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.

*   *   * 

The time and place Pynchon depicts in Bleeding Edge is one I'm very familiar with. A New Yorker himself, Pynchon displays a knack for extremely accurate, even sensuous prose descriptions of Manhattan life. I don't think I've ever read someone capture the essence of Manhattan life as well as he does here. There's a scene towards the end of the book where Maxine is riding the subway looking out the window at passengers in other subway cars passing by and the way Pynchon described it all, I had this strong sense that one cannot capture that precise feeling and that perspective without having lived in New York for many years.

Bleeding Edge is also Pynchon's 9/11 book and there are few people whose 9/11 perspective I'd be more interested in than his. For one thing, he describes those days in New York City beautifully. I kept getting flashbacks to my time there, reexamining a period in my life I hadn't thought too deeply about in a while. My mother and brother worked in the World Trade Center when I was growing up, my grandfather owned a business in the north tower. I have so many memories of lower Manhattan from my childhood. My very first job was as a foot messenger transporting packages from the 89th floor of the Trade Center in the summer of 1999. One week before 9/11, I stayed at the Marriott World Trade Center with my mom and sister for an event. Four days before 9/11, I remember driving past the towers with my brother on the way home from a fantasy football draft in lower Manhattan. In June of 2002, nine months after 9/11, I got a job at a restaurant in Tribeca, blocks away from Ground Zero. I'd see it every day. In 2003, I entered college at Pace University, a few blocks east from where the towers stood. The way Pynchon rendered the shock and confusion of that period had me awestruck. I felt grateful to have this brilliant author around to convey his view of it all. In a book that emphasizes the importance of family, we see the main character's family unit tightening its bonds while opening up their home to friends in need of a place to stay in the aftermath of the atrocity.

What's extremely fascinating to observe are the dissenting voices in the text crying conspiracy right away, leading one to wonder how close this comes to Pynchon's own view. At the very least, a number of elements in the plot (which I'll avoid because of spoilers) suggest an outlook of LIHOP or "let it happen on purpose." Maybe. The author whose works have always hinted at some vague malevolent force lurking in the shadows balances the novel's humor and lightheartedness with a smorgasbord of paranoia and conspiracies. I was struck to see Maxine's husband, a commodities trader, pointing out the bizarre stock market behavior in the days prior to 9/11 with a surge of short sells for United and American Airlines stock.

Of particular interest to me was the response by March Kelleher, a virulently subversive blogger who's depicted as sort of a tinfoil hat whackjob but is also one of the key figures in the story. I couldn't help but find her very extreme and provocative perspective captivating. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, she says "Those fucking Nazis in Washington needed a pretext for a coup, now they've got it." Familiar 9/11 truth stuff, but Pynchon has her saying this mere hours after it happened.

Later she writes a scathing blog post invoking the Reichstag fire and Hitler's rise to power while sardonically stating what I can't help but see as a hint of Pynchon's own view:
It would take a mind hopelessly diseased with paranoia, indeed a screamingly anti-American nutcase, even to allow to cross her mind the possibility that terrible day could have deliberately been engineered as a pretext to impose some endless Orwellian 'war' and the emergency decrees we will soon be living under. Nah, nah, perish that thought. (p. 322)

A week after the attacks, she and Maxine meet up for lunch and March shares a dollar bill she found with scribbled graffiti on it that says: "World Trade Center was destroyed by CIA -- Bush Senior's CIA is making Bush Jr. Prez for life & hero." She finds this highly significant, pointing out (and this is Pynchon at his finest):
"No matter how the official narrative of this turns out... these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep."
Or we can just look inside a Pynchon novel! As I mentioned earlier, this author is as with-the-times as anybody alive, an embodiment of Ezra Pound's dictum "The artist is the antennae of the race." This book of shadowy conspiracy webs full of hackers, dot-com execs, and spies, published in 2013, speaks directly to our current predicament in ways I can only describe as uncanny. See page 264, for instance:

"Oh and by the way." Casual as a sanitation truck. "You've heard of the Civil Hackers' School in Moscow?"

