Imagine you’re part of a top-secret project that’s vital to national security. You live in Houston one year, and then Seattle the next — the nature of the work uproots you, from town to town, depending on where the mission takes you. And yet, somehow, there’s a sense that what you do is connected to something bigger.
It’s not James Bond; it’s the life of an aerospace engineer the early ’60s, and according to the Los Angeles Times, workers were called “aero-braceros,” because they changed jobs and locations as often as Mexico field-hands. Thomas Pynchon, a leading light of postmodern fiction, and a perennial contender for a Nobel Prize in literature, was one of those aero-braceros, a fresh-faced Cornell graduate who worked for Boeing.
After a two-year stint in the Navy, he earned a degree in English, and then spent a couple of years exploring literary life in Greenwich Village, before taking a job as a technical writer with the aerospace giant. He began in Washington, before relocating to Houston, and then, Southern California — the hotspots of the aerospace sector — all the while making use of his knowledge of rocketry to publish novels, such as the prize-winning conspiracy epic, “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
More books, such as “Mason & Dixon,” and “Against the Day,” followed, and he became renowned for his use of sprawling, ambitious narratives to tackle big-picture subjects, like history, science and media, using reckless, yet playful and intellectual prose.
Pynchon would create a recurring canvas of paranoia, and in the process become one of the most famous literary recluses of our era, whose one media “appearance” was a guest spot on an episode of the Simpsons. But he has come, in some way, full circle. Writing about technology, once again, his latest novel, “Bleeding Edge,” tackles yet another influential industry: the Internet.
The literati waited to see what Pynchon would make of the digital realm, and technophiles, who rarely cared about books, were even curious how this brash, literary savant would capture their milieu. What would the 76-year-old court jester of conspiracy fiction make of geek culture, computer programming and hoodie-wearing techno-hipsters? And would his ambling, gonzo, near-hallucinogenic prose capture the way technology transforms our consciousness, our experience, and our sense of ourselves and the world?
The short answer is: yes.
Pynchon sees the Internet as equal parts paranoia and poetry. It seeps into every corner of the world, and gives us both an escape from the travails of the “real world,” yet chains us to it, guaranteeing we’ll never truly be free.
Little is known about Pynchon’s work at Boeing, but scholars have unearthed a few clues: 1. He had so-called “secret” clearance. 2. He worked with engineers to write technical documents. 3. He edited an internal newsletter. Colleagues say he was “very literate” in technical matters, but mostly kept to himself, except when someone talked about books.
As an introvert, he had few friends. But those that knew him remember a playful side: he was great at charades, for example, and delighted in puns, the Los Angeles Times reported. In his spare time, he and friends would even launch toy rockets off rooftops.
For the most part, Pynchon lived a quiet, mysterious life, carefully guarding his privacy, and choosing instead to let his bibliography speak for itself. But the glimpse into his past influenced two major threads that run in his work: a sense of serious, erudite literary craft, offset by a certain goofball joking.
On the surface, “Bleeding Edge” is a shaggy-dog detective novel, set in New York City during the lull between the dot-com bust and September 11. But Maxine Turnow — an attractive, single working mom and private fraud investigator at the “Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em” agency — is asked by an old friend to look into the money trail of a hot Internet start-up, called “Hashslingrz,” which is run by corrupt, mysterious boy billionaire Gabriel Ice. The path leads to a fiber brokerage company, ominously dubbed, “Darklinear Solutions.”
Similar to earlier novels, such as “Inherent Vice,” whose trailer Pynchon amusingly narrates, but characteristically refuses to appear in — he uses an old-school detective structure to delve into the darker currents lurking underneath the shiny technological surfaces. As Maxine follows the money trail, cleverly disguised by both high-tech innovation and the complications of global corporations, she ends up at a Silicon Alley decimated by the dot-com bust.
Maxine’s journey into the East Coast tech scene — and Pynchon’s decision to set the story after the dot-com bust, but before the present time — in some ways, shows how the complex infrastructure of the Internet mimics the byzantine mechanics of global capitalism. After all, the Web never would have blossomed, Pynchon suggests, if the far-from-benevolent interests of corporations didn’t lean so heavily upon it.
