Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

The X-Files believed in the truth. (source: x-files.wikia.com)

Paranoia is a trendy mental state. Paranoid delusions have been recorded throughout history, but the form that they take is a remarkable mirror to contemporaneous society. Feelings of persecution and conspiracy were, in the sixteenth century, likely to be blamed on demonic possession or witchcraft; in the twenty-first, they are more likely to be seen as some kind of government conspiracy, or to feature plot-lines lifted from The Truman Show or The Matrix. Reality dissolves into a complex, almost convincing facsimile; unending webs of clues offer continual and provocative hints that something is awry.

If the forms of paranoid delusions are based on the cultural tropes surrounding the sufferer, then it logically follows that by examining the delusions one could seek to understand the larger culture. Such a process has, for much of his career, been the goal of Thomas Pynchon. His works tend to follow confused, isolated figures who traverse landscapes fecund with hyper-signifying clues; often the realities of his worlds will fragment, for a moment – glitches in the Matrix, pauses where things don't quite make sense. Shadowy enemies pursue manic protagonists, maybe. The uncertain ontological state of Pynchon's world – is it reality or simulation, everyday 1999 or computer generated prison? - infects the fiction itself on a sort of meta level. We never know if the conspiracies actually exist; we never know if Pynchon's stories contain a shred of realism. “For there either was some Tristero beyond the appearance of the legacy of America, or there was just America and if there was just America then it seemed the only way she could continue, and manage to be at all relevant to it, was an alien, unfurrowed, assumed full circle unto some paranoia.” This is the situation for Oedipa Maas, the hero of The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), and, in Pynchon's eyes, it may well be the situation of the average American too.

Pynchon views American culture as fundamentally paranoid. This dates back to the hard-line Calvinism of the first Pilgrims (conspiracies have deep roots). Puritan theology views the world as another revelation, a coded message from God to man. Observation of natural phenomena can therefore offer access to deeper truths. The poet Edward Taylor, for example, observes a spider:

                                 Hell's Spider gets
                                 His intrails Spun to whip Cords thus
                                 And wove to nets
                                 and sets.
                                 To tangle Adams race
                                 In's stratagems
                                 To their destructions ('Upon a Spider Catching a Fly', 1680-2)

Or, more briefly: a spider catching a fly is like Satan tempting humanity into sin. Or, briefer still: the world is out to get you. Puritanism's fairly harsh stance on predetermination – that everyone, pretty much, will be damned, and even if you're not, you can't know it – and the doctrine of Original Sin – everyone carries the burden of an earlier fall from God's grace – foster a fairly negative attitude. Everything in the world is a symbol of man's fall and imminent damnation.

To gloss quickly over three-hundred or so years of history, not much has changed. National traumas (JFK's assassination, Pearl Harbour) spawn fairly mainstream conspiracy theories; there are theories about a bunch of really innocuous seeming stuff like the Federal Reserve and water fluoridation. Conspiracy theories have even gained mainstream political recognition: see the embarrassing débâcle about Barack Obama's birth certificate. The '90s saw the enormous popularity of The X-Files, a show where basically every known conspiracy was realised on screen, and where UFO-loving crackpot Agent Fox Mulder is proved correct at every turn, in small towns like yours all across America. Death in the woods? 'It's probably aliens,' speculates Mulder, and it is. Death in an office building? 'It's probably a rogue Central Operating System,' guesses Mulder, and he's right again. The show, however, is careful to prevent Mulder from ever finding the definitive proof he needs to go public. Instead, it 'proves' it to the viewer, by showing on-screen the paranormal elements, and then having hazy pseudo-bureaucrats cover it up. The genius of the show was in weaving the variably-crazy paranormal/UFO/evil computer/ghost/monster delusions into the larger tapestry of governmental conspiracy. After all, the idea that your own government might be against you is surely scarier and more plausible than the fear of rogue Neanderthals.

This is what life was like in the '90s: carefree fun, not even worrying about all the calories in those 'shakes. (source: bilmoore.com)

It is against this backdrop that Bleeding Edge, Pynchon's most recent novel, opens. Maxine Tornow, mother-of-two and fraud investigator, beings to poke around some dodgy start ups in New York. The year is 2001; the first dotcom bubble has just burst, and hasn't yet reinflated. Mark Zuckerburg is just about to start at Harvard, and will later go on to inspire a movie staring Jesse Eisenberg. Seinfeld has been off the air for three years, although Friends is still going strong. Predictably – inevitably, fatedly – Maxine starts to uncover hints of a large scale X-Files-style governmental conspiracy. There are dodgy payments and time-travelling assassins, glimpses of the full vast bureaucracy of the military-industrial complex in full swing. The whole thing is enjoyable, Pynchonian, fairly light-hearted, swathed in '90s nostalgia and exquisite references (name me one other major work of literature that features jokes about Pokémon).

And then, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, on the 9th of September 2001, American Airlines Flight 11 and American Airlines Flight 175 are hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre. Bleeding Edge is so grounded in 2001, and 9/11 so seared onto our collective memory, that there's no way you don't see it coming. And yet, you never expect 9/11 to happen during the novel's narrative. Like the conspiracies of V. or The Crying of Lot 49 or Gravity's Rainbow, you didn't expect payoff, just paranoia.

This is the genius of Pynchon's new book then: that the paranoia finally gets made real. The shocking thing is that no one really expects it to happen; part of being paranoid, after all, relies on the conspiracy remaining shadowy, hidden, obscure. The moment Pynchon stages in Bleeding Edge feels like a recapitulation of classic Puritan lapsarian theology, made relevant for the computer age. Before 9/11 – before 'The Fall' – the novel is vibrant and exuberant, the conspiracies threatening, sure, but more interesting and quirky than terrifying. The internet is an anarchic playground, the tech sector filled with ideologues and hackers, open-sourcers who promote knowledge and experimentation. New York is still a city: Giuliani hasn't yet managed to gentrify and yuppify and sanitise the whole of Manhattan.

But all of these innocences are being eroded. Urban gentrification, the corporatisation and monetisation of the internet, the establishment of cyber-spying and intelligence gathering: all act to attack the Edenic idyll of 'Silicon Alley' – or, more broadly, of the '90s culture where The X-Files existed, where conspiracies were about alien cover ups and monsters who ate livers. The erosion had already started, but 9/11 is the singularity that marks the transition, the gunshot the marks the death-knell of an already terminal patient.

Soon after the attack, paranoia starts up again. There are whisperings about Jewish involvement, pan-Islamic involvement, military involvement. There are inconclusive evidences that the government staged, or knew about, or something, the attacks. Pynchon doesn't side with the 9/11 conspiracists, and refuses to validate any of the various theories in the novel. In a sense, 9/11 is, for New York, beyond conspiracy; the comfort provided intellectually or emotionally by the coherent, certain knowledge of the conspiracy world view is scant comfort if your home is under attack.

But in a more figurative sense, paranoia is the right response to the post-9/11 world. There is an episode of The Simpsons, also from the late '90s, where Bart is proscribed a drug called Focusyn. A side effect of this drug is that Bart becomes increasingly paranoid, and eventually convinced that he is being spied on by Major League Baseball. Obvious he seems crazy; when he steals a tank, he seems crazier. Then Bart shoots down the actually MLB spying satellite, and it turns out his paranoia was true. In 1999, the concept is pretty funny, and faintly absurd. In 2013, the idea of being spied on to this degree by corporations is commonplace; furthermore, the government are doing it too. It's the path from this absurd late '90s paranoia to its actualisation ten years later that Pynchon follows in Bleeding Edge; he tells a Fall narrative where humanity falls not because it gains more knowledge, but because it becomes more ignorant, more in the dark.

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