Review: James Gourleyon Thomas Pynchon

In the ruins of the future: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

There is a certain similarity of reaction, so the story goes, to a new Thomas Pynchon novel. Each generates a sense of anticipation; we ask ourselves whether the new Pynchon will approximate the mind-shattering impact that Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) had on readers and critics alike. In many ways, this anticipation is a product of the author’s well-known aversion to publicity and the seventeen year silence between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland (1990).

Despite the assumed power and marketability of the Pynchon name, however, it appears that the anticipation might be diminishing and that the number of readers waiting eagerly for the new Pynchon is dwindling. He has recently defied his slow-publishing reputation: the period from 1997 has seen the author at his most active since the 1960s and early 1970s. This period has also seen the emergence of a ‘public Pynchon’ who, along with appearances on The Simpsons (with a paper bag over his head), now narrates publicity videos and writes marketing material for his work. Many readers, it is said, were frustrated with Against the Day (2006), set in the fin de siècle, Europe-centred, but with events taking place all over the world and a cast of characters in the hundreds. The scope of that novel made it inevitable that some readers would hit, as a colleague of mine calls it, the ‘Pynchon wall’. The narrative of Against the Day was so disjunctive that it made reading the text a supreme effort and one that some (many? most?) gave up on.

I believe that the narratives and the interpretive assumptions that have come to surround Pynchon’s work are limiting. They do not allow us to think clearly about his writing post-Gravity’s Rainbow, or his oeuvre in its entirety. Indicative of this troubling type of analysis is Brian McHale’s recent statement that Pynchon is not simply a contributor to the postmodern style, but its catalyst. According to McHale, Pynchon is the progenitor of postmodernism and without him the category would hardly exist at all.

Pynchon attacks this type of academicism in Bleeding Edge, imagining an NYU professor running after a subversively inattentive film pirate, who ‘artistically’ zooms in and out of the films he illicitly records, to ask him if he ‘knew how far ahead of the leading edge of this post-postmodern art form he was working’. He is poking fun at the obsession with categorisation and the desire to identify the ‘bleeding edge’ of any new artistic movement. McHale’s argument may well be of use if we are simply considering Gravity’s Rainbow. If, however, we want to consider Pynchon’s work as a whole, or his twenty-first century novels, we need to discard the influence that Gravity’s Rainbow holds over critical discourse.

Bleeding Edge is a novel in Pynchon’s other tradition, a tradition that runs counter to Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day. This is especially true of the text’s form. Gravity’s Rainbow and Against the Day meddle with the formal boundaries of the novel; Bleeding Edge is, for the most part, formally conventional. It is a detective story, similar in method to The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) and in apparent motivation to Inherent Vice (2009).

The detective figure is Maxine Tarnow, a New York City fraud investigator. The first half of Bleeding Edge follows her investigation into various tech companies and their half-hidden fraudulent activities. This investigation reveals, in typical Pynchon style, much deeper conspiracies. But it also leads Maxine to an awareness of the Deep Web, a hidden part of the internet that, in 2001, is yet to be colonised by bots and spiders, pop-ups and surface crawlers  – the electronic ephemera of capitalism, of which Pynchon is witheringly disdainful. This initial technological narrative bleeds into a second narrative, in which the Deep Web and the tech companies each anticipate (in their own way) the September 11 terrorist attacks. The after-effects of the attacks dominate the final third of the novel. Maxine attempts to find an answer to who might be responsible for the 9/11 conspiracy. The novel also depicts her personal response to those events, which involves her lavishing as much Jewish mother love as possible on her sons, her on-again-off-again husband Horst, and anyone else in the vicinity.

So Bleeding Edge is a ‘9/11 novel’. Pynchon is thus following in the notable and masculine footsteps of Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Jay McInerney and John Updike, among others. It is telling, however, that the majority of the 9/11 novels that one might compare to Bleeding Edge were published within seven years of those terrible events. The relative immediacy of the literary reaction to the September 11 attacks suggests the sense of urgency that those authors felt – their need to represent, in vigorous yet often simplistic detail, their apprehension of that day. Compared to the 9/11 novel genre as it stands, Bleeding Edge is an outlier, a metaphysical detective novel deployed with a new purpose in mind. It is at odds with the already conventionalised 9/11 novel, which generally pairs the events of 9/11 with a relational second narrative, but does not question in detail the origin or cause of the attacks.

The most striking feature of Bleeding Edge on first reading is its belatedness. Not only does it appear five years after the first wave of 9/11 novels, the terrorist attacks themselves are introduced surprisingly late in the narrative. There is an overwhelming sense of suspension throughout, as we wait for the events to be described and for the serious reflection those events require, especially from an author who has devoted an entire career to considering the fate of modern America in the world. This belatedness is emphasised by the constant foreshadowing of the attacks. Even the marketing apparatus that surrounds Bleeding Edge reinforces this. Pynchon (reportedly) wrote all the marketing material himself, and he positions the novel ‘in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11th’. When the novel begins on the first day of the northern spring in 2001, with the first white pears blooming in New York, the reader is already on high alert for the events of late summer. Within fifty pages, we read the first of many foreshadowings of the events to come:

Trouble ahead … people in the community saying Gulf War Two. Figures Bush would want to do his daddy one better.

