Literature

Thomas Pynchon’s Silicon Alley

Pynchon's new novel recreates New York in the dot-bust era.

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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.

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50 responses to “Thomas Pynchon’s Silicon Alley

  1. Hell, I didn’t even know Pynchon was still alive.

    1. Let me tell about the time I was hunting alligators in the NY sewers with Benny Profane.

  2. You Know Who Else (C’mon! You know it had to be done.) was engaged in self-delusion?

    1. The author of this piece is named Godwin (close enough).

      1. He actual is the Mike Godwin the law is named after.

        1. Wow, I just thought it was a coincidence. I didn’t know Reason employed someone famous. He’s been writing for Reason since 1994, I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was him this whole time.

          1. But does he read the comments?

            1. Last article he wrote was apologia for Obamacare and the Obama administration in general, for which he was torn apart by the commentariat. He got really whiny and butthurt about it in the comments, to the amusement of all involved (who of course proceeded to Godwin the thread hilariously).

              1. Ah, here it is.

                The Libertarian Case for Barack Obama

                Looking back at it, it’s even more idiotic than I remembered.

                1. That wasn’t quite as bad as I was expecting. He was at least straight forward about being progressive leaning and big with a civil libertarian bent (although that hasn’t gone so well with Obama lately).

                  1. Well sure, on the Slate Scale of Terrible Articles it doesn’t even register — but it was pretty bad for an article on Reason.

                    Then again, Steve Chapman is a Reason contributor…

                    1. I did like this trollish comment from Godwin:

                      I’m just amused that you’re so comfortable with the idea of state-enforced compulsion of American women to serve as gestation factories. Let’s call that Rape-Baby Libertarianism — or Libertarianism for men/Statism for women’s bodies.

                      Umadbro?

                    2. Yeah, what the fuck? Fucking lefties.

                      There is nothing more libertarian than holding a gun to a rape victim’s head so that she’ll play mommy to her aggressor’s “baby”.

                    3. I object to his characterization of the position, rather than his rejection of the position . Those libertarians who are against abortion do not in any way condone forcing a woman to become pregnant, as his phrasing insinuates. They simply consider the fetus to be a person with the same rights as everyone else and thus believe aborting the fetus to be murder.

                    4. Wait, so being pro-life isn’t about forcibly inseminating women and keeping them in my rape dungeon until they have the child borne of unholy experiments in the eyes of gods and man?

                      I’ve been doing it wrong, then.

                    5. I wonder if Mr. Godwin knows *whose* officials produced documents like this:

                      “The fertility of the Slavs is undesirable. They may use contraceptives or practice abortion; the more the better.”

                      http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/07-27-46.asp

                    6. Don’t forget this gem:

                      “Neither the circulation and sale of contraceptives nor abortions must be prosecuted [in occupied Russia]. It will even be necessary to open special institutions for abortion, and to train midwives and nurses for this purpose. The population will practice abortion all the more willingly if these institutions are competently operated.”

                      http://www.angelfire.com/mo/baha/nazis.html

              2. I don’t recall being hurt at all by the primarily boneheaded comments from people who can’t imagine why a progressive who’s also a civil libertarian might want to write for REASON (I’m closing in on 20 years). More thoughtful people might have figured out that Nick Gillespie commissioned me to write the Libertarian-case-for-Obama piece. More careful readers will have noted that I expressly said there were good reasons for Libertarians to vote for Gary Johnson in non-swing states — plus, it is not exactly unheard-of for people to have noted that Mitt Romney is a big ol’ statist whose governorship of Massachusetts was hardly a Libertarian masterpiece.

                1. As for myself, it isn’t the slight preference for Obama over Romney *as such* that I object to, but the abortion comments, which I felt at liberty to Godwin because…well, because you’re Mike Godwin, and because the comparison seemed apt in light of the quotes I gave above.

                  You haven’t claimed to be the final authority on all things Hitler, but doesn’t it seem that the abortion-on-request position is closer than the prolife position to that dictator’s life-denying philosophy?

