The year was 2001. George W. Bush was president. The party for the rich that was the 1990s was nearing its end but nobody wanted to acknowledge it. War was on the horizon and all hell was about to break loose. The Twin Towers fell in September of that year and we were told that our world was forever changed. Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel is called Bleeding Edge and it’s about the internet, black ops, and the last (dare we hope the final) stage of capitalism. The city is a part of the story, but the real tale has no particular location. Similarly, the events of September 11 are part of the story but do not define it.
This novel is classic Pynchon. There is an undefinable and ever-present paranoia. That paranoia is manifested and maintained by an unnameable and omniscient entity that doesn’t only want access to all extant knowledge, but also the power to use it in pursuit of its own omnipotence. The persons being manipulated operate as if they are agents of their own desires and wills, when the facts prove otherwise. Occasionally, a certain clarity pushes through the shadows, but is overtaken by events with shade of their own.
Like many New York novels that aren’t about the poor, Bleeding Edge presents a world of private schools, Upper West Side abodes, and New Yorkers who rarely take the subway. Since it’s also about capitalism, there’s an excess of greed and callousness too. The narrative centers on a decertified fraud investigator whose decertification has led her to an arena that exists in capital’s shadows. The fraud she investigates runs from petty credit card skimming to stock manipulations on the scale of the Lehmann Brothers. The story describes a place populated by Russian gangsters and low rent hoods; venture capitalists and the Bernie Madoffs of the market. In Bleeding Edge, the world it situates itself in is also populated by dotcom whiz kids waging internal debates between their desire to keep source code free and their desire to make a bunch of money.
Everywhere one looks is a vulture ready to feast on whatever carcass turns up.
Circumscribing this neoliberal city of the dead is the national security apparatus. As always, its presence is nebulous but palpable, just as it is in real life. In Bleeding Edge it is personified by a fellow named Windust, a walking American neoliberal sleeper cell who has killed dozens, helped take down regimes, fomented counterrevolutions and made a fortune. It’s not that he wanted to make a fortune; the ideological satisfaction was enough. However, his bosses give him a cut as a form of blackmail.
Bleeding Edge is about the nexus where neoliberal capitalism, the internet, gangsters and the national security apparatus intersect. It’s a shadowy place that Pynchon peppers with his unique brand of humor and song lyrics. There are no winners and nor is there hope, just an ongoing dystopic drama that floats in the edges of out reality. This is why it disturbs us so; because we know it might be real. Indeed, we know it is real even though we can’t prove it. This is not one of the Pynchon novels that span time and geography like the masterworks Against the Day and Gravity’s Rainbow. Instead it is an examination of a particular moment, like Vineland’s look at pot growers in 1980s Humboldt County, California. This doesn’t make Pynchon’s vision easier to accept, however. In fact, his locating the tale in a single time period actually makes it more real and possibly harder to dismiss than the fantastic worlds of those two novels.
It was almost a century ago that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a book about capitalism, greed, gangsters and the American Dream. That book was called The Great Gatsby and described a dream destroyed. That “green light at the end of Daisy’s dock” that Fitzgerald’s Nick reflects on in that moment never even makes an appearance in Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge. Instead, there is only an American dead end that neither Gatsby nor Nick could even begin to consider.