"No, uh-uh."

"According to some of my colleagues, it was created by the KGB, it's still an arm of Russian espionage, its mission statement includes destroying America through cyberwarfare."[...]

"I thought all that Cold War drama was over. Is it mob allegations, what?"

"These days the Russian mob and the government share many interests."

*   *   *

I mentioned that some of the cultural references used to construct time and place in this novel at times spoke to me directly in ways Pynchon's work never has before. There are a few things that especially struck me. The novel has a number of references to Staten Island, where I grew up and was living as a teenager during the period described. But he doesn't simply mention Staten Island, he uses impressive little details that suggest someone who's done his research, had first-hand experience. On p. 165, Maxine joins friends on a midnight boat ride from the west side of Manhattan, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty into the dirty smelly waters on the western edge of Staten Island. The boat driver comments, as they pass by Port Richmond, "Hey, Denino's somewhere off the port beam here, anybody feel like grabbing a pizza?"

There's no way Pynchon simply looked at a map and figured his fictional boat-riders are here so let me pick a random pizzeria nearby. Denino's is well-known to Staten Islanders. My parents still go there all the time. Across the street is a famous Staten Island spot, Ralph's Italian Ices. I figure for Pynchon to include a reference to getting pizza at Denino's in Port Richmond, a spot easily recognizable to Staten Islanders, some lifelong NYC dwellers and few others, he must've been there before.

I was buzzing as I read this section of the book. The familiarity and personal resonance amplified as they further descended into the murky waters witnessing:
Oil storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping. Addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse. Maxine has been smelling garbage for a while, and now it intensifies as they approach a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death and decay, chemicals unpronounceable as the names of God...

Ah, feels like home! I saw those tankers, smelled that stench all the time. The boat eventually settles near Island of Meadows in Arthur Kill. I grew up a block away from Arthur Kill Road. Didn't know what Island of Meadows was at first, but when I looked it up I realized it's a swampy little island that I passed by all the time, right next to the dump. In fact, it's located barely a mile away from the house I grew up in. So Pynchon has his characters go to Staten Island, settling at a spot a stone's throw away from where I was living at the time it (fictionally) took place.

There were so many other little things like this that hit me. If you've read this blog at all, you'd know I'm a huge hip hop fan, especially 90s New York City hip hop, and also a huge sports fan, particularly NY sports teams. Among a number of references Pynchon makes to 90s rap, he mentions Nas, one of my favorites. But he doesn't just throw in a simple reference to Nas, he mentions my favorite Nas track of all time, "The World is Yours" with a character asking "how can anything even compare?" Again, this isn't an easy reference for an 80-year-old author to make. "The World is Yours" is not Nas' most well-known track, probably not even among his 5 most popular hits. His character is speaking in 2001, referring to a track from Illmatic, released in 1994 (yet admittedly a timeless classic). Of all the Nas songs he could've chosen to mention, he mentions one that might legitimately be Nas' best song from the view of a true diehard fan.

The range and detail of the many sports references throughout Bleeding Edge convinced me Pynchon must be a seasoned NY sports fan himself. He made some NBA references in Vineland and Inherent Vice but Bleeding Edge---fittingly for a New York City story---is filled with sports references, it's a regular part of characters' lives. Maxine is a big Knicks fan. Her thoughts often mingle basketball metaphors, she brings it up in convo, and she wears a Latrell Sprewell Knicks jersey as pyjamas. While it sucks to be a Knicks fan these days, that period (late 90s-2001) was the last time the Knicks were truly interesting. I was a huge Knicks fan in the Latrell Sprewell-Allan Houston days, just like Maxine. (Of course, Pynchon makes reference to the Sprewell choking incident.)

Detailed mentions of NFL games help form the day-to-day lives of characters as, in the days just prior to 9/11, they watch a Jets-Colts game on Sunday then a Monday night Giants-Broncos game. As a Jets fan, I specifically remember the Jets game Pynchon describes, he even mentions their old quarterback Vinny Testaverde whose jersey I still have.

Most stunning and satisfying to me were the baseball references. There's a bunch, but I want to focus on a couple specific games he has characters watch. Baseball writers Bill James and Rob Neyer had a thing they used to do called "Tracers" where they'd take some mention of a baseball game somewhere and trace the details for accuracy. So I did that for a little scene in Bleeding Edge where characters are in a barbershop watching a Mets game. (Keep in mind, I'm a huge Mets fan and must've watched almost every game during the period described.)

The facts Pynchon gives us are these: it's around Labor Day in 2001; the Mets are playing the Phillies; a character walks in and asks "How they doin?" with the response, "Five-nothin...Payton just homered." Welp, sure enough it checks out perfectly: according to Baseball-Reference on Sept 4, 2001 the Mets were playing the Phillies in a ballgame where Jay Payton indeed smacked a home run in the 3rd inning to put the Mets up 5-0. Amazing.

Later on, a World Series game between the Yankees and Diamondbacks becomes part of the focus of a little Halloween episode and, sure enough, all those details check out too. Maxine and husband Horst (who is not a Yankees fan) watch Derek Jeter hit a walk-off home run in the wee hours, exactly as he did on Halloween night in 2001 to win Game 4 of the World Series.

Whether Pynchon himself is a sports fan who remembered these events or was just characteristically precise in rendering historical details, he does an incredible job crafting the setting---cultural and physical---of New York City in that period, enough to make this native New Yorker nostalgic.

*   *   *

Immersion in Pynchon's fictional worlds is addictive. He's known for being an arcane author, but I've found his works to be mostly accessible and fun. He's a prose master with a great sense of humor and a penchant for clever, zingy dialogue. I've now read everything in his oeuvre except Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, and V. Based on some gushing praise I've heard about Against the Day, I'm itching to read it next but have way too much going on in my life right now to take a crack at a 1,000-page behemoth. So I'm left with craving more Pynchon.

A few items worth mentioning here have helped satiate that craving of late:

  • A fun new piece appeared in a Brazilian magazine examining Pynchon's career and the efforts of some translators around the world. It's called "The Fake Hermit" and well worth a read.
  • I recently rediscovered the "Pynchon in Public" podcast after years of neglect. They've got a great thing going right now. It's essentially a Pynchon book club with readers of all stripes from around the world gathering on Skype to discuss his work chapter-by-chapter. Currently they're in the middle of Gravity's Rainbow. It's a fantastic listen, capturing the essence of a reading group with each participant bringing their own unique interpretation to the table. 
  • A YouTube channel called "The BookChemist" features an Italian gentleman sharing his passion for literature through book review videos and he's especially a huge fan of Pynchon. Lots of great stuff there---check out his ranking of Pynchon's novels (you'll be shocked by #1).
  • A new book called Occupy Pynchon: Politics After Gravity's Rainbow examines how Pynchon's later works, from Vineland onward, create a template for resistance against the powers of Empire through the bonds of family and community.


  1. Best review of Bleeding Edge I've ever read, PQ. Thanks!

    I was particularly taken by the psychogeographical aspects of your reading of Bleeding Edge. I think about that all the time. My two cities have been Los Angeles/Pasadena and San Francisco/Berkeley, and whenever I've walked or driven through certain areas of those cities (and their 'burbs), I can't help but be palpably "feel" the memories and emotional tones of "fictional" events and characters I've encountered neurologically, in places that really do exist. In this, fiction and "reality" seem to fuse and take on an extra dimension.