So while Pynchon holds back from describing the 9/11 events until late in the narrative, they still appear, anachronistically bursting into the novel’s frame with regularity. The most fantastic of these anachronisms is a video game Maxine’s two children play, in which ‘a postapocalyptic New York’ exists:

The World Trade Center leaning at a dangerous angle. The lights of Times Square gone dark in great irregular patches, perhaps from recent urban warfare in the neighbourhood.

The constant irruption of the coming event is distracting and is complicated further by Pynchon’s previous consideration of 9/11 in Against the Day. In that novel, the September 11 attacks were temporally relocated to the first decade of the twentieth century, when Pynchon imagines New York City consumed by fire. Although the anachronism Pynchon employs in Against the Day is more obvious, it is clear that its repetition in Bleeding Edge confirms its importance to Pynchon’s interpretation of these events. In this sense, Bleeding Edge and Against the Day employ an imaginative version of the analysis Don DeLillo produced in the weeks after the attacks, identifying the new twenty-first century America as existing ‘in the ruins of the future’. 9/11 was an attack on the US as the embodiment of globalisation and capitalism, as a nation so technologically advanced as to almost exist in the future. It was an attack on the ‘accelerated time’ that Paul Virilio argued was the product of an age of satellite communication and real-time data. By striking at the idea that the US could exceed the bounds of time, the attacks prompted Pynchon (among others) to reconsider America’s temporality, and his use of anachronism in various forms is a means of analysing the changed temporal conditions post-9/11.

So why does Pynchon combine a second assessment of 9/11 with the detective genre? In many ways, the answer lies within the critical discussion about Pynchon’s relation to postmodernity. Despite the inelegance of the term and Pynchon’s warning against categorisation, Bleeding Edge has more in common with the ‘post-postmodern’ than it does with its predecessor. This stylistic change is evident in the novel’s depiction of the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. There is no doubt that 9/11 has affected Pynchon. Bleeding Edge expresses real anguish at the attacks and their repercussions, both social and political, in a way that the briefer allusions in Against the Day can never really communicate. Once the attacks occur in the narrative, there is the inevitable search for conspiracy and for the culprits. But more noticeable, and more in accordance with what is now called the post-postmodern, is Pynchon’s consideration of the emotional effect the events have on individuals, specifically Maxine and her family. This manifests itself in the appearance of 9/11 refugees at Maxine’s house:

Refugees, prevented from entering their apartments in Lower Manhattan, whether fancy-schmancy or modest, have been showing up at the doors of friends farther uptown, accompanied by wives, kids, sometimes accompanied by nannies, drivers, and cooks …

Although the trauma of the attacks is clearly represented in Bleeding Edge, it is apparent that Pynchon wishes his readers to grasp the positive that has emerged in the wake of the attacks, although this positive is not retained by most New Yorkers for very long. By Thanksgiving the footpaths are again ‘wallowing in entitlement – colliding, snarling, shoving ahead without even the hollow-to-begin-with local euphemism “Excuse me.”’ For Maxine, however, the positive is more enduring. It takes the form of closer family bonds and firmer friendships, but also a more mature outlook generally. This is encapsulated in the novel’s final scene.

In the days after 9/11, when the novel reaches its conceptual climax, Pynchon seeks to orient his readers by clarifying the historical prism through which he views the events. He outlines the process whereby

dependable history shrinks to a dismal perimeter centered on ‘Ground Zero’, a Cold War term taken from the scenarios of nuclear war so popular in the early sixties. This was nowhere near a Soviet nuclear strike on downtown Manhattan, yet those who repeat ‘Ground Zero’ over and over do so without shame or concern for etymology. The purpose is to get people cranked up in a certain way. Cranked up, scared and helpless.

This is an important point: the 9/11 attacks engendered a disconnection from history which allowed the political aftermath to occur. The Coalition of the Willing’s two-front military campaign in Iraq and Afghanistan – the former undertaken without plausible cause, the latter without any apparent consideration of previous military history in that region – is the kind of disconnection from history that Pynchon imagines the 9/11 attacks producing. This, I believe, is the reason he holds back the attacks in the narrative, while insistently prodding the reader to anticipate what is coming. There is a contrast being made here between ‘dependable history’ and that which comes after it. The days prior to the 9/11 attacks are populated with the details of normality – basketball scores, song titles, bad movies (with the year of their release appended neatly after their citation) – and it is these dependable details, all impeccably researched, which reinforce the change in time that has occurred. Much of the novel’s lead-in to the 9/11 attacks feels like literary carbon dating. Each passing moment is pinpointed in time by its cultural reference. After the fact, we finally get access to the reality of the event: a glimpse into the disassociation New York felt in its aftermath.

