Toward the Dissolution of Form: Pynchon’s 'Bleeding Edge'

In a footnote to his new translation of Karl Kraus’ Nestroy and Posterity, Jonathan Franzen broaches the topic of literary fathers and his own youthful bout of what he called, even while experiencing it, “[P]ynchon anxiety.” Summing up Gravity’s Rainbow from the perch of the present, Franzen dubs it “an absolute boy-novel, a rockets-and-erections book, its female characters fundamentally sex objects,” before concluding, “I had to reject Pynchon’s sexism the way I rejected my father’s.”

There you have it.  Ice-veined patricide by the best-selling New York author whose serious author cred is undeniable, white maleness and Twitter-flame wars notwithstanding (see David Gilbert’s & Sons for his latest heir).  The corpse lies still on worn carpeting, floppy toed shoes askew.  Rest in Peace, T.P.: we knew ye well—or hardly knew ye?  Smoke rising from a twenty-four-inch barrel, the deadly instrument discarded in the corner next to an overturned ashtray and open-faced Gideon’s Bible.  We’ve arrived too late.

Wait, though.  What page was that Bible turned to?  Could there possibly be a message?  And, hey—is anyone actually in those shoes? Or only a dummy placed to mislead, to create the impression a patricide has occurred?  Did the intended target witness the attempt from, say, the neon-lit fire-escape?  Assuming there really was an attempt?  Did he orchestrate the whole thing himself?  What exactly is going on?

Embodying the charge of sexism among the artistic avant-garde of a bygone era, Burdmoore Model, indelicate artist and ’60s revolutionary of Rachel Kushner’s recent novel The Flamethrowers, reflects on why the sect he led was called “The Motherfuckers”: “Because we hated women… You think I’m joking.” Burdmoore means what he says and is willing to go out on the street and swing a bat to prove it.  Like few others, Pynchon channeled and upturned that strain of revolutionary fervor in Gravity’s Rainbow, a famously difficult novel that makes the slightest nod to convention in roaring overhead.  In defense of Pynchon’s feminist cred, some may say that Oedipa Maas, protagonist of Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, is a woman.  But does her presence on the page, all and all, evoke a real being or an abstracted placeholder?

To go right along with bountiful helpings of superlatives, a Living Legend risks becoming a self-parody stuck in a roomful of mirrors.  Grey eminences have been known to come off as rusty, mannered, or predictable.  The big question then: has Thomas Pynchon grown with the times?

The short answer is yes.  Late in his newest novel Bleeding Edge, a pivotal scene takes place exclusively between women, one of them being Maxine Loeffler née Tarnow, a rogue Certified Fraud Examiner (license revoked but still in demand for her “halo of faded morality”), and March Kelleher, whose muckraking blog has brought to public consciousness sinister theories around a tech billionaire, the events of 9/11, and the system at large. The tone, syntax, and delirium is signature:

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Presently the entire surface of the table in the dining room is covered with containers, soda cans, waxed paper, plastic wrap, and sandwiches and side orders, and everybody is intensely fressing without regard to where, besides mouths, it’s all going.  Maxine takes a short break to observe March. “What happened to ‘corrupt artifact of…’ whatever it was?”

“Yaycchhh gwaahhihucchihnggg,” March nods, removing the lid from another container of coleslaw.

“Yaycchhh gwaahhihucchihnggg,” indeed.  At a glance, this scene appears to be a throw-away.  Yet by offsetting the darkness of paranoia and conspiracy, or blooming in dialectical relation to it, the joy of appetite rises to the surface.  What could be more American?  (Descendants: Jonathan Lethem, The Simpsons, Irvine Welsh, Victor LaValle, Marisha Pessl, Joshua Ferris, Rachel Kushner, countless others.)  The difference from Pynchon’s younger, more riotous efforts—in the books of the ’60s and ’70s, you find structure only through the riot of the prose, whereas now, it’s riot coursing within the story’s structure—is how the appetites on display are the appetites of women and women alone, nary a man in the room.  A caper’s afoot to be sure.  But, the ladies, they’ve got this one.

If Pynchon is the Boba Fett of literary fiction (masks, clandestine operations, cool accessories) then the question we might find ourselves hollering would be, “Thomas Pynchon?  Thomas Pynchon, where?” Right next to us, it turns out.  For the first time, generations born in the ’80s and onward will find the author’s antic capering delirium and unflappable political sophistication addressing the moment we currently occupy and in the present tense, no less (akin to Gravity’s Rainbow).  Or at least the moment before that moment, i.e. spring of 2001 to spring 2002.  Meaning, for much of the novel, the delirium of the humor pinballs toward the horror of cataclysm.