                  1. I don’t pretend to know what was in Hitler’s mind with regard to abortion. I do know that the idea of using state power to prevent women from choosing to end a pregnancy doesn’t sound like the Libertarians I’m proud to hang out with.

                    1. Now I can tell people at dinner parties that I Godwinned Mike Godwin himself…and he responded!

                      Seriously, though, prolifers can be very nice guys, some of them are libertarian-leaning, like Doris Gordon and her buddies –

                      http://l4l.org/

        2. Yup.

          And you know who else had a law named after them?

          1. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac?

          2. Joe?

        3. Huh, didn’t know that.

          1. I didn’t realize he wrote for reason occasionally, which is a bit odd, as I ended up following him on twitter independently.

    2. Who who else was Godwinned by someone named Winston?

    3. “There is something creepily familiar about this go-north argument. By a corollary of Godwin’s law valid only on the Upper West Side, Stalin’s name, like Hitler’s, is 100% certain to enter a discussion of any length, and Maxine now recalls Ernie telling her about the genocidal Georgian and his plans back in the 1930s for colonizing the Arctic with domed cities and armies of young technicians, otherwise known, Ernie was always careful to point out, as forced labor, bringing out for multimedia emphasis his 78rpm album of THE ATTRACTIVE SCHOOLGIRL OF ZAZHOPINSK, an obscure opera from the purge era, strangled Russian bass-tenor duets invoking steppes of ice, thermodynamic night.”
      BLEEDING EDGE, by Thomas Pynchon, pages 309-310

  3. Nice review. I’m a big Pynchon fan based mostly on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say his later work did as much for me, but I’ll give this a try.

    1. I’m not a fan of that one as a whole. There are sections where the prose is incredible, and I’ve marked around fifty odd substantial sections to return to for rereading. V, however, I can read without putting down for several hours at a time.

  4. you know who else had a law named after them?

    Some cute drunk white chick?

    1. Congressman Andrew Volstead?

      Congressman James Mann?

      I think that covers a broad scope of human activity.

  5. Looking at a few of the other reviews in Godwin’s archive, I came across this gem from about a year ago, summing up the ending of Diamond Age:

    SugarFree| 9.18.12 @ 3:46PM |#|?|filternamelinkcustom

    “And then dad spent ten years in a sex computer and saved the day.”

    THE END

    1. Y-e-a-h, Diamond Age ended… vaguely. I read complaints about Snow Crash, which was abrupt but tied things up for the most part. Diamond Age didn’t peter out so much as hooked a jarring left and careened off the highway. Still my favorite of his novels.

      1. I’ve read two Stephenson novels and two Pynchon novels. You could probably guess which.

  6. I actually do appear, sort of, when Pynchon expressly creates his own West Side variant of Godwin’s Law.)

    You know who else tooted their own horn in writing.

  7. Dude makes a lot of sennse man. Wow.

    http://www.Anon-Workz.tk

  8. The thermodynamics of political history and epistemology…got it. What rationalism, sounds like a postmodernist bullshitter.

  9. “Sounds like” to someone who doesn’t recognize that I’m not at all postmodern, but in fact am an 18th-century rationalist. (Only the ignorant suppose that rationalism and postmodernism are the same.)

    1. I’m not at all postmodern, but in fact am an 18th-century rationalist.

      Doesn’t pass the sniff test. At all.

    2. I was talking about this Pynchon guy. But 18th century rationalism is something you should deal with, since only the ignorant would suppose that rationalism or postmodernism were valid means of cognition.

  10. “[O]nly the ignorant would suppose that rationalism or postmodernism were valid means of cognition.” Indeed. Fortunately, no one has said that here. The only blunder was your express supposition that “rationalism” sounds like a “postmodernist bullshitter.” You should probably quit skipping your philosophy seminars.

    1. You guys lost me.

      1. Wait, so rationalism and postmodernism are like filters applied to the epiphenomena of cognition?

  11. Mike, I think you need to quit while you’re ahead. You sound like my professors and they wouldn’t last here.

    1. ^^Winnah!^^

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