SEPTEMBER 10, 2013
IN 1984, at the height of what SF fans and critics would come to consider the era of cyberpunk, Thomas Pynchon published a brief piece in the New York Times Book Review entitled “Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite?” A few years before, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, along with the early short fictions of William Gibson, had begun to evoke a certain gritty, techno-noir landscape, brilliantly crystallized in Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1984). Considering the critical attention these works received, it seems a bit more than coincidental that Pynchon’s first published writing in 11 years — except for his introduction to a collection of previously published short stories, Slow Learner, released the same year — should directly address some of the same concerns as these cyberpunk texts.
Pynchon’s essay on Luddism traces a brief history of the term, examining the early-nineteenth-century movement in which there “were bands of men, organized, masked, anonymous, whose object was to destroy machinery used mostly in the textile industry.” Though they are stereotypically viewed as reactionary primitivists protesting the advances of the Industrial Revolution, Pynchon sees them as a force not anti-technological but anti-capitalist: their beef with sewing machines, he writes, was really about “the concentration of capital that each machine represented, and … the ability of each machine to put a certain number of humans out of work — to be ‘worth’ that many human souls.”
This reframing of the conversation around what it means to be a Luddite in the modern sense — or, as the OED puts it, “[o]ne who opposes the introduction of new technology, esp. into a place of work” — is crucial to anyone trying to think through this postmodern giant’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. It makes sense that a neo-Luddite who has always been obsessed with the destructive powers of technology — cartographer’s tools in Mason & Dixon, rockets and atom bombs in Gravity’s Rainbow, television in Vineland — should finally have turned his attention to the Internet and the World Wide Web, probably the most influential technological developments of the past half-century. Set in a New York City experiencing the twilight of the dotcom boom in the months before 9/11, and filled with achingly precise topical references to the contemporary technocultural and pop-cultural landscape, Bleeding Edge inevitably raises a host of questions, especially given Pynchon’s Luddite sympathies. Will this be little more than the paranoid ramblings of a reclusive ex-hippie who wouldn’t know how to reset his router without calling in the Geek Squad? Or will we see an awed celebration of “early-adopter” tech and a quasi-Gibsonian embrace of cyberspatial transcendence? More importantly, does Thomas Pynchon know the lyrics to Nelly’s 2000 hip-pop anthem “Ride wit’ Me”? The answers to these questions are, respectively: no; it’s complicated; and, surprisingly, yes.
Reading Bleeding Edge feels at times very much like reading a pendant to Gibson’s recent “Blue Ant” trilogy (Pattern Recognition, Spook Country, and Zero History), works in which the chronological present of the in-touch early adopter comes to resemble a science-fictional future. The difference, of course, is that Gibson was describing a world that existed at the moment of his writing, the “unevenly distributed” future we already inhabited, whereas Pynchon is writing a historical novel, and his topical references to technologies and mass media have already become a part of our cultural history. For example, Reg Despard, an activist documentarian who circulates conspiracy-provoking DVDs of suspicious paramilitary activity leading up to the World Trade Center attacks, claims, “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.” Maxine, the novel’s hard-as-nails P.I. protagonist, is incredulous: “How could anybody make money doing that?” Reg’s faux-prophesy is, of course, a complex joke, because we know that YouTube and a dozen other sites like it are thriving today, but also that Napster, the avant-garde software responsible for mainstreaming file-sharing (or piracy, depending on your point of view), has long been relegated to a historical footnote. What Bleeding Edge reinforces is the incredulous realization that it’s even been a decade since a millennial era that still feels like “now.” Where Gibson shows the reader how the future is really the unacknowledged present, Pynchon demonstrates how quickly the present becomes the unremembered past.
