“What is the real nature of control?” First posed by a Nazi industrialist in the post-modern inferno of Thomas Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973), the question is reflected in endless permutations across the literary hall of mirrors that is his work.
Beneath the endless subplots, vaudevillian conversations and tormented picaresque, Pynchon’s greatest books have been historical novels set in periods associated with great transfers of power in human affairs, each of them concerned, as Pynchon put it in a letter from 1969, with “the imposition of a culture valuing analysis and differentiation on a culture that valued unity and integration”.
Images of surrender and domination float through the Pynchon masterpieces. “V” (1963) counterpoised the beatnik Fifties in New York with the atrocities of colonial Europe, the concentration camps of South Africa and the wartime rubble of Valletta in Malta. Most of “Gravity’s Rainbow” took place in the post-war landscape of the Occupied Zone, marooned between Nazi inhumanity and “the rationalised power-ritual of the coming peace”.
Nearly 25 years later, Pynchon’s exhaustingly brilliant 18th-century parody “Mason & Dixon” (1997) cast its titular surveyors as bewildered emissaries of the “Age of Reason”, ordered to stamp geographical certainty on the New World’s “realm of doubt” but worrying they are simply “reducing possibilities to simplicities that serve the ends of governments”.
“Bleeding Edge”, Pynchon’s eighth novel, is the best and most surprising thing he has written since those great books. It dispels any suggestion that, after spawning an entire tradition of comic-digressive and shamelessly intellectual American novels, he had gone peacefully off the boil when he reached his seventies. “Against the Day”, published without much fanfare in 2006, was a heart-sinking affair for his fans, a swollen, cryptic monster that gestured towards the complexities of earlier masterpieces without matching their unity or inspiration.
The amiable “Inherent Vice” (2009) was a Californian squib in the tradition of the minor novels “Vineland” and “The Crying of Lot 49”, a Chandlerian whizz through the fag end of the Sixties accompanied by a fuzz of dope smoke and surf music. But now, 50 years after the publication of Pynchon’s debut novel, “Bleeding Edge” is at a stroke his 9/11 book, his internet book and — even though it is set in 2001, back when the suggestion that the state was spying 24/7 on its citizens was still tinfoil-hat speculation rather than vivid reality — the first great fictional work of the post-PRISM age.
The protagonist in “Bleeding Edge” is Maxine “Maxie” Tarnow, a struck off fraud investigator and worried Jewish mother of two embroiled in an on-again-off-again relationship with her former husband. Herself a candidate for investigations that skirt the edges of legality, Maxie suddenly finds that everything points towards the operations of an acquisitive tech company called hashslingrz (whose cap-down styling and textual dysmorphia is the first of many spot-on parodies).
Run out of “Silicon Alley”, the Manhattan neighbourhood that nurtured New York’s dotcom boom, hashslingrz turns out — of course — to be a classic Pynchonian conspiracy, with a twitching tentacle in every business in town and a notable intolerance towards intruders. Before long Maxie is poring over videos of men hiding on Manhattan skyscrapers with Stinger missiles, scrutinising financial transfers to Arab hacker groups and exploring underground bunkers that may or may not shelter gangs of time-travelling brainwashed assassin children.
She also matches wits with a stone-faced CIA operative, a cosmetics “nose” obsessed with Hitler’s cologne, a pair of jocose Russian mobsters and the formidable asset-stripping CEO of hashslingrz, Gabriel Ice. (This is, in fact, a relatively restrained cast list for a Pynchon novel: previous participants in his drama have included a gigantic sentient adenoid, an order of male motorcycle nuns, much more)
One of Maxie’s contacts soon ends up dead, and a kind of laconic murder mystery sustains the narrative for a while; but this, as ever, is only there to impart vague direction to the jazzy eddies of dreams, songs and jokey backchat through which Pynchon transmits a large part of his novels. The jokes in this novel, incidentally, are superb, with the comic tone perhaps a career high point: it is certainly enough to dispel the reader’s traumatic memories of the infamous 11-page Kenosha Kid joke in “Gravity’s Rainbow” or the arch Chums of Chance sequences in “Against the Day”.
