After powering through Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s latest work, I keep finding myself having trouble getting to sleep because big chunks of my brain were still engaged with analyzing the book. And it’s great to be so caught up in a book, but the lack of sleep is becoming a pretty big bummer. So I thought I’d try to capture some of this in writing in the hope of getting some goddamned rest.
This isn’t by any means an attempt to put together a coherent analysis; coherent analysis of Pynchon is a mug’s game, especially when you’re going on only one read-through. But a bunch of things jumped out at me, and they’re all similar enough to suggest a kind of overarching intentional pattern.
More than anything else, Bleeding Edge seems to me to be about disappointment. Disappointment in the way the United States has reacted and changed since September 11, and disappointment in the slow but steady shittification of the Internet (and there’s an enormous amount of overlap between these two disappointments; we’ll get to this later, but in the meantime ask Edward Snowden). I might be projecting my own shit onto the book here, but I don’t think so (of course, you never do).
It’s weird to me, in 2013, to realize how much we’ve normalized all sorts of awful shit related to September 11. The event itself, for starters; it’s a thing that happened, and gets referenced from time to time, maybe with a pang of sadness or anger, and then you move on. And this is probably healthy- it would be hard to be a functional human being and stay constantly in the mental state of full engagement with what happened. Reading Bleeding Edge, though, put me back there, made me remember how end-of-the-world terrible I felt.
But then, remember right afterwards, when the fear and anger were commingled with a sense that hey, at least some times we can help each other out? Maybe this was a natural overcompensating reaction, too, maybe our brains just had to make use feel that way so that we wouldn’t all go nuts. I don’t know. But I know that it was a real thing, and that it was so palpable that noted bag of shit Glenn Beck is still trying to cash in on it.
And then what? Intervention in Afghanistan that morphed from “reasonable” to “totally fucking bungled.” Iraq. Bushian (Rovian, really) wedge-issue politics aimed at surfing to victory on a wave of outraged members of your base (as I type this, Twitter’s going nuts about a Tea Party rep in Texas who’s yammering on about liberal tears being the best gun lubricant). Something resembling national unity steadily sliced and diced down not just into nothing but into the exact opposite of itself for contingent, short-term gain.
Pynchon’s characters in Bleeding Edge only get to see the beginning of this process, but their creator knows where it’s all heading. Maxine, the book’s protagonist and point-of-view character, notes that the attack “infantilized this country. It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” Rather than think about why this had happened, we were told to go shopping, and that the evil-doers hated our freedoms. This isn’t a new observation – David Cross has had a standup bit based on it for five or six years now. But that’s the thing- we’re so used to the idea that we’re numb to it. Pynchon waves it in our faces again.
Aside from out-and-out thesis statements like that, though, Pynchon encodes the meatspace post-9/11 disappointment into his commentary about the progress of the Internet. One thing to get out of the way- if Bleeding Edge has a weakness, it’s the nuts and bolts of how Pynchon metaphorically treats the Internet (well, some would call the loose, shaggy plot a weakness as well, but at this point you know what you’re getting with Pynchon and if that bugs you, you just flat-out picked up the wrong book). The book’s characters and companies (set right after the crash of the dot-com bubble, tech companies both dead and alive figure prominently in Bleeding Edge) spend a lot of time concerned with “the Deep Web,” the largely uncommercialized chunks of the Internet where the search crawlers don’t index. Moreover, much of their interface with the deep web is through software called DeepArcher, which basically seems to be an MMORPG with a built-in browser and a very healthy privacy system.
The deep web is something of a moving target, especially as search engine technology progresses (I learned to my surprise today that Google indexes individual tweets, for instance). At one point, it more or less meant any database-driven website; that certainly hasn’t been the case for a long time. And DeepArcher, taken literally, just sounds like Second Life with links, not something particularly fun, cool, or awe-inspiring. But if you just assume that Pynchon’s not concerned with being terribly literal, and is instead just looking for a) a handy metaphor for the backwaters of the web and b) an easy storytelling interface for showing characters interact with it (and I think this is an extremely safe assumption; for one thing, the book doesn’t make much damned sense without it, and for another, the prose often gets very vague whenever Maxine’s surfing around in DeepArcher), then things are easier to deal with. The Deep Web and DeepArcher are just handy stand-ins for the old, weird Internet, the parts that aren’t strongly regulated or actively trying to sell you something (avatars within DeepArcher spend a lot of time complaining about the wave of advertising that they know will be coming when the search crawlers gentrify the neighborhood).
What Pynchon’s getting after here is that the Internet in general, and small chunks of it in a fractally repeating pattern, started out wild and woolly and free, and steadily gets regulated and turned into an obnoxious shopping mall (this, of course, is a standard trope in American culture- the unrestrained Wild West gets degraded and loses something essential when the forces of order move in. See Deadwood. See the common argument for the superiority of the original Star Trek series to ST: The Next Generation. And so on). The all-text 1997 reservoir of R.E.M. lyrics slowly becomes an (animated!) ad-laden picture-and-video-spewing Hot Celeb Newz! source. The shaggy social networking site morphs into a monetized hell of tailored ads and microtransaction-based games. The brainy general-discussion site scales poorly as the userbase grows, necessitating ever-more-restrictive-and-doctrinaire moderation. And so on.
And: more and more of our lives move online- Google’s serving our mail and looking things up for us. We buy stuff through Amazon. We do our banking through a browser. We talk about ourselves endlessly on Facebook and Twitter. A growing percentage of our lives move through standardized web-based data systems that (long suspected, finally confirmed in 2013) a central authority has a direct tap into. It takes your breath away if you take a step back and think about it – imagine travelling back in time to, say, 1990 and telling your past self about the extent to which your future life will be lived through fully-tracked digitized systems. Past You wouldn’t believe it, would accuse you of reading too much William Gibson. Or Thomas Pynchon.
The American National Security state existed well before 9/11, of course- it came into existence during World War II (and was put under the microscope in Gravity’s Rainbow), and by the end of Eisenhower’s second term it had become something Ike thought we should worry about. But there’s not much question that things got exponentially worse immediately after 9/11. The Internet probably would have started edging into becoming a tool of control no matter what happened (and Pynchon addresses this, if obliquely- a character, the protagonist’s father, rail’s against the Internet’s DARPA roots as an “original sin” that would inevitably bear terrible fruit); but 9/11 sure as hell accelerated the process.
And so the threads combine. The country on a macro level disappoints in its post-2001 direction. The Internet, on a general and on uncounted fractal smaller scales disappoints over the same time frame. And a big part of the failure of the promise of the Internet is that it becomes a tool of control that the country, in its flailing, negative reaction to the tragedy, doesn’t hesitate to embrace. That’s what’s going on in Bleeding Edge. The net gets worse, and in doing so is a facet of the country getting worse.
Despite all this, Pynchon ends the book on a hopeful note. Maxine sees a couple of acquaintances running a mobile rebel server farm on a semi truck, trying to establish a new, unfettered web free of original DARPA sin. She acknowledges that her children are old enough to walk themselves to school, having grown up enough to gain some independence. I go back and forth on whether this indicates that Pynchon, the heavy goofball who at one point in this book parked the narrative to set up an elaborate Scooby-Doo joke, sees some hope than raw human weirdness will find a way to keep growing through cracks in a system aimed at complete control; or whether he felt like he had to offer up some hope to offset the gigantic bummer lying just beneath the surface of this surprisingly hilarious, fun-to-read book. I don’t know. I really don’t. I guess you have to go with hope, because what else is there?