    Add to that: reading and the geographical landscape and the museum-without -walls historical knowledge, as, one day, I walked/rode my bike around Berkeley past houses Leary lived in, not too far from Ishmael Reed, then a known Philip K Dick abode, followed by a Robert Anton Wilson house, Allen Ginsberg house, and one of the acid chemist Owsley's places.

    Back to Bleeding Edge: what was going on out near Montauk Point? Does it have something to do with wild conspiracy theories about government genetic breeding experiments gone mad?

  2. This is awesome! My jaw dropped when I saw you mention MGS! I tend to think Kojima was super inspired by Pynchon (Solid Snake seems to be a Tchitcherine analogue, and the horse in the novel is named Snake), additionally I think the story of the series is really indebted to Gravity's Rainbow in particular. I was thinking about writing about it someday. I love the book chemist! I just picked up Bleeding Edge and I'm even more pumped to read it now.

    1. Layne! Thanks for commenting. Interesting points re: GR influence on Metal Gear. Certainly seems feasible. The accuracy of the Metal Gear details he uses in Bleeding Edge are almost surreal.

      Pynchon is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers. I'm fighting the urge to crack open Against the Day but it's so damn intriguing I foresee the next few months being sucked up by it.

  3. Michael-

    Thanks for the kind words, that means a lot coming from you.

    Re: Montauk, I'm not totally sure. It seems Pynchon threw it in there to get you thinking about it (and amplify the weirdness vibe a little), then quickly moved on.

    Joshua Cohen talks about it in his 'Bleeding Edge' review for Harper's:

    'This actual paranormal conspiracy theory — regarded as the successor to the Philadelphia Experiment — is, in Pynchon’s telling, “a kind of boot camp for military time travelers” that kidnaps, starves, beats, and sodomizes American preadolescents. They — “Boys, typically” — are trained to become the agents of tomorrow, or yesterday, “Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit higher levels of command who have sent them out.”'

    Though Cohen notes this explanation comes to Maxine while she's in the computer simulation of DeepArcher, not out in "meatspace."

    I don't think I've actually read any cyberpunk novels yet, but this certainly felt like Pynchon's version of cyberpunk.

  4. Wonderful personal essay about a Pynchon favorite that is way more important than is commonly acknowledged. Also happy that Pynchon wrote a New York City book where you could resonate with the real/surreal details that you grew up around. His other New York novel is "V," set in the late 1950s/early 1960s, and you should read that next if only for the antics of the Whole Sick Crew.

    I am born and have lived all my life in California, so "The Crying of Lot 49" and "Inherent Vice" resonated the same way for me as "Bleeding Edge" did for you. "Vineland," though it was hated by a lot of his "Gravity's Rainbow" fans, hit me in the solar plexus since I was very familiar with the actual events in Humboldt County and Santa Barbara, the unnamed SoCal college beach town, and he got EVERYTHING right, including the mood.

    "Against The Day" is a difficult read, but since you're a "Finnegan's Wake" guy, you shouldn't have any problem. The only time I have ever been part of a book club is when I joined a communal blog group in 2005 when blogs were shiny and new. We read through ATD over the course of a year, with weekly written commentary on a certain number of pages being alternated between the dozen participants. Then everyone else would chime in the Comments section. There were fights, humor, much information shared, and it was a very interesting way to marinate in that dense masterpiece. Also, the slow reading of 25 pages every week was a wonderful way to absorb it. "Chumps of Choice" is still out there if you're interested in taking a look:

    1. Michael: Thanks for your great comment. I've actually been reading 'Against the Day' for the last month or so and had already been reading your "Chumps of Choice" blog. It's been an indispensable resource. Although I hadn't read the comments much--I'll need to go back and check those out.

      I read 'Vineland' earlier this year and loved it. In fact, I'm hoping to read it again soon. I think about that novel often. Much like 'Bleeding Edge' it's fun to read Pynchon talk about contemporary life and culture. And now that I understand the lineage of Frenesi Gates links back to the Traverse family, I want to look for resonances.