Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin Press, 496 pages, $28.95.
More than 30 years ago, I wrote my senior honors thesis on the novels of Thomas Pynchon. I was certain back then that I knew what Pynchon's thematic obsessions were. The guy was clearly fascinated by thermodynamics (and its cousin, Claude Shannon's information theory) and by human beings' obsessive, almost paranoid ability to find patterns and conspiracies underlying the world around them. And it seemed to me back in 1980 that Pynchon had demonstrated in different ways in V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow—the three novels he had written to that point—that the human animal's need to find order, or to impose order, on the larger world is in fact a thermodynamically disordering impulse: a kind of accelerator of entropic pressures in the closed system of human history.
It took a decade or two of post-college life before I realized that I'd become something like a Pynchon character myself as I wrote that thesis—that I was trying to impose a thematic order on books that described worlds that were bigger than I had imagined or could explain.
That kind of self-delusion, built on the optimistic assumption that the world can be fully explained and predicted and managed, is a central theme of Pynchon's newest novel. Bleeding Edge is a "historical romance" (Pynchon's term, if you believe as I do that he also wrote the jacket copy) set mostly in Manhattan in 2001, and mostly before the terrorist attacks of September 11. Ask most Americans alive today when they lost the complacent, end-of-history optimism of the 1990s, and most will point to Al Qaeda's grandiose demonstration in 2001 of how much damage and upheaval a couple of dozen religious fanatics can perpetrate. But for a select cadre of software writers and venture capitalists, the first real moment of disillusion came the year before, when the dot-com bubble burst, and it became obvious that tech-industry investors are no more immune from the madness of crowds than anyone else is.
Before that fateful market downturn in the spring of 2000, the extraordinarily popular West Coast delusion that the stock market could only continue to climb, and that computer tech and software would be the reliable, relentless drivers of ever-increasing wealth, was in full swing. And Pynchon, who himself moved (we think) from northern California to New York City sometime late in the last century, is perhaps better-positioned than most to note how California dreaminess pollinated Manhattan's "Silicon Alley" developers: "Somewhere back in the Valley, among those orange groves casually replaced with industrial campuses, they came to a joint epiphany about California vis-à-vis New York…maybe more joint than epiphany—something to do with too much sunshine, self-delusion, slack. They'd heard this rumor that back east content was king, not just something to be stolen and developed into a movie script. They thought what they needed was a grim unforgiving workplace where the summer actually ended once in a while and discipline was a daily given condition. By the time they found out the truth, that the Alley was as much of a nut ward as the Valley, it was too late to go back."
Bleeding Edge's protagonist is an independent fraud investigator, Maxine Tarnower, with a head for numbers and a Repo Man impulse to head into tense situations rather than avoid them. Maxine is herself feeling her way toward the bleeding edge of 21st-century disillusionment. Pynchon even has her spot Bernie Madoff's criminal machinations years ahead of his eventual arrest; when told that Madoff's firm doesn't just average "one to two percent growth per month" but in fact simply hits those numbers every month, she's quick to respond: "In this economy? Look at this—even last year when the tech market went belly-up? No, it's got to be a Ponzi scheme, and from the scale of these investments he could be front-running also."
That is not Maxine's only encounter in mid-2001 with troubling portents of a shaken-up decade: "For a couple of weeks now, Maxine has been showing up for sessions to find her youthful guru increasingly bent out of shape by the news from Afghanistan. Despite impassioned appeals from around the world, two colossal statutes of the Buddha, the tallest standing statues of him in the world, carved in the fifth century from a sandstone cliffside near Bamiyan, have for a month now been dynamited and repeatedly shelled by the Taliban government, till finally reduced to rubble." Pynchon has caught, in the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, a precognitive echo of another twinned construction razed to the ground.
Those first three Pynchon books were anchored in historical eras or cultural milieux of which I had never been a part, but Bleeding Edge is fixed right in the middle of my life: I myself had lived in New York City in the late 1990s, when the craziness of Silicon Valley had cloned itself (or so it was thought) in "Silicon Alley," when the AOL-Time Warner merger was fresh in everyone's mind (and perceived to be a sort of old-media/new-media synergistic coup instead of the plain disaster that transpired), and when my friends, family, and acquaintances, who knew I did some kind of work on the Internet, pestered me for investment tips. ("Invest in Gillette," I would tell them. "The stock is undervalued right now, and the market for razor blades is going to be around for a long time." This did not always go over well.) When the dot-com bust came, I'd already relocated to Washington, D.C., and was surprised only by how long the bust had taken to arrive, given what I knew even then about how vaporware-ish most dot-com business models had been.
Still, even if you had been expecting a market "correction" sooner or later, there was something vertiginous, disorienting about New York in this period, and Pynchon has caught it precisely and humorously, framing it in (characteristically) comically excessive sentences like these, about a "nostalgia" party in mid-2001: "Even though the dot com bubble, once an eye-catching ellipsoid, now droops in vivid pink collapse over the trembling chin of the era, perhaps no more than a vestige of shallow breath left inside it, no expense tonight has been spared. The theme of the gathering, officially '1999,' has a darker subtext of Denial. It soon becomes clear that everybody's pretending for tonight that they're still in the pre-crash fantasy years, dancing in the shadow of last year's dreaded Y2K, now safely history, but according to this consensual delusion not quite upon them yet, with all here remaining freeze-framed back at the Cinderella moment of midnight of the millennium when in the next nanosecond the world's computers will fail to increment the year correctly and bring down the Apocalypse. What passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder. People have pulled their pre-millennial T-shirts back out of the archival plastic they've been idling in—Y2K IS NEAR, ARMAGEDDON EVE, Y2K COMPLIANT LOVE MACHINE, I SURVIVED… Determined, as Prince can be heard repeatedly urging, to party like it's 1999." Here Pynchon describes the atmosphere of the New York City I once lived in with such acute accuracy that I practically expected to find myself in a walk-on role. (A few pages after this passage I actually do appear, sort of, when Pynchon expressly creates his own West Side variant of Godwin's Law.)
Even more than the accuracy of Pynchon's millennial Manhattan mise-en-scène, the most striking thing about Bleeding Edge is that its theme inverts that of those books on which he first built his reputation. The Pynchon of V., The Crying of Lot 49, and Gravity's Rainbow was certain (or so I thought as an undergraduate) of the destructive power of human delusion, vanity, and aspirations towards transcendence. In Bleeding Edge, by contrast, it is precisely those human failings that have shielded us, for better or for worse, from the harsh realities of historical forces that more or less ignore our vanity and aspirations. Reality taught us in 2000 that our delusions about an ever-rising stock market, with entrepreneurs luring limitless venture capital by sketching dotcom business plans on the backs of napkins, could not go on forever—if James Glassman and Kevin Hassett's Dow 36,000 was going to happen, it wouldn't be happening anytime soon. In 2001, the September 11 terror attacks shattered the thesis of another irrationally exuberant book, Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man. In Bleeding Edge, Pynchon tells us that human vanity and hope are themselves a kind of tissue-thin protection from a reality that is less shaped by us than it is simply indifferent.
Or at least that's what my inner undergraduate thesis-writer is telling me right now. There's no particular reason to trust that guy.