The novel’s take on cyberspace and its potential for alternative forms of social organization and anarchic community is both familiar and surprising. In each of his works, Pynchon has explored the idea of removing the self, the family, or the subcultural unit from systems of capital-C Control, most often identified as some form of military, economic, and/or religious metanarrative: the psyops and gnostic cabals of Gravity’s Rainbow, the Reaganomics and neoliberal interventionism of Vineland, the “Capitalist Christers” of Against the Day. Whether it’s unregenerate hippie Zoyd Wheeler holing up in Humboldt County or frustrated housewife Oedipa Maas flirting with the subterranean postal system W.A.S.T.E., Pynchon’s characters find themselves at odds with dominant forms of governance and seek various routes of escape — desire to “soar angelwise” (as a character in Against the Day puts it) above the deadening quotidian forms of their rationalized existences. As we might expect from a self-professed Luddite, this retreat often involves abandoning or turning against specific technologies that have become actual or symbolic forms of power and oppression. At one point in Against the Day, the plucky Chums of Chance pilot their airship over a newly-electrified, completely lit-up SoCal landscape, feeling “themselves in uneasy witness to some final conquest, a triumph over night whose motives none could quite grasp.” (“Lucifer, son of the morning, bearer of light […] Prince of Evil” is how the most cynical among them reacts to this technological display.)
It is interesting, then, that in Bleeding Edge cyberspace — or, at least, particular parts of the “Deep Web,” that invisible “Undernet” inaccessible to Googlebots — comes to offer the same sort of sanctuary from malignant forces that characters in other works were only able to seek geographically or metaphysically. The program “DeepArcher” (read: “departure”), developed by Maxine’s acquaintances Justin and Lucas, is an esoteric subspace sustained by a sort of anarchist-hacker collective: as Justin explains, “the visuals you think you’re seeing are being contributed by users all over the world. All for free. Hacker ethic. Each one doing their piece of it, then just vanishing uncredited.” Despite the fact that Justin’s wife claims the partners “don’t do metaphysical,” DeepArcher becomes a domain through which characters can exceed the boundaries of what is possible in both “meatspace” and reality itself. Hackers with the skill requisite to find and enter the program explore “the deep unlighted […] the border country, the edge of the unnavigable, the region of no information […] the edge of the beginning before the Word.” Justin envisions it as “timeless” — “a refuge” from history and the commercial forces that turn the “surface” web into just another marketing tool, a commodification of spectacle and a schizophrenic celebration of image-as-artifice. Later, DeepArcher will become a space where it’s possible to meet and talk to the deceased — or, in typical Pynchonian equivocation, perhaps merely to their avatars — a space that exceeds the rational and allows glimpses of capitalism’s unimaginable other. DeepArcher, as a Russian hacker-cum-mobster in the novel puts it, “will always take you in, keep you safe.”
This is not to say that the author has gone all-in on new media, or that the novel represents, as Boris Kachka claims in his recent piece for Vulture.com, a quasi-autobiographical document outing Pynchon as a “self-confessed” yuppie, a reflection on his comfortable socioeconomic circumstances. It’s true that his mining of 2001 cultural references reflects a sort of bemused fondness for the signifiers of Gen-Y media saturation and kitsch — Pokemon, hip-hop in various guises, Friends, GameBoy, first-person shooters, Beanie Baby mania — but his playful engagement with these signifiers belies the seriousness of his anti-authoritarian agenda, his fierce critique of an all-consuming neoliberalism that both cynically aestheticizes every aspect of daily life and mounts violent interventions overseas in the service of a late-capitalist ideology that has become patently theological.
Still, Bleeding Edge is surprisingly sympathetic to its resident villain: Nick Windust, a stand-in for “The Man” (a.k.a. Vineland’s Brock Vond), terrifying servant of shadowy forces intent on remaking the world in the service of US economic and security interests. Whereas Vond is a clear metonym for CIA violence, Windust is a figure in over his head, and, “whoever ‘they’ are,” the actual powers that be, they “are far worse than anything Windust became, working for them.” The paranoia of the earlier novels is present, but the servants of darkness are just as victimized as the ones they have been used against; they are just tools, however willing.
Moreover, cyberspace in the novel is not simply a countercultural or communal space but — as Maxine’s father, Ernie (a character closer to Pynchon in age and therefore life-experience), tells her — the product of Cold War weapons innovation:
Yep, and 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 up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.
This is the unrepentant Luddite in Pynchon, the one who warned in his 1984 essay of
a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEOs, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed. […] We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time.