Pynchon decisively sidesteps the fictive miscues of many of those who have taken up that September morning.  Familiar signifiers are made strange; the day, once arrived at, is referred to as 11 September, a parallel universe version that treats tactfully the actual tragedy broadcast in video clips to almost as many people as have eyes.  The aftermath is juxtaposed with—what else?—the rise of the Internet.  Beneath the surface Maxine has discovered the Deep Net, “a horizon between coded and codeless,” where she half-expects to encounter, “a sacred city all in pixels waiting to be reassembled, as if disasters could be run in reverse, the towers rise out of black ruin, the bits and pieces and lives, no matter how finely vaporized, become whole again.”

Toward whose embrace do we ultimately rush in this virtual stampede?  Maxine has that question to answer in myriad permutations.  In lieu of the private eye noir of Inherent Vice, Maxine’s adventure in Upper West Side motherhood plays on tropes of the spy thriller.  There is an underdog, Lester Traipse, a dot-commer in over his head (“like little hedgehog in the fog,” says one of a pair of Russian mobsters, “Only trying to find his friends”), and an overdog, Nicholas Windust, agent for a governmental outfit too secret to have a name.  Windust’s plugged in enough to alarm Maxine by knowing exactly what she has been investigating (“We like to think of it as ‘No keystroke left behind’”) and dupe enough to speak highly of the morir soñando at the Chinese-Dominican Café where they meet, when Maxine knows “it’s the owner going in the back and throwing Creamsicles in the blender.”

That’s almost forgetting Maxine’s two boys, Ziggy and Otis, fast approaching adolescence and self-sufficiency, and her estranged husband, commodities trader Horst Loeffler, “emotional as a grain elevator,” whose Rules for Life include avoiding “restaurants with logos where the food has a face or wears a whimsical outfit.”

Then there are Justin and Lucas, bosom buddies from days on the Stanford campus and developers of a sought-after program for navigating the Deep Web.  Plus tech billionaire, Gabriel Ice whose net security firm hashslingrz has questionable accounting practices along with an interest in the Deep Web program, and whose wife, Tallis, is the estranged daughter of March, who runs that conspiracy blog, which—

A detailed synopsis of a plot by Pynchon would require multiple spreadsheets and even that could only ever be partial.  The reader starts down a corridor lit by the energy of the prose, frenetic humor, flippant cool, and like an infant’s mobile the pop cultural references go spinning, a jamboree of the immediately familiar: Dr. Zizmor, a More Cowbell t-shirt, Metal Gear Solid, Nate Dogg and Warren G, a woman disguised by the ubiquity of a Jennifer Aniston haircut, fashion designers whose names—Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik, Narciso Rodríguez—sound like those invented by the author, Derek Jeter, Bernie Madoff as a vision of success, the Buddhist Parable of the Burning Coal, a hacked Furby, and, oh can it be, hey alright, Mitch Hedberg.  Pynchon, as always, takes the novel to the very edge of form’s dissolution. As the reader advances, heads pop in the door and out again, any particular occurrence possibly random, or not.  What lies ahead?  What’s left behind?  This is what it is like to be alive and take seriously the possibilities of change, for radical reinvention, the livewire undercurrents of power, and maybe it is the fact that many perceive the Novel as a near irrelevance in this day teeming with free content that Pynchon has fallen back on traditional modes (not all that differently than in Inherent Vice, although heartier and with a smaller font) to address the omnivorous depths of the net, “a virtual sanctuary, grand-scale motel for the afflicted… a framed lucid dream.”

Great historical pivots, per Gravity’s Rainbow, Vineland, and Mason & Dixon, are this author’s chief concern. (Predecessors: Joseph Heller, Ralph Ellison, John Barth.) For 2009’s Inherent Vice, “the two separate worlds, each unaware of the other, but [connecting] someplace,” were “[Charlie] Manson and the Surge of ’69,” the furthest reaches of hippie derangement and California’s burgeoning surf culture, with Corporate America as backdrop.  Pristine habitats undone by greed; the presence beneath history of American Indian tribes; John Garfield: each a recurring element of the most recent two novels.  The explored linkage in Bleeding Edge is that between national tragedy and a collective turn toward electronic devices, the photos users rush to post to their profiles and those once taped by the grieving on shrines across New York City.

The net can draw anyone on forever, fragments glimpsing off fragments, synecdoche in search of a complete referent.  A book has a distinct start and finish, and it does not see who is reading it.  Both require searchers.  Along with her keen appetites and intricate knowledge of societal mechanics, Pynchon’s Maxine Loeffler née Tarnow does harbor certain metaphysical inclinations.  Or maybe it is a metaphysical lack that propels her forward, the hard-to-define hunger that stirs her quest for the true bottom line, lyricism unfurling from the mysterious haze like a battle-torn flag:

Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine’s riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her.  The Scholar, The Unhoused, The Warrior Thief, The Haunted Woman… they are the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions.  Each messenger carrying the props required for their character, shopping bags, books, musical instruments, arrived here out of darkness, bound again into darkness, with only a minute to deliver the intelligence Maxine needs.  At some point naturally she begins to wonder if she might not be performing the same role for some face looking back out another window at her.

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