Friday, January 03, 2014

The Bloody Point

The Crying of Lot 49 has a lock on my personal list of Top 5 Favorite Books. I love its humor, its strangeness, its paranoia, its love and fear of science and history. Most of all I love the ambiguity of the thing, the incredible way that Pynchon is able to constantly postpone a resolution to the central question driving the action: is Tristero real or a put-on? The answer to that question will determine which of two very different universes Oedipia is living in, and by eternally denying us an answer, Pynchon created a wonderfully tense and dense atmosphere that still excites me decades later.

I enjoy Pynchon as a whole, but all of his works are profoundly different from one another. Gravity's Rainbow shared some things in common with The Crying of Lot 49 - intelligent use of science in literature, a fascination with the macabre, a creeping metaphysical reality - but while TCoL49 is a breeze to read, Gravity's Rainbow requires enormous effort. His later books wander in structure and topics. His most recent offering before this one, Inherent Vice, was a really fun read, but didn't seem to have the same depth that I associate with his earlier works.

So, when I picked up Bleeding Edge, I had modest expectations. Pynchon is a talented writer, and I knew that no matter what it would be fun to read. What I ended up getting was something totally unexpected, and wholly appreciated: a sort of spiritual successor to my favorite book, The Crying of Lot 49. It took me a while to start connecting the dots, but once I started noticing the similarities, I giddily gave in to the idea and had a blast with the remainder of the book.


TCoL49 was written in the mid-1960s, and set a couple of years earlier, in sun-drenched California. Bleeding Edge just came out this year, and is set in Thomas Pynchon's current home of New York City. It's set in the year 2001, which is a really gutsy move. I generally have a knee-jerk negative reaction to fiction (whether literary, cinematic, etc.) that deals with the September 11th terrorist attacks. It seems like creators are screwed no matter what. On the one hand, it can feel like a really cheap and exploitative way to raise the stakes for their plot, by tying in to the highly charged emotions people connect with that event and hoping that they transfer to their own story. On the other hand, just because the event looms so large, there's a risk that any story someone attempts to tell will seem utterly insignificant in comparison.

I suspected that I was in better hands with Pynchon, though, and that proved to be correct. This isn't a book "about" 9/11; nor does it ignore the attack. Most of the book takes place during the summer and early fall, and does a fantastic job at capturing the zeitgeist of the period: a sense of ennui around the deflating tech sector, lingering liberal outrage over George W. Bush's "election," confused optimism about where the new millennium. As the story moved chronologically closer to the event, we (the reader) feel an increasing sense of dread, which tracks but does not mirror the unease felt by characters within the book.

After the World Trade Center is destroyed, characters react and grieve in very believable ways. There's also an extremely Pynchon-esque reaction as they try to determine if and how this tragedy is connected to the plots they've been attempting to follow. He doesn't say "This is what really happened," but offers a very realistic portrayal of the way we try to make sense out of disasters, derive some meaning or explanation from tragedy. (There's also a depiction of the birth of the 9/11 Truther movement, which the protagonist is skeptical of, even though she helped spark it.)

Speaking of which: I love the protagonist! Maxine Tornow is one of my favorite characters ever, and the best I've run across this past year. She's a vaguely middle-aged divorced mother of two, a secular Jew, and a disbarred auditor. She has opened her own practice, kind of like a private investigator who only investigates companies' books; she operates in the same kind of netherworld that noir heroes inhabit, hired by people on either side of the law to root around in other peoples' business and uncover wrongdoing.

This is, of course, a really perfect job for the protagonist in a mystery to hold, and provides an endless set of excuses for Maxine to get entangled in the multiple plot threads that make up the book. In the same way that Oedipa Maas in TCoL49 had her role as an estate executor which motivated her to go hunting through documents and connections, so Maxine's job as a rogue auditor gives her the background and associates that let her pry into the major power structures of today, technology corporations.

The best thing about Maxine, though, is her voice. The dialogue is wonderfully written, with lots of terrific repartee between Maxine and her friends and foes. She's sharp-tongued, intelligent, quick with a rejoinder, able to tease or draw blood as needed. She's a slightly older woman, and so has a lot of history with some of the characters, providing ample ammunition when they start going at it.

Despite her sometimes abrasive demeanor, Maxine is a thoroughly good person. She has a soft spot for victims, even those who are not so innocent themselves, and she regularly struggles between her professional obligations of justice and her personal desire to bestow mercy. She isn't perfect, and makes at least one majorly bad moral decision, but she's always admirable.

Beyond Maxine, it... gets a little confusing. I read this book practically nonstop, and even so I had a hard time keeping its vast cast of characters straight. Everyone receives a solid introduction when they first appear, but then flit in and out of the story, often with gaps of a hundred pages or more between appearances, and the sheer number of characters makes it hard to keep track of their identities, agendas, and alliances. Of course, this isn't a unique issue for this book, as Pynchon tends to have a lot of fun building these sprawling networks in his stories. I'm already looking forward to re-reading it, which should help me better appreciate what everyone's up to.

