalgically, of course.

It's a New York novel not just in setting but in its wealth of references, many of which stop short of name-dropping. (I imagine ladies who lunch discuss handbags in the same terms.) One gets used to missing some references when reading Pynchon; he writes as if every reader is working with the same map of ideas that he is. It isn't necessary to understand all of them, but the reader needs to understand some significant fraction of them. (At the time, I attributed the fact that I was one of very few students to finish Gravity's Rainbow when it was assigned in college to some superiority on my part; most likely, it was simply that I was a history of science major in addition to English.)

Some of these references are absolutely necessary, and Pynchon tends to write them as such: In Bleeding Edge, familiarity with the events of 9/11 is assumed. Others aren't, and catching them is simply a reward for in-group status. For those who have read both, it's hard not to consider Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice as something of a matched set. Both are "minor" Pynchons, in the sense that they follow one character through one plot line; both are detective novels at heart, drawing on the noir tradition. Vice is set in LA, while Edge is set in New York City. These are cities most English speakers know something about, even if they've never visited, and both books are rife with references only those with quality time under their belts will get.

I've lived in New York for two years now, which in no sense makes me a "New Yorker," but it does provide me with a working knowledge of Manhattan, where most of the book's action takes place. I have seen many of the locales named and can identify many of those that aren't - the Ukrainian dumpling place in the LES is Veselka, for example. Throughout the book, I wondered how much non-New Yorkers would appreciate it. (There are far more Americans who have never been to NYC than the average New Yorker assumes, of course.) But I was able to enjoy Vice despite my scantier knowledge of LA, as someone who has both a New Yorker's and an Oregonian's attitude toward that place, and I ultimately concluded Bleeding Edge likely works in the same way.

What worked less well was the time spent online, in the world of DeepArcher, which is more or less a MMORPG minus the G. The version of future in which we use the internet as an imitation of geography stopped being relevant not long after Snow Crash - it works only in newer novels such as Reamde when it is explicitly a World of Warcraft-like game rather than the internet as a whole. Metaphors of physical travel from site to site went out with Geocities, and avatars reached their height of development with the Wii. It's hard to see DeepArcher as having any real bearing on what the internet actually looked like in 2001 - to say nothing of working well with the bandwidth of the time. It may be narratively easier to write the internet as place, but the result here is that the usually clear-sighted Pynchon seems to have slipped into a Gernsback Continuum moment.

This oddity aside, Bleeding Edge is vintage Pynchon, which means the top of your head is likely to come off at least a few times during reading, and that the NSA is probably having a hell of a time trying to grasp the meaning of his internet search history.