Pynchon’s Pop Fiction


Review of Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Books, 2013

Thanks to his famous refusal to participate in celebrity literary culture in anything other than a parodic and teasing fashion, we may never know exactly what Thomas Pynchon was doing between the publication of Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973 and that of Vineland in 1990. However, the evidence of his extraordinarily prolific late career suggests that he was, firstly, writing a great deal. Mason & Dixon (1997), a monumental work of postmodern historical fiction, and the even more ambitious and daunting Against the Day (2006) take a great deal of reading – and, depending on commitment levels and extra-textual obligations, re-reading – and they certainly took a lot of writing. These are the novels that continued and extended Pynchon’s already substantial, even definitive, contribution to large-scale, high-concept, self-consciously difficult, at times insanely frustrating, but undoubtedly and endlessly rewarding postmodern literature that began with V. in 1963 and, some would argue, culminated with Gravity’s Rainbow in 1973. These novels, the deferred fruit of Pynchon’s fallow period, are no doubt those for which, should the Swedish Academy ever choose to correct perhaps its most glaring lapse in critical judgment, he will someday be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. But the second thing that seems clear about that lost decade-and-a-half between Gravity’s Rainbow and Vineland is that Pynchon spent much of it watching TV.

A fascination with the primary cultural medium of the twentieth century is obvious in many of Pynchon’s novels, but it is particularly clear in the second major segment of his body of work, consisting of Vineland, Inherent Vice (2010), and, most recently, Bleeding Edge (2014). The critical tradition has tended to read the first two of these alongside Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) through the lens of their shared Californian setting. However, the publication of Bleeding Edge, a novel in many ways similar to both Vinland and Inherent Vice, but in which New York is, as Pynchon indicates with his Donald E. Westlake epigraph, not so much a setting as a character, “the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it,” means that this geographical criteria may need to be reconsidered, if not discarded entirely.

Instead of place, what seems to bind these novels most closely together is the intensity with which they submerge themselves in the shallow end of the pop-culture pool. The Reaganite America represented in Vineland consists of endless cultural reference points of instant and total banality, from Count Chocula breakfast cereal to Return of the Jedi, from Fruit Loops, Cap’n Crunch, Nestle’s Quik and Diet Pepsi to Friday the 13th, Gidget, and CHiPs. This is a world in which “the Tube was a member of the household,” and in which lives are lived with, through, and for their eventual mediatization: Zoyd Wheeler, for example, watches himself on the news when not watching one of the fictional biopics (The Clara Bow Story starring Pia Zadora) that are a staple of late Pynchon (348). Similarly, Inherent Vices’ Doc Sportello is obsessed with John Garfield movies, while his lawyer-cum-investigative assistant Sauncho Smilax offers drug-addled but nonetheless relevant interpretations of TV ads (“Charlie the fucking Tuna, man,” whose “suicidal brand loyalty” offers a “deep parable of consumer capitalism”) (119). Bleeding Edge, too, is steeped in popular culture, although this is a weak way of describing a novel that largely consists of media references, language, and tropes. Its characterization, for instance, consists on one level of TV viewing preferences, from emotherapist Shawn’s fondness for the Brady Bunch to free-lance web designer Driscoll Padgett’s Jennifer Aniston obsession. It also continues several of the pop-culture patterns of Vineland and Inherent Vice, including frequent references to brand names, here carefully calibrated to reflect the consumer culture of the turn of the millennium, such as Razor scooters and Zima, “the bitch drink of the nineties” (45). Its characters watch the Tube, discuss the Tube, and think and talk in patterns derived from the Tube. This is in a very real sense TV fiction.

Of course, there is nothing particularly startling in this; Pynchon’s work has always engaged with the popular, and integrated lowbrow elements into its textual matrix. Gravity’s Rainbow’s range of reference, for example, reaches from the elegiac intensity of Rainer Maria Rilke to the fantastic lewdness of the Rocket Limericks (“Ja, ja, ja, ja! / In Prussia they never eat pussy!”), while Against the Day’s primary structural feature, the separate but connected narrative strands of the boys-own-adventure Chums of Chance and the bleak social realism of the Traverses relies on precisely this sort of bifurcation (363).  After all, this conflation of different genres and rejection of hierarchical separations between cultural strata is one of the defining features of the post-modern text. But in the pages of works like Vineland, Inherent Vice, and Bleeding Edge, the low culture elements are almost entirely unrelieved by any reference to high culture forms; instead of offering an alternative to or contrast with high culture, they make up the complete world of the novels. Inherent Vice’s Coy Harlingen humming “through the reed of a tenor or sometimes alto sax” for the surfadelic band The Boards does not represent a viable aesthetic alternative to a degraded and corporatized popular culture as McClintic Sphere does in V., “swinging his ass off” on his “hand-carved ivory alto saxophone with a 4 ½ reed” (59). When the narrator of Bleeding Edge claims that “it is a truth universally acknowledged that Jews don’t proselytize,” this is not so much a literary reference to Jane Austen as an indication of how thoroughly the opening lines of Pride and Prejudice have been digested by mass culture enzymes (24).

