The Day Irony Stood Still: On Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

thomas-pynchon-bleeding-edge-novelBleeding Edge
by Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press HC, Sept 2013
496 pages / $28.95  Buy from Amazon or Indiebound








“I met a lot of hard-boiled eggs in my life, but you — you’re twenty minutes.” — Lorraine Minosa, Ace in the Hole (1951)

The appeal of the hard-boiled character archetype is their indefatigable coolness, their aloofness. We seem to like characters who react in seemingly inhuman ways to moments and situations in which the rest of us would be too consumed by nerves or emotions to construct a sentence, let alone a biting bit of  wordplay. These characters are mostly at home in the dimly lit offices and back alleyways of the film noir detective, but we see permutations of the archetype every time we encounter a dominant lead with a penchant for mouthing off to baddies with guns.

Hard-boiled works best with snoops, and Thomas Pynchon has veered his career into continuing to explore the limits of this character type, setting up camp everywhere from the Revolutionary War (Mason & Dixon) to 1980’s California (Vineland) with a cast of irreverent characters who never cease to check the self-importance of not only their verbal sparring partners, but of moments themselves.

But what Pynchon has chosen to explore in Bleeding Edge, his seventh novel, is what would happen if you took all of those Pychonian elements of irony and placed them in a time and place in which it didn’t stand out, and was, in fact, par for the course.

Maxine Tarnow, a rogue (or at least de-licensed) fraud investigator and single-ish (it’s complicated) mother of two, plays the part of our protagonist. She is, as teh novel opens, approached by Reg Despard, a filmmaker acquaintance, to look into the finances of a shady enterprise called hashlingrz, a deep-pocketed Internet company buying up infrastructure and failed start-ups that went under after the .Com bubble burst, a fate which hashlingrz itself somehow sidestepped. From there, we begin to fall headlong into lengthy list of classic noir tropes: the numbers that don’t add up, the seedy-yet-likable characters of the city’s underbelly, the overseas connections, and yes, even an homme fatale. New York City looms large (doesn’t it always?) as the book’s backdrop, not simply because of Pynchon’s love for it — Bleeding Edge is an unashamed love letter to the city — but because of what we all know to be coming: the book begins in March of 2001, and will lead us by the hand through nearly a year, including, of course, 11 September. If there’s reason to question Pynchon’s decided lack of in-depth development for any of the book’s other characters, it’s because New York itself is our secondary — or perhaps even primary — protagonist, itself “twenty minutes” in hot water.

Maxine, in all her hard-boiled glory, is Pynchon’s representation of irony incarnate, not that other sources aren’t otherwise readily available. But it’s through her that the book drives home it’s final point re:the death or non-death of irony, which is that 11 September did not kill irony, a claim that has manifