Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

pynchon bleeding edge

I just used the following statement to articulate to my husband how I am feeling about this book: I’m reading reviews now, and I don’t know what to think. There are a lot of bad reviews, and I find those infuriating because I think that the people who write those don’t understand his books. But if I try to think about why I like to read his books, it doesn’t make any sense.

So goes the usual discussion about reading Pynchon. It is perhaps why I always look forward to his books, and then feel a bit disorientated after reading them.

Reading Pynchon is not like reading any of my other favorite writers. It is not like reading Murakami or Adichie, which you can pretty safely recommend at a dinner party. Their style is delightful and normal, and most people will find it pleasing, even if they don’t love it. This is more like David Foster Wallace or Vladimir Nabokov or even, to a degree, Shteyngart – people you know do the same thing a lot in their books, and you love them for it, and you know that other people might complain. And Pynchon is goofier and more genre-like, so it’s even riskier. Jonathan Lethem in the New York Times has just written:

But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it.

And I find him delightful. His books are silly catalogs of pop culture references, weird made-up song lyrics (what is the function of those?), unbelievable dialogue between implausible characters… but all with an echo of the real. As if Pynchon has taken our thoughts and doubts about the world we live in, given them life, and showed to us how implausible and real they actually are.

This book is not a masterpiece, but I liked it a lot. It articulates something unnameable about the US in 2000-2002, and the feeling of big changes that are still taking place, and our own misgivings about them.

The reviews of this book often mention conspiracies. I think that is wrong. There are conspiratorial elements, but they do not form a real narrative. What is Gabriel Ice’s actual role in 9/11? Who was Windust, really? Who were the guys with the rockets on the roof? If you want this book to posit an actual theory about 9/11, you will be disappointed. Instead, in my opinion, the book is saying, as we often say to each other over dinners or emails since 9/11 and particularly perhaps since Snowden, that the world is more secretive than we know – the government is doing more than we have explicitly said that it should. But what is it doing? How “effective” (even by its own standards) is it? We don’t really know. We see bits and pieces, and we do not connect the dots. Perhaps we do not even try. Pynchon seems to be doing the same. He doesn’t encourage us to read his book as an actual conspiracy, but instead as a reflection of what we know and don’t know, and the doubts produced by living like that: known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. The Rumsfeldian formulation is a useful way to think about international events, but also about our lives.

Anyway, that’s the high-level summary of how I feel. Here are some things I flagged and liked in the book, in no particular order:

I like his cynicism and constant observation about the homogeneity of late capitalism – e.g.,

“Maxine can’t avoid feeling nauseous at the possibility of some stupefied consensus about what life is to be, taking over this whole city without mercy, a thightening Noose of Horror, multiplexes and malls and big-box stores it only makes sense to shop at if you have a car and a driveway and a garage next to a house out in the burbs.” (51)

Another theme is who is guilty – a theme that generally comes up in the September 11th literature genre, news analysis or otherwise. Who is to blame for the towers, should people feel guilty about ripping off the people who usually rip them off, etc.? So that is in here as well:

“Venture capitalists feared industrywide for their rapacity were observed to surface from pitch sessions with open wallets and leaking eyeballs, having been subjected to nerd-produced videos with subliminal messages and sound tracks featuring oldie mixes that pushed more buttons than a speed freak with a Nintendo 64. Who was less innocent here?” (72)

And, in line with that, there are a couple of usual “American liberal” criticisms – the sorts of things you say, but don’t act as if you believe:

“‘No, I meant late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of, meantime getting the suckers to believe it’s all gonna go on forever.'” (163)

and

“‘Back when I was getting into the business, all ‘being Republican’ meant really was a sort of principled greed. You arranged things so that you and your friends would come out nicely, you behaved professionally, above all you put in the work and took the money only after you’d earned it. Well, the party, I fear, has fallen on evil days. This generation — it’s almost a religious thing now. The millennium, the end days, no need to be responsible anymore to the future.'” (283-4)

I think one of my favorite things in the book is the part about irony – about how it was a victim of September 11th and how that somehow explains reality TV’s emergence in the post-9/11 world:

“‘As if somehow irony,’ she recaps for Maxine, ‘as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious — weakening its grip on ‘reality.’ So all kinds of make-believe — forget the delusional state the country’s in already — must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.” (335)

I like it, but I am not sure I agree with him. On one hand, there is this desire to read our sacred texts – the Constitution and the Bible, for example, but also the Quran and others – literally. On the other hand: Is irony really a casualty, or is it actually amplified and even more destructive than ever? I need to think about it a bit more.

And, finally, some of the more effective examples of his humour (other examples fall flat and are discussed at length in the bad reviews):

“James Bond has it easy, Brits can always fall back on accents, where you got your tux, a multivolume set of class signifiers. In New York all you have really is shoes.” (103)

and the abbreviation:

“Wahhabi Transreligious Friendship (WTF) Fund”

So to sum up:

I want to give it a 3.5 stars on Goodreads, but I guess I’m forced into 3 or 4. Sentimentality will choose 4 (I just like him), but if anyone else wrote this I’d give it a 3 – or possibly worse. Fair? Who knows, but certainly true.

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