Perhaps the most significant departure from the Pynchonian norms here, however, is the way in which the prose in which these novels are written is itself flattened out, attuned only to the limited registers available to participants in a mediatized popular culture. In Bleeding Edge, as Michael Chabon noted in his review of the novel, we no longer find the passages of extraordinary lyrical intensity and literary beauty which punctuate and illuminate much of Pynchon’s work, set pieces of virtuoso writing and descriptive brilliance that by themselves redeem so much of Pynchon’s fallen world. Instead, these novels consist of the bought and sold language of mass culture, the brand names, the slang, the TV taglines, the attenuated language of the everyday. These are not literary novels depicting a fallen world; they are novels partaking of that fall.

Not every reader has been comfortable with this shift in Pynchon’s work. Harold Bloom, in a 1991 interview with Antonio Weiss, described Vineland as a “total disaster,” in fact the greatest “disaster in modern American fiction,” a “piece of sheer ineptitude,” a “hopelessly hollow book” that has “not got in it a redeeming sentence, hardly a redeeming phrase,” and contrasted it specifically with the power of his previous work.  Similarly, many reviewers of Bleeding Edge have been disappointed with its apparent superficiality, reading it as a sort of, to use Michiko Kakutani’s notorious, if in some ways apt, phrase, “Pynchon Lite.”

However, this is a plain misreading of this strand of Pynchon’s work. The lack of redemptive language, this apparent hollowness, this total saturation in the cheapest and most superficial elements of our culture is very much the point; these are novels that make no attempt to transcend the culture out of which they emerge, instead attempting to articulate forms of resistance to it that emerge from within, and it is in this light that Bleeding Edge should be read. If it is Pynchon Lite, it is so because it is part of the world in which ‘Lite’ products exist and thrive. And to attempt to avoid that unpalatable truth through recourse to high culture forms or discourses, Pynchon implies, would be at the very least dishonest. As March Kelleher, in many ways the conscience of the novel claims, “‘Culture, I’m sorry, Herman Göring was right, every time you hear the word check your sidearm. Culture attracts the worse impulses of the moneyed, it has no honor, it begs to be suburbanized and corrupted’” (56).

While Bleeding Edge was published two years ago, the recent release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, while hardly propelling Pynchon into the center of the public gaze – Oscar nominations for best adapted screen play and costume design are hardly the stuff of legend – does offer an opportunity to reconsider the novel as directly concerned with mass culture. It belongs, as its epigraph implies, to the resolutely low culture genre of the detective novel. In this, too, it is related to Vineland and Inherent Vice, and indeed The Crying of Lot 49, all of which center around more or less explicit investigations. In fact, the same could be said of Gravity’s Rainbow and Tyrone Slothrop’s attempt to unravel the conspiracy of the rocket and to uncover the mystery of his own compromised childhood, and indeed of V. which narrates, in however fragmentary a form, Herbert Stencil’s investigation into his father’s death and the role therein of the mysterious eponymous figure of V. And of course we shouldn’t forget Pynchon’s readers, cast so frequently in the role of detective, attempting, however fruitlessly, to assemble coherent narratives out of fragmentary, contradictory, and frankly incompatible textual elements. But in these more recent novels the detecting impulse in Pynchon’s work has become much clearer, brought from the background into the foreground.

Given Pynchon’s penchant for the paranoiac worldview, in which interlocking webs of complicit interdependence are either uncovered or assumed to exist behind the bland appearance of the everyday, the generic model of the detective story is entirely appropriate. At least since Sherlock Holmes, the detective has functioned as a literary device for establishing, or unveiling, connections between seemingly disparate elements of the modern world, red-headed men and bank robberies, a battered hat and a high-society jewel robbery. In the American tradition of Hammett or Chandler, the hardboiled detective performs a similar function, although the focus tends to be more on linking apparently unrelated levels of society, street level hoodlums to corrupt politicians to plausible gangsters.

