“And the hard part is that she knows better, knows that beneath the high-cap scumscapes created by the corporate order and celebrated in the media, there are depths where petty fraud becomes grave and often deadly sin.”
~ Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge
For the past twenty years, that’s the time we have been sheltering in this little corner of damp suburbia, I have owned and used a wonderful little petrol-engine lawnmower. It does, in all seasons, a jolly good job of keeping our patch of grass tidy, even, at times, depending on the vagaries of this island’s weather, delightful.
The small engine was designed and built by a US engineering outfit in Milwaukee, and I guess “they” have long sold off, or been declared bankrupt. Their product is clean, does not leak oil, is wonderfully sober. Through the year I probably use a mere three or four litres of unleaded, sometimes much less. I love the sound of the engine, a low purr that does remind me of old American cars, with big, friendly, low revving eight cylinders disposed in V. Yet, it is a small engine.
When I cut the grass I think of the people, in Milwaukee, who built the engine, and I praise them, and their skills, wherever they now are. The same feeling overcomes me when I read a Thomas Pynchon novel: I know that this voice is more powerful that the thousands of followers of the “pensée unique” that clogs up the web, those writers and journalists who have long given up thinking for themselves, and respecting their public.
In a Pynchon novel there are several co-centric stories, and like Johann Sebastian Bach’s Art de la Fugue, it takes several readings, indeed a lifetime of reading, to discover them. The central character is on a journey, or, better, a quest. Along his or her progress, often halted by external events of great, if hidden, significance, or smaller anecdotes whose meaning may remain obscure, evil lurks. In “Against the Day”, and now, in “Bleeding Edge”, this evil has a clear profile: the late capitalistic neo-liberal conundrum, responsible for atrocities and destructions perpetrated world-wide, in the face of God and Mankind.
One of the book’s theses is that evil well precedes its latest avatars. The story follows Maxine Tarnow’s gumshoe and sexed-up mother of two, who’s investigating that rarity, in early 2001, out of the ruins of Silicon Alley, a technology company – hashlingrz – that is successful and growing, but also engaged in obscure, and well protected, big money transactions with the Middle-East. For the technology sector has crashed, in the so-called dot com collapse of 2000. This is a pivotal moment in US history: the cranked up Y2K fallacy, the Nasdaq equity dive, and now those rumours about all things Arabic, and the rise of Bush Jnr. Maxine’s work is part funded by Igor, an ex-Spetnatz soldier-turned-entrepreneur, whose soul found its road of Damascus, when his umbrella failed to open over Chechnya.
Soon, the boss of hashlingrz, Gabriel Ice, comes into sharp focus: double or triple agent, engaged in a series of capital manipulations for the benefit of shadowy Gulf’s secret armies, and protected by equally shadowy US agencies. This is September 8, 2001 and “the market” is playing with airlines shares, fact that Maxine’s found again ex-husband and commodity trader, Horst, does not fail to notice and explain to their kids, while masked men play with Stinger missiles and sniper rifles on the roofs of New-York.
Maxine, above all caring for her two boys, Ziggy and Otis, proceeds to meet one operative, Nick Windust, mercenary in the pay of evil, assassin, presumed torturer, and well-hung enough to attract more than Maxine’s fraud examiners’ professional interest. Indeed our hero gets seduced by Mr I-don’t-do-foreplay-Windust, one evening, in the sinister flat the said Windust occupies, in an equally sinister part of the City. For this is New-York City, just before the fall.
When the outrage comes, to no-one’s real surprise, Maxine is momentarily lost, in fear for her boys. She has discovered DeepArcher, a piece of code constructed by survivors of the crash, and finds for a short while some solace in its depth, before it goes “open-source”. This virtual world is not without reminding us of that proto-metaverse: Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992). So we have, at least, three stories: Maxine’s quest to uncover the truth about Mr Ice and his corporation, her infatuation for Windust – who will end up murdered by , presumably, his employers, and half eaten by wild dogs, and her reflections on 9/11 as viewed through the eyes of a true New-Yorker, who longs for the City of her childhood. Those reflections are enhanced by her travels through DeepArcher, the memories of her father, who is clear about what the Internet is, where it comes from, and where it is going: a tool – a toy? – of the Cold War, first designed to survive a nuclear blast, now magisterially transformed into instrument of manipulation and slavery, and a “chance” meeting with Windust’s once South-American wife, now strutting her stuff in US Academia.
Despite all, Maxine, who lost at some point her license of fraud examiner, manages to stay “on the honourable side of the ledger”.
As one of her friends says to her: “Guess I’m just a Yahoo! type of girl. Click in, click back out, nothing too far afield, nothing too… deep.”
One way to stay safe.
I haven’t finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and I will later adorn my Goodreads page with my conclusion. Suffice to say that Thomas Pynchon is, for this reader, one of the four vortices of the magic square, that which is at the heart of my love for contemporary American letters: Pynchon – Stephen King – Neal Stephenson – Bret Easton Ellis. Those guys are, to my mind, America, through and through.
Re-reading Christian Lorentzen’s review of Bleeding Edge in the 26 September 2013 issue of the LRB, I found myself, a rare event, in some disagreement with the respected editor of the said LRB. Bleeding Edge is not, in my reading, “a period novel” about New-York City’s Silicon Alley, that is merely the backdrop. Bleeding Edge is, literary speaking, about the atrocity, about 9/11, in the same way as Gravity’s Rainbow is about the nazi weapons of reprisal, and their aftermath.
Pynchon’s genius, once again (as, in Gravity’s Rainbow, the surreal connection between Peenemünde and West Africa), is to link the Saudi-perpetrated-and-funded outrage with the preceding, less bloody, but no less potent, disaster: the collapse of the first corporate attempt to subjugate the Internet, known as the “*.com” bubble. The link – shadow of Stephenson’s Snow Crash – is DeepArcher, a “piece of code” that turns out to be a deep metaverse, malevolently seductive to the hero of the tale, Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator by profession, and to survivors of the outrage. The book mentions a number of fraudulent plots, real or supposed, the main one being the subject of Maxine’s own quest for truth, about Gabriel Ice, corporate predator, pervert, double or triple agent, and purveyor of funds to shadowy Gulf’s paramilitaries.
Thus the novel skirts around the trinity: late capitalism – “War on Terror” and, finally – the Terrorists among us, bankrolled by successive US administrations (the “ben Ladin’s network” and its successors) and the Saudi’s evil empire. In the meantime we get the “period piece” about 2001, which could be described as the last year of innocence of the 21st century. Worse was to come.
Maxine, a hero for our time, is left, bemused, abused – on her own volition – but still kicking, incredibly.
I am taking my time to finish the book, and will write again. Incidentally, my definition of the atrocity, is my own, not Thomas Pynchon’s.