Sunday, July 30, 2017

Book Review: How Thomas Pynchon's Novel Bleeding Edge Hit Close to Home

When the miasmic shitstorm of authoritarianism and real-life Idiocracy gained full force earlier this year, I felt compelled to dive into Thomas Pynchon's novel Vineland in search of informed, anti-authoritarian entertainment and guidance. The novel mostly takes place in the year 1984 (a recent edition of Orwell's 1984 has an introduction from Pynchon) depicting Californians fleeing the militarized police state carrying out Reagan's war on drugs, with frequent flashbacks to the impact of COINTELPRO's insidious dismantling of resistance movements in the 60s. It sounds dark and bleak, but Vineland is a hilarious and uplifting adventure.

Nobody does it like Pynchon. His works feel like an essential road map for navigating our contemporary political madness. It seems every damn dumb, absurd or gross thing that unfolds in the Trumpocalyptic age begs the question of whether this is actually Thomas Pynchon's world and we're all just living in it. Even the fucking names! When I saw that the source behind a recent NSA leak was a 20-something blonde girl from Texas named Reality Leigh Winner, I thought: go home Thomas Pynchon, you're drunk!

I've been seeing tweets like this every day:

After zipping through Vineland, I was craving more Pynchon but had my own anti-authoritarian writing to do, an essay on the treatment of warfare and invasion in Finnegans Wake for the Diasporic Joyce Conference in Toronto (an experience chronicled here). Once that was completed, I took a much-needed break from Joyce to crack open Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, and holy shit what a treat it turned out to be.

Bleeding Edge completely stunned me. Not only is it a funny and engrossing web of stories carried by characters engaged in sharp, witty dialogue, but also the setting of turn-of-the-millennium New York City spoke directly to me and my background in a way Pynchon's work never has before. More than anything else, the prime display of the master author's precisely researched rendering of setting just blew me away. Pynchon was born in 1937, a year after my dad. He's a pretty old dude. Yet the cultural milieu he recreates out of the minutia of video games, TV shows, internet culture, rap music, pro sports, etc from that 9/11 time period in Bleeding Edge (published in 2013) suggests an old man who's as with-the-times as anybody alive. He references Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon, for instance, and describes nuances of the Metal Gear Solid video games in such shocking detail that one internet reader suggested the only explanation is he must've had input from his then-teenage son. The book is littered with nuggets of culture like a character holding "a mug that reads I BELIEVE YOU HAVE MY STAPLER." (p. 77)

That mug appears in a scene with weed smoke hovering in a hacker's lair, as our protagonist Maxine Tarnow explores the dimensions of her techy friends' creation called DeepArcher, a sort of cross between virtual reality and online multiplayer games. Maxine (who Pynchon helpfully describes as a Rachel Weisz doppelgÀnger early in the novel) is a fraud investigator in Manhattan in the years following the dot-com bubble, hot on the trail of a shady Internet security firm called "hashslingerz," itself a sort of pun encompassing Pynchon's penchant for pot references and the term hash used for computer coding. This is a novel full of tech geeks, subversive bloggers, radical filmmakers, hackers, stoners, Mossad agents, Russian mobsters, shadow government assassins, and every other variety of spooks and weirdos. A typically Pynchonian web of colorful characters expanding so far out that I finally had to jot down a who's-who primer in the back of the book.

A book jacket blurb mentioned that, "We are all characters in Pynchon's mad world" and that starts to feel true. He creates such a broad network of characters, male and female, with all range of backgrounds and quirks, that I begin to see myself and my friends appearing in there. That's part of what is so special about Pynchon---his fiction hems fairly close to realism while always keeping things zany, off-beat, and funky with every person, place, and thing having some deliberately weird or funny name (I burst out laughing on a flight when I read of a strip club called "Joie de Beavre") so that you eventually start to view this world a little differently, noticing its inherent weirdness.

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Thursday, July 13, 2017

Rest In Peace Prodigy of Mobb Deep

These dark times we've been living in of late, dominated by headlines about Russian mobsters and spies, neo-Nazis and Klan rallies, environmental disaster and predatory power structures, have also been ripe with death with the departure of powerful souls of our culture like Carrie Fisher, David Bowie, et al. The death of the rapper Prodigy of Mobb Deep last month at the age of 42 struck me sharply and I've been experiencing its resonance ever since.