Pynchon has a habit of writing around major military-historical events: Gravity’s Rainbow is a novel about World War II in which the war itself is conspicuously absent, except in oblique flashbacks, and in Against the Day the action moves from the apocalyptic imminence of World War I to a tidying up of its chaotic aftermath. 9/11 is always present in Bleeding Edge as the subtext for any dramatic irony — as when a character early on rents an office on the “hundred-and-something floor” of the World Trade Center — but Pynchon’s treatment of the event itself is muted, restrained, spare. References to “the atrocity” of “11 September” are about as intense as it gets, as if the author needed to impose critical distance (where, as a Manhattan resident, he might have none), treating the event as always-already mediated by images, the television broadcasts and front-page photos and stories about friends and friends of friends and endless Internet speculation and photoshopping. Life returns to normal, and the frenzied rhetoric of “We Are All New Yorkers” goes unacknowledged, recedes from the day-to-day of actual New Yorkers, an implicit rebuke to those who would make melodrama out of “useful” tragedy.
Of course, this being a Pynchon novel, conspiracy theories abound, but the author refuses definitive answers except to imply that individuals and organizations in positions of ineffable power benefited tremendously from the tragedy (whether or not “they” were its authors). The narrator archly disparages news media coverage in ways that echo the book’s resident conspiracy theorist, March Kelleher; but, while she spouts a far-left paranoia, Pynchon seems less interested in a particular version of history than in the impossibility of any story being deemed sufficiently true as to become the history. As with any Pynchon novel, we are left with the conviction that alternatives exist, although we should probably be pessimistic about their realization. This is the importance of writing around moments of historical rupture and trauma like the World Wars or 9/11: it is precisely their inevitability, the knowledge that nothing his characters can do or say will change what has already happened, that makes their plight tragic; it is their attempt to find some means of escape that makes them heroic; it is their failure to do so that makes them human.
In the novel, September 11th is not just the day of the World Trade Center attack, it is also the day DeepArcher is hacked by the powers-that-be. When Maxine next visits it, she is greeted not by the simple nostalgia of a train depot, but by
a Jetsons-era spaceport with all wacky angles, jagged towers in the distance, lenticular enclosures up on stilts, saucer traffic coming and going up in the neon sky. Yuppified duty-free shops, some for offshore brands she doesn’t recognize even the font they’re written in. Advertising everywhere. On walls, on the clothing and skins of crowd extras, as pop-ups out of the Invisible and into your face.
Meanwhile, her sons’ English teacher has decreed that “there shall be no more fictional reading assignments.” “Reality,” its official version, encroaches, absorbs, concretizes, commodifies any attempt to find alternatives, to live compassionately, to believe unironically. In a few instances, however, cyberspace’s unreality seems to bleed into daily life: an inanimate object exhibits sentience, a ring turns a man invisible. This is a confusion of real and unreal, of image and referent that the book posits as part of the trauma or spectacle of 9/11, but it is also an attempt to retain the possibility of a beyond, a sanctuary from a Real that is increasingly oppressive, increasingly rationalized into straight lines from pasture to abattoir.
Like the nineteenth-century Luddites and their “nostalgia for the Age of Miracles,” Pynchon writes about characters who need to believe in the impossible as a way of dealing with the unthinkable actual substance of daily life. In Against the Day, it’s an airship full of refugees sailing into a cosmic void, flying “toward grace”; in Bleeding Edge, it’s a mother who has to believe that she can let go, that her children won’t be made to suffer in a world that “could destroy them, so easily.” In Pynchon’s work the earnest innocence and happiness of children is a state of grace, precious yet unrecoverable, and — like the pop-up free beta run of DeepArcher — all-too-brief, destined, inevitably, for a future of compromises and disillusionment.
As Sherryl Vint put it in her review of Gibson’s Zero History, at the heart of cyberpunk — for all its exuberant visions of transcending the body through cyberspace — lay a deep anxiety about what it would mean to “value the virtual world more” than the material one, perhaps even to lose the ability to discern or enforce the boundaries between the two. Bleeding Edge manifests, with exquisite poignancy, the full human dimensions of those concerns.