There are no insignificant characters, and everyone serves some purpose. Horst is Maxine's ex-husband; at first I thought he was kind of an oaf, greedy and uncaring. He drifts back into her life, though, and over the course of the book he's revealed as someone much more nuanced: a true child of the American heartland, with all that entails, including a reticence to discuss his feelings, an aversion to the cacophony of NYC, a problem controlling his weight, etc. Once I understood that, I even started to like him a bit, and appreciate the efforts it took him to stay involved in his kids' lives.

The villains also have layers that are revealed over the course of the book. Gabriel Ice and Windust are both discussed as people who have sold their souls, pledging to perform some service in exchange for rewards. The nature of their corruption appears different, though. Ice seems purely motivated by material gain; he aids the darker forces in the US government in exchange for immense wealth and growing power. Windust, on the other hand, has already achieved great wealth, but doesn't seem to care about it at all. He's motivated by the sick work he does itself: the dirty job is its own reward, and the holdings he acquires are just inconsequential afterthoughts. Which is worse? I detested Windust more, but it does raise an interesting question: is it worse to do evil while knowing it to be such, or to believe that your evil is good?

Gabriel Ice owns a tech company, and much of the plot has to do with his various machinations, almost always performed through proxies or deniable assets. Possibly the biggest surprise to me was just how fluent Pynchon is when discussing software. I probably shouldn't have been surprised; he's always been a smart writer, and conversant about science, so it makes sense that he would keep up to date in the computing field. I'm always pathetically grateful when any author (even a science-fiction writer) actually understands software (hence a major factor of my appreciation for Neal Stephenson), so finding an honest-to-goodness literary writer who can write funny jokes about man pages, algorithms, and dot-com decor is a startling treat.

For the most part, Pynchon's dialogue shows that he actually understands tech, and isn't just dropping in keywords. The one area that felt off to me, though, was the part of the book that took place in the Deep Web / DeepArcher, a fictional underground anonymized digital space. The description of the tech behind it sounds vaguely like a TOR ring or onion network; the actual descriptions, though, read like badly dated 1980s predictions of Virtual Reality. I'm hesitant to be too critical of this - it would be very boring to write about how one person sat at a computer and clicked icons on their screen - but it's the one part that took me out of the story a bit, and made me second-guess whether Pynchon did all this himself, or if he was relying on a domain expert to help him with the lingo.

While the tech stuff is interesting, and generally extremely well-done, the key appeal of the book is, once again, the vague sense of unease and alienation that creeps in. During most of the book I thought that Pynchon was writing a relatively realistic novel, without the hints of the supernatural that creep into TCoL49. After a while, though, a few specific things start to occur that make it seem very likely that we're living in a universe that does not observe our rational laws. True to Pynchon form, these aren't big, earth-shattering miracles: just events that are simultaneously mundane and weird enough to force you to do a double-take. The first such event that I can recall is a deliveryperson, who has already been established to show up at unexpected times bearing unexpected parcels, who suddenly performs an act that appears to violate the laws of space and time. Nothing specific develops out of this one occurrence, but a seed of uneasiness is planted that will continue to grow through the rest of the novel.


I hesitated over whether this qualifies as a spoiler or not, but better safe than sorry: there isn't really much of an ending to this book. Again, it's kind of par for the course for Pynchon. It's not that he doesn't care about plot; he's really good at crafting elaborate storylines, it's just that they make more of an impact if they're left to drift forward through eternity rather than snipped neatly off at the end. TCoL49 ended at an especially tense moment, and it felt like if he had written just one more page, it would have answered every important question that had been raised during the course of the book. In contrast, Bleeding Edge mostly drifts off into its ending. There's a showdown with the big villain near the end, and our protagonist kind of "wins," but it isn't the explosive climax you might expect, and ends with both parties getting into their respective vehicles and driving away. Of course, there's no resolution to most of the central mysteries of the book, such as what Ice was keeping in his basement, who killed Windust, etc.

I'm notoriously pleased with ambiguous endings (cf. Murakami, Stephenson), and this book was no exception. Again, the way it incorporates the real events of the era made this feel surprisingly authentic for such a surreal book. Real lives don't have climaxes and conclusions. They keep moving forward, they're messy, and it feels like at the end of this book Maxine is just moving forward into the second half of her life, with some questions answered, others not, some regrets deeply buried, some past happiness recovered... it's nice.


So, yeah. Excellent book! I'm still a bit too close to it to judge, but it's almost certainly my favorite novel I read last year. It doesn't knock TCoL49 off its perch, but is an incredibly strong entry in my "Favorite Pynchon Books" list. It's a great showcase for his talent at funny dialogue, unsettling plots, clever allusions, and intricate structure. My go-to recommendation for new Pynchon readers will continue to be TCoL49, but Bleeding Edge will probably get the follow-up nod for second reading assignment.

I don't want to sound macabre, but there's a good chance that this is the last Pynchon novel we'll get. He's already 77 years old, and it's impressive that he's continued to write such strong material in recent years. It's even more impressive that this book feels to contemporary, so vibrant, so plugged in to the current millennium; he isn't revisiting his glory years of the 1960s, but examining the attitudes and events that drive American culture today. Still, I hope that I'm wrong, and we'll continue to see more terrific works from him in years to come.

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