As Maxine descends into the rabbit hole, Pynchon’s paranoid universe begins to unfold, one filled with Islamic money lenders, drug runs to New Jersey landfills, and the “bleeding edge” technologies so new that merely developing them is fraught with dangers.
There is crime, of course, and college geek-turned-paranoid-megalomaniac Ice, who bears a slight, if amusing, resemblance to Mark Zuckerberg, masterminds a plot involving amateur porn syndicates, drug rings and money laundering. While we never meet Ice — Maxine only meets him in two anti-climactic scenes — he works as Pynchon’s very own Kayser Soze, a bit of an urban legend, who somehow becomes real due to how potently he is invoked in the book.
The plot of Bleeding Edge, though, doesn’t begin to capture the experience of reading a Pynchon novel, which is less about following the story, as it is about soaking in the roller-coaster of language pyrotechnics. It is as if Pynchon took entire swaths of Wikipedia entries, and then, remixed them into a novel. There are turn of the century tech references to Kozmo.com, hipster geek fashion, and booty bass songs, as well as Mayan basketball, Krispy Kreme, and Soviet-era ice cream. Pynchon delights in the floating debris that fills our everyday consciousness, and stuffs his work full of it.
But the refusal to embrace linear narrative, and inventive approach to language, makes it hard to follow what’s going on, and the scattershot novel never coheres into a unified theory. While Maxine unearth Ice’s connections to anti-jihadist money laundering, government initiatives, and even real-life conspiracy theories, such as the “Montauk Project,” which deal with covert experiments in time travel, the connections are teased at, and never fully developed.
Pynchon has never been interested in complex character development, and instead, he sets up the personalities by basic motivations. Then, he lets them loose in a pinball machine of ideas, where they become battered about by the cross-currents of politics, technology, and philosophy. While Maxine is skeptical, resourceful and smart, she’s merely another charged particle interacting with other elements, subjected to macro forces she only has a fuzzy awareness of.
With characters set adrift in a chaotic, teeming world of images, ideas and information, Pynchon creates a world to show why we turn to conspiracy theories. In his universe, they’re the easiest, most coherent narrative to apply to the funhouse mirror of reality, where our sense of selves and the world can be distorted by forces larger, and often more sinister, than we can understand. And since the Internet is one of the only forces with enough reach and sprawl to touch on seemingly every unrelated element, it serves as the connective tissue for the conspiracies in Bleeding Edge.
Pynchon’s view on technology is complex, and he captures its seductive, hypnotic pull by evoking a beauty and allure of cyberspace that’s rarely seen in fiction. Maxine, for example, stumbles upon “DeepArcher,” an online world created by two hacker wunderkinds, who are debating whether to sell out to Ice, or release it as open-source software for everyone to use. The hipster programmers show her the software by boarding a virtual train and waiting in a digital lounge, before being whisked away to darker corners of the Web that eludes search engines.
Pynchon’s description — its poetic, vivid yet eerily serene prose, a marked contrast to the frenetic earlier wordplay — captures the way we submerge ourselves into online spaces, losing the burdens of self and time, but retaining a sense of the unexpected or surprise. He also grasps the way the Internet can feel like a lucid dream, allowing us to drift through information, without relinquishing control of the journey.
“The screen begins to shimmer and she is abruptly, you could say roughly, taken into a region of permanent dusk, outer-urban somehow, no longer aboard the train, no more jolly engineer or bodacious waitstaff, underpopulated streets increasingly unlit, as if public lamps are being allowed to burn out one by one and the realm of night to be restored by attrition. Above these somber streets, impossibly fractal towers feel their way like forest growth toward light that reaches this level only indirectly.”
“She’s lost. There is no map. It isn’t like being lost in any of the romantic tourist destinations back in meatspace. Serendipities here are unlikely to be in the cards, only a feeling she recognizes from dreams, a sense of something not necessary pleasant just about to happen.”
Pynchon’s evocation of Deep Web here, of course, is a fantasy. In real-life, Deep Web is a haven for criminals, drug cartels, child pornographers, and the seedier parts of human nature. But for characters in the book, DeepArcher is a poetic idyll, in what Tibetan Buddhists call a bardo: an intermediate space between concrete reincarnations on earth.