The investigative figure in Bleeding Edge both participates in this network-shaping activity and is subject to the paranoid system of total knowledge: “Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler” is a private fraud investigator, proprietor of “Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em” (not Tail ‘Em, Nail ‘Em and Jail ‘Em, which would be “wishful, if not delusional” thinking) (1,4). As a “defrocked” certified fraud investigator, whose preference for “friendship” over “super-picky guideline adherence” has led her astray, her normal work involves investigating inventory fraud amongst “low-stakes hustlers” (18, 6). A classic hardboiled detective, in other words. Yet when she begins to look into the financial irregularities of hashslingerz, a predatory computer security firm which survived the apocalyptic bursting of the tech bubble in 2000 and is now (spring 2001) closely linked to the government security apparatus, things become much more complex, and much of the novel deals with the bewildering proliferation and burgeoning menace of a trail that leads “Nancy fuckin Drew, here” via a series of ominous discoveries including untraceable money transfers to Dubai, retrained hackers using Arabic leet to build security walls, the Montauk Project (that manifestation of “every horrible suspicion you’ve ever had since World War II”), and many other tangential, entangled, and imbricated events of, at times, dubious relationship to reality, to the September 11th attacks (84, 117).

While Tarnow’s investigation is never aimed directly at uncovering the ‘truth’ behind the attacks, there are strong parallels drawn between the murder of Lester Traipse, a small time embezzler who crossed the wrong people, and 9/11: the murder weapon, a “spring-propelled ballistic blade,” resembles the incessantly televised image of the high-jacked airplanes knifing into the towers, and the intricate and interlocking system of possible conspiratorial motives for the murder, ranging from corporate revenge and profit seeking to government led false-flag covert operations, directly parallels the swirling network of conspiracy theories that attempt to account for the World Trade Center attacks (206). And Maxine’s need to sort through the haze of conflicting and overlapping possibilities surrounding his murder, her sense of personal loss and overcharged grief seems to indicate that Traipse operates as both a foreshadowing and a sign of the greater attack. His dream warning from beyond the grave, the single word “Azrael” – that is “the Angel of Death,” not “Gargamel’s cat” – is according to Maxine’s interpretation linked to the whole range of conspiratorial potentialities that surround the novel’s central event: Judaism, Islam, rapacious capitalism, governmental secrets, and perhaps above all the existence of evil. However, with the September 11th attacks, the novel’s fictional paranoid network, that intricate system of connections being gradually revealed by Tarnow’s detective work, coincides with historical reality, and the investigative impetus of the novel begins to fade. Paranoid conspiracy now moves seamlessly across the fictional-reality boundary, and the novel’s revelations becomes more concerned with systematic, structural, even natural corruption, and the attenuated possibilities of resistance to it.

It is this possibility of resisting the forces of oppression – be they technological, conceptual, or governmental ­– that lies at the heart of Pynchon’s writing, and in Bleeding Edge, perhaps more than in any of his previous novels, he explores what resistance from the compromised position of a participant in the total system of modern cultural, political and social life might look like. This is to say that there is no, or at least very little, possibility of stepping outside the system, no external vantage point from which to observe, critique and potentially attack the agents of social, cultural, and political debasement; we are so thoroughly interpolated into the world as it is that escape from it would be escape from ourselves. This is a type of resistance that Pynchon has explored in previous novels: in Gravity’s Rainbow, the post-war Zone represents a site of potential freedom from corporate and governmental control, and the Counterforce a potential organizational form of resistance. In Vineland and Inherent Vice, 1960s counter-culture similarly represents a possible locus of resistance, but one that is ultimately compromised, self-betrayed, and unsustainable.

In Bleeding Edge, the forces of control are perceptible largely through the transformation of the urban landscape of Manhattan. Historically, this occurs through the destruction of a Boricua neighborhood to make way for the Lincoln Center (a marker of culture’s implication in the system); in the late 90s setting of the novel through the reshaping of Times Square by “Giuliani and his developer friends and the forces of suburban righteousness” who have “swept the place Disneyfied and sterile” into a “stupefied consensus about what life is to be” (51). More radically, it occurs through the destruction of the World Trade Center, an attack which creates Ground Zero and “what should be the aura surrounding a holy place but isn’t” (446). The ensuing reshuffling of the urban population as greedy landlords exploit the opportunity of the disaster to “convert to co-ops and pocket some public money also” is simply an extension of the normal processes of a capitalist remapping of the city (333).

Just as the supersaturated cultural matrix of the contemporary world allows for no intellectual, aesthetic, or spiritual escape, very little of the physical world remains available for those who seek freedom. March Kelleher’s exuberant protests in the late 80s against slumlords “reverting to type and using Gestapo tactics to get sitting tenants to move” were an attempt to fight just this sort of capitalist occupation of space (54). The Island of Meadows, “100 acres of untouched marshland” next to the Fresh Kills Landfill, or “toxicity central,” which Maxine visits in the course of a nocturnal escape from the DEA, has somehow remained “a piece of the ancient estuary exempt from what happened, what has gone on happening, to the rest of it” (166). It is a site of near-miraculous reprieve from the “pyramid racket” of late capitalism, but it is definitely an exception, and a threatened one at that, to the general rule of expedient exploitation (163). Moreover, the ominously named landfill alongside which it is located was the destination for much of the debris created by the World Trade Center attacks, and this oasis of exemption thus exists in a close relationship with its opposite, the death that arises from the inability to escape the networks of cause and effect that constitute a fallen history.

While the physical world is thus thoroughly compromised, this is a novel set during and around the emergence of the internet in the late 90s and early 00’s, and as such the most obvious site of possible resistance to life-denying authority here is virtual. If the real world of streets and buildings, parks and meadows, has been or will be occupied by the forces of capital, perhaps the virtual world of the internet offers a potential alternative mode of, if not resistance, at least escape. March Kelleher runs a website called “Tabloid of the Damned” which enables her to carry on her lifelong campaign of political resistance to capitalist oppressors, and while she loathes “greedy fucking dotcommers” she simultaneously admires their desire to “change the world”  (53, 116). But the real resistance does not take place in the “surface Web,” that realm of “bots and spiders” already at the turn of the millennium “a sorry picture” given over to the imperatives of corporate and governmental order, but in the Deep Web which lies below it (78, 428).

In Bleeding Edge this is embodied by DeepArcher, a hidden virtual world based on anonymity and security, around which many of the conspiratorial currents of the novel swirl. At first, it seems to offer a viable alternative to the real world. Visitors to this crowd-sourced alternate reality do not participate in any goal–oriented, productive activity – what is of interest is not the destination of the voyage, but the “texture of the search itself” (76). While it is never entirely clear what DeepArcher is, for despite Pynchon’s lavish descriptions of (then) cutting edge “shadow-modulated 256-color” graphics it remains an amorphous no-place (Maxine for instance, even after visiting it can only describe it as “whatever that turns out to be”), it is clearly presented as a site of potential escape from an ordered, manipulated and controlled reality (74, 84). Pynchon makes the link between vanishing pockets of un-debased real-world geography and this hidden corner of the internet explicit:

Like the Island of Meadows, DeepArcher also has developers after it. Whatever migratory visitors are down there trusting to its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far from selfless ends. (167)

After the World Trade Center attack, Maxine’s desire to escape from the world focuses on this virtual alternative; she wants to wake up from her nightmare, “and once she’s awake to be someplace else, even a meretricious geeks’ paradise like DeepArcher” (319). This is the same wish that Doc Sportello has at the end of Inherent Vice – the dream of “something else” other than the here-and-now (369). Between the early 70s to the early 00s, the place of that dream has gone from the literal freeway of Sportello’s fantasized community, to the information superhighway, and the possibility of escape is now acknowledged as delusory.

And here lies the problem, as Pynchon formulates it, with visions of the internet as a place or paradigm of alternate possibility or even potential resistance to the powers that be: it is both under constant threat from the outside, from the forces of consumption, corruption and death, and it is already co-opted. Eric Outfield, one of Maxine’s investigative helpers, argues that the internet “the real one, the dream, the promise,” is being “destroyed,” leaving behind “keyboards and screens turning into nothing but portals to Web sites for what the Management wants everybody addicted to, shopping, gaming, jerking off, streaming endless garbage – ­”(432). Even Deep Web refuges like DeepArcher are under threat: “the colonizers are coming,” and the frontier will be “suburbanized faster than you can say ‘late capitalism’ (241).

