Review: Bleeding Edge

“”No matter how the official narrative of this turns out,” it seemed to Heidi, “these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins, graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.””

Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding EdgeBleeding Edge, my third Pynchon novel (The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow being the first and second) treads some familiar ground and some less familiar. It’s the spring of 2001, and Maxine, a private-detective fraud investigator, is sort-of hired to look into what Wikipedia describes as “suspicious goings-on” at a nebulously defined tech company, hashslingerz. Her initially routine investigations lead her ever deeper into an increasingly paranoid landscape of internets, leaked footage and Cold War hangovers.

It’s a novel shadowed by the encroaching spectre of 9/11, but what’s interesting about it is that when 9/11 actually appears it’s almost a cipher. Maxine, despite living in New York, experiences the tragedy only through the media: through news shows and radio and photographs, endlessly circulated stills of smoke and destruction. And almost as soon as the towers fall, Pynchon says, people across the city are scrutinising these images, pointing out what seem to be inconsistencies and flaws, creating conspiracy theories; theories generated not by anything anyone actually saw, or experienced, but through the proliferation of media about the tragedy. This, I think, is core to the project of Bleeding Edge: the way that technology generates gaps between ontological reality and how we experience that reality, gaps analogous to the Saussurean gap between signifier and signified. Technology, says Pynchon, fundamentally changes how we interpret reality, and the book is an exploration of the unspeakable, unbridgeable vacancy between interpretation and truth.

So it’s a novel that offers no easy answers. Like The Crying of Lot 49, its central mystery remains unsolved, and the novel is haunted throughout by an undercurrent of paranoia, a feeling that something is going on which we can’t quite access or explain. One of the many surrealities Maxine comes across during her investigation is a programme called DeepArcher, a high-quality animation of the Deep Web. It is the site of much of the novel’s ambiguity, a place of semi-apocalyptic landscapes that are never quite the same, where the ghosts of murdered characters apparently show up to guide Maxine; we’re never sure, here more than anywhere, exactly what is real and what is a con. DeepArcher is, then, Bleeding Edge in miniature, a narrative peering into unknowability and teetering on the edge of impossibilities (one of the plot threads Pynchon plays with involves time travel; we’re never sure how much credence to give to this theory). It’s no coincidence that it’s here, in the Deep Web, that conspiracy theories are generated, in this space between the ontological and the experiential.

DeepArcher, a space for discovery and for retreat, is threatened by the interests of multinational tech corporations who want to open the Deep Web up to economical mundanities, to advertising and webcrawlers and viruses, things which once again obscure the gap which technology creates instead of peering into it. Ultimately, it feels like the real threat in Bleeding Edge is not the gap itself, not the uncertainty, but the interests the corporations have in telling us that the vision the data gives us is a vision of the real, when in truth it is at best an approximation of it. The actual truth doesn’t, in the end, matter: though Maxine never finds her answers, she seems to move past needing them, as she repairs her marriage, as her children gain maturity. Human relationships bloom in the last hundred pages or so of the novel, in the shadow of the tech-related paranoia of the first three-quarters: it is, ultimately, the experience that matters, and not the truth. Bleeding Edge is an unsettling, almost Gothic novel, a meandering and surreal conversation about technology and conspiracy and religion. In other words, it’s exactly my kind of read.

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