As time passes and the city begins to return to something approximating normality, it is notable that Bleeding Edge details the re-emergence of social rituals: Halloween (Maxine’s opportunity to re-engage with her children), the New York City marathon (‘seven weeks into post-atrocity, the fearful day still reverberating … thousands of runners out in memory of 11 September and its victims’), Thanksgiving (‘Thanksgiving is not so horrible after all. Probably 11 September has something to do with it’), and Christmas (‘maybe it isn’t Maxine’s holiday but it is Horst’s and the kids’, and this year it seems less of an effort for her to be a sport’). Bleeding Edge is not a sentimental work, but it is clear that a change has occurred in Pynchon’s attitude. For it is these ritual moments, the chances to spend time with loved ones, which assume significance in the final stages of the novel. This is in contrast to Pynchon’s previous method, in which terror and catastrophe trigger even more powerful conspiracies, exemplified in Gravity’s Rainbow’s depiction of World War Two as a pretext for the emergence of an even more virulent capitalism.


The majority of the innovative critical work produced on Pynchon in the last decade has focused, in one way or another, on his construction of the subjunctive. Initially a grammatical term, it is used in this context to signify the ‘what might happen’, specifically with regard to the analysis of how the future is projected and theorised in his novels. As Amy J. Elias has argued, history is the central concept here. History is rebellion against control in the west coast novels (The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice) and the contested concept in what Elias characterises as Pynchon’s ‘global’ works (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day). Using this framework, we can divide Pynchon’s novels into two categories: those that describe an alternate history derived, as he puts it in Gravity’s Rainbow, from ‘the singular point [America] jumped the wrong way from’, or those that posit a counterforce that rebels against control: the W.A.S.T.E postal system in The Crying of Lot 49 being the most celebrated example.

It is clear that Bleeding Edge, though it is the first Pynchon novel since V. (1963) to represent New York and the east coast, fits into the west coast typology. It imagines shadowy means of rejecting the powerlessness of modern life. The counterforce in Bleeding Edge is the internet, specifically the Deep Web, an anonymous internet inaccessible to the regular web browser and pregnant with both commercial and non-commercial (i.e. capitalist or utopian) opportunities. Maxine’s investigation leads her to Justin and Lucas, who have designed and produced an interface called DeepArcher that facilitates movement around the Deep Web without surveillance and manipulation. Their invention creates a conflict between the ideal of independence and the tempting possibility of selling the interface off to someone: ‘the NSA, the Mossad, terrorist go-betweens, Microsoft, Apple, start-ups that’ll be gone in a year …’

Initially, DeepArcher appears to be the perfect means of producing a rebellious retreat from late capitalist control and, simultaneously, creating a better community as a provision against the terrors of the future. Hence the pun on ‘departure’: it is an escape from what has come before. DeepArcher is a ‘grand-scale motel for the afflicted’. And it is DeepArcher’s extra-worldly ability to transcend the deaths of its users that is attractive in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The avatars of the victims of the attacks collect in DeepArcher, allowing an afterlife hitherto unimagined.

Although the designers’ intentions for the interface were not exactly this, it is apparent that, theoretically at least, they amount to the same thing. Maxine questions Justin after she becomes aware that DeepArcher, subsequent to it being thrown to the wind when the program’s code is released for free to the internet community, is changing independently, almost as if it has an intelligence of its own. Justin is terrified by the accusation that the program can evolve:

‘To evolve?’ Justin looking surprised. ‘No, it was only supposed to be the one thing, like, timeless? A refuge. History-free is what Lucas and I were hoping for.’

Pynchon’s comments on history and the September 11 attacks in Bleeding Edge can be directly related to DeepArcher. While the Deep Web interface encourages both the denial of some of the devastation of 9/11 and the desire for a community removed from the excessive aggression of the US government in the aftermath of the attacks, it is also important to note that the program fails. Subsumed by the subverting power of internet capitalism, the community is unable to maintain its utopian ideals. DeepArcher swiftly becomes the embodiment of a technology that, as Pynchon observed in 2003 when writing on George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), ‘promises social control on a scale those quaint old twentieth-century tyrants with their goofy mustaches could only dream about’.

Bleeding Edge is, in this sense, a bleak novel. But it is bleak only in the tradition that Pynchon has repeatedly written in previously, a tradition that promotes the possibility of rebellion against the powers that be, yet also acknowledges the inevitability of power structures that will destroy any possibility of true rebellion. As in Nineteen Eighty-Four, the conditions for rebellion in Bleeding Edge lead inevitably to the foreclosure of that possibility.

Bleeding Edge occupies an indeterminate position. It is not an entirely new Pynchon, but it is not the same old Pynchon either. His trademark stylistics are still determinedly employed: long sentences listing every last possibility, the apparently indiscriminate incorporation of all forms of culture into the narrator’s voice (‘Oops, I did it again, as Britney always sez’), and a variety of imaginative sex practices all feature. These qualities appear anachronistic on occasion, especially when combined with the emotional seriousness of the final third of the novel. And yet Pynchon’s distinctive excavation of history provides his readers with an important perspective on its events. Bleeding Edge is the Pynchon novel that is the most closely related to the time it was written since Vineland, and like that novel it seeks to quantify our relationship with technology and to push back against the control so evident in our society today.

Read the correspondence for ‘In the ruins of the future’.