But this external threat is not the main issue. When Maxine expresses a naively optimistic view of the internet as an inherently liberating medium (particularly as opposed to the TV), her father, a man with a long memory of the government’s protracted engagement with the “pure terror” of the Eisenhower years, when “Midnight forever” lay just below the surface of the apparently benign normal, demurs (419). Citing the internet’s roots in the Defense Department’s DARPAnet and its role in Cold War systems of nuclear holocaust, he argues that “this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time” is at its very root a product and servant of the powers of control and manipulation (420). It “was conceived in sin, the worst possible” and it “never stopped carrying in its heart, a bitter-cold death wish for the planet” (420). Thus this potential site of escape from and resistance to the system is inextricably linked into that which it ostensibly opposes. The internet is not just the realization of governmental fantasies of total control, of “everybody connected together” so that it becomes “impossible that anybody should get lost,” which is bad enough as we have seen in the decade or so that has passed between the novel’s setting and its publication, but it is also linked directly to the thanatic forces that haunt the pages of the novel, the angel of death that rises from the ashes of the towers (420).

Yet Bleeding Edge does not end on this this note of hopeless resignation to the powers that be, or at least not on this note alone. While Pynchon offers us an all-too-realistic picture of a world in thrall to the ordered death of capital, control, and consumption, enamored by and immersed in the shallows of a rapacious consumer culture that is incapable of leaving undisturbed any vestige of innocence, he does at least gesture towards the persistence of hope. Part of this occurs through active forms of resistance: Reg Depard and Eric Outfield’s hacker resistance group, so similar to the Gravity’s Rainbow’s Counterforce, and Misha and Grisha’s “Lester Traipse Memorial Pulse” attack on Gabriel Ice’s server farm are both instances of individuals or groups taking concrete action to resist corporate and governmental power, albeit in forms that are for all practical purposes little more than symbolic (468). Maxine’s gunpoint defiance of Ice is likewise a point of micro-resistance which has tangible, if limited, effects. Similarly, she helps arrange a family reunion, of sorts, between March and her estranged daughter Tallis, which mirrors the reassembly of her own marriage; as in much of Pynchon’s work, family, no matter how fractured, offers an alternative to corporate and governmental social structures.

But what is most notable here is the way children in the novel are presented as sites of potential resistance. This is clear from the novel’s concluding scene, in which Maxine watches her children Ziggy and Otis leave for school unattended, accepting, however reluctantly, their need and ability to navigate their way through a world that for all its dangers is fundamentally theirs. But this hope for the future is implied throughout the novel by the way the children are able to take the preformed, debased, consumer culture to which they are heirs and reshape it for their own purposes. Otis and Fiona, for example, re-purpose “Melanie’s Mall,” a plastic version of consumer paradise in which Melanie, a “half scale Barbie with a Gold credit card” should shop until she drops, as an anti-capitalist scene of mayhem and creativity, which inevitably “ends in the widespread destruction of the mall”(68). Similarly, Ziggy and Otis use the fragmented and threatened technology of DeepArcher to create “Zigotisopolis,” a utopian analog of a pre-9/11 New York steeped in nostalgia and optimism, a “not-yet-corrupted screenspace” they inhabit “unconcerned for their safety, salvation, destiny . . .” (429).

Given the failure of the adult world in Bleeding Edge to challenge or resist oppression (or even to grow up in ways that would allow them to do so) this gesture towards the potential of children to resist the system from within, to manipulate an all-encompassing and seemingly irresistible version of reality in ways that undermine its hegemonic pretensions is precisely what Pynchon’s novel itself offers in its turning back of the debased language of consumer culture on itself. There is no position, Pynchon’s most recent work tells us, outside of society from which we can resist its pressures and allures. Instead, it is only from within the system that resistance is possible. Like Maxine’s therapist Shawn, the apparently inauthentic, plastic, and shallow can – must, in fact – be the very point from which truth emerges.

Works Cited

Pynchon, Thomas. Bleeding Edge. London: Vintage, 2014. Print.

---. Inherent Vice. London: Vintage, 2010. Print.

---. Gravity’s Rainbow. London: Vintage, 2013. Print.

---. V. London: Picador, 1975. Print.

---. Vineland. London: Minerva, 1991. Print.

Kakutani, Michiko. “A Calamity Tailor-Made for Internet Conspiracy Theories: ‘Bleeding Edge,’ a 9/11 Novel by Thomas Pynchon.” International New York Times. The New York Times Company. 10 September 2013. Web. 20 July 2015.

Weiss, Antontio. “Harold Bloom, The Art of Criticism No. 1.” The Paris Review.

The Paris Review. 118 (1991) : n. pag. Web. 20 July 2015.

Posted on 2 November 2015

ERIC SANDBERG is University Lecturer in English at the University of Oulu in Finland.