Always a comprehensive researcher, Pynchon has dug deep into noughties geek culture and consumerism, transmuting this unpromising base matter into a glittering sequence of gags and puns. Jokes about Pokemon (“some West Indian proctologist, right?”), an “arbitrage racket” in Diana, Princess of Wales Beanie Babies and the omnipresence of Jennifer Aniston’s “Rachel” haircut jostle with increasingly eccentric spins on movie and television culture: one character’s kid makes Quake-movie machinima adaptations of “The Sound of Music”, while an episode of “Scooby-Doo” set among the drug cartels of Colombia concludes with the villain declaiming: “I’d’ve gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for these Medellin kids!”
But this is also Pynchon’s Twin Towers novel, and its good humour alternates with a vivid sense of the post-9/11 crisis in the United States, the period in which, as one character notes, “a hole has quietly opened up in American history, a vacuum of accountability into which assets human and financial begin to vanish”. Conspiracies proliferate, but what might be an unsavoury descent into the netherworld of 9/11 “truthers” is rescued from ignominy by Pynchon’s attribution of the most arcane theories to a paranoid blogger.
She is given a memorable observation about “the bleak feeling, some mornings, that the country itself may not be there any more, but being silently replaced screen by screen with something else, some surprise package, by those who’ve kept their wits about them and their clicking thumbs ready”.
This will be familiar rhetoric for Pynchon veterans, who are used to his fictions playing out against the kind of sociopolitical backdrop that sets the little guy on track for a bruising at the hands of the man.
In “Bleeding Edge” this plays out on several levels. New York neighbourhoods are being steadily colonised by hordes of yuppies; Maxie’s sons play a first-person shooter in which yuppie rudeness at traffic lights or supermarkets is punished by instant hand-cannon vaporisation. The American mind is being invaded, “a viewing public brought back to its default state, dumbstruck, undefended, scared”.
The internet is coming under avid attention from those — sorry, Those — who see sinister value in having “everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost ever again”. And then there is the punningly named DeepArcher, one of the strangest spaces in any Pynchon novel. DeepArcher is Pynchon reclaiming his debt from the novelists William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, whom his discontinuous, information-obsessed fictions helped to inspire. A virtual no-space hidden in a deep web of encrypted connections and private bandwidth, it functions as a cross between a computer game and the kind of interactive environment we now know from “Second Life”: a space on “the border country, the edge of the unnavigable, the region of no information” in which character and representation are malleable and where the dead may even not really die.
This is another of Pynchon’s threatened American landscapes, an enclave of self-expression besieged by “corporate web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends”. But like everything else here, DeepArcher is in tune with the preoccupations (if not the technical capacities) of its time.
“Now that we’ve colonised physical space, the need to have new frontiers is deeply in the games,” observed Henry Jenkins, an MIT professor, speaking in 2001 about “Grand Theft Auto 3”, one of the first 3D worlds to attempt to simulate an entire city. What that game was doing, he contended, was “expanding the universe” — exactly the function DeepArcher assumes in Pynchon’s novel.
Of course, the plot dissolves far before the end, but then plot has never been the point of Pynchon’s work. Construing the world inevitably becomes an exercise in construing the book — “Everything’s a plot, man,” explains laughing Bodine in “Gravity’s Rainbow” to poor paranoid Slothrop, who is worried that his dreaded “They” are trying “to seduce his brain now, his reading eye too” — and his accretive novels always hide their ultimate revelations from the reader, flirting with the possibility that they may mean either absolutely everything or nothing at all.
What can a book contain? Where does the world run out? Looking out over a snarl of American streets near the end of “The Crying of Lot 49”, the book’s protagonist Oedipa Maas experiences this narrative-swallowing realisation: that either things are connected or they aren’t, and she will never know either way.“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the Earth.”
Lost down the rabbit hole of DeepArcher, clicking aimlessly through the virtual world for hidden significance, Maxie is offered similar cold consolation by the ambient dialogue boxes, which assure her that this is “part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost”. Now there is a statement that should appear on every Pynchon blurb.
–The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2013