The Internet is a dream-space where we can escape not just our identities and obligations, but also the overwhelming forces — capitalism, government, history — that can often overpower us. Nowhere is that more clear than how Pynchon paints the vivid intensity of September 11. After the World Trade Center attacks, the book derails from a noir-ish plot, and all effort to link the piled-up dead bodies, and mysterious circumstances, seem to fly out of the window. The story then becomes more of a reflection on collective memory and grief, and how DeepArcher — and the Internet, in general — becomes a receptacle for these emotions, a place where the avatars of the recently dead congregate.
DeepArcher changes, too. After the creators release it as open-source code, the strangely quiet, twilight realm becomes quickly commercialized, cluttered with pop-up ads, tracking and malware, resembling today’s bloated Internet. Once helpful algorithms begin to mutate with malicious intentions, and conversations that happen in DeepArcher become no longer safe — leading to disturbing consequences in Maxine’s life.
Who is to blame for the constant surveillance and commercialization of the Internet? This is one of Bleeding Edge’s key philosophical issues, and something we grapple with today. After all, Maxine’s father Ernie reminds us of the Internet’s origins as a government project — DarpaNet — which, in his mind, dooms it to an instrument of oppression.
“Your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating our precious time,” Ernie says. “And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible.”
When the Web begins to take on a life of its own, such as how a diseased cell suddenly becomes a rapid-fire cancer, Maxine finds some hope in its anarchic growth. “But history goes on… the Cold War ended, right?” she argues. “The Internet kept evolving, away from military, into civilian — nowadays it’s chat rooms, the World Wide Web, shopping online… and look how it’s empowering all these billions of people, the promise, the freedom.”
DeepArcher becomes a refuge, a safe place where those longing for a pre-September 11 world can be satisfied. Maxine is seemingly able to communicate with the spirits of the dead in this particularly unguarded part of cyberspace, but it’s unclear whether it’s a hacker’s clever way of impersonating someone, or an algorithm developed to simulate a person.
In a world where the borders between the virtual and real are so permeable, does it matter? Pynchon’s refusal to answer the question is both hopeful and disturbing. For him, DeepArcher and the spaces in the Internet become an idealistic haven from the horrors of history and politics: where people are free to explore and exist while eluding the surveillance by greater forces. As a Russian gangster says, “It is asylum, no matter, you can be poorest, no home, lowest of jailbirds, obizhenka, condemned to die… DeepArcher will always take you in, keep you safe.”
In a way, that idea captures the eternal dream and appeal of the Web: a repository for all of human consciousness, safe from the battlements of time and power that seem to keep Pynchon’s characters overwhelmed, terrified and paranoid.
Pynchon’s time at Boeing remains only a sketch to scholars and biographers, but an early writing has emerged, marking it as his first professional piece. In 1960, the trade journal, “Aerospace Safety,” published the sardonically named essay, “Togetherness,” which begins, “Airlifting the IM-99A missile, like marriage, demands a certain amount of ‘togetherness’ between Air Force and contractor.” From there, it discusses airplane safety procedures, without any of the playfulness or references to lowbrow pop culture that characterize his work.
Yet, it’s a reminder that Pynchon came of age at a time when people became aware of the large-scale effect of technology on everyday lives, and how it could be misused in the hands of the wrong people. Technology — such as the aerospace innovations that Pynchon was involved with at Boeing — helped put a man on the moon, but it also unleashed the atomic bombs at Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a connection he would explore in his masterpiece “Gravity’s Rainbow.”
Pynchon continued to write well beyond “Togetherness,” developing his prodigious imagination, as well as his great gift to take readers to the farthest reaches of the world’s intellectual, moral and spiritual horizons, up to the breaking point of comprehension. But ironically, it’s a kind of togetherness that redeems the characters — and perhaps technology — at the end. His book ends with a series of family incidents, and while they’re not warm and sentimental in the least, they suggest that the innocence of children deserves to be preserved from the “indexed world,” as least as long as it can.
It’s a curiously warm ending for a notoriously trickster author, but it invokes the importance of familial love, which existed long before the Internet, and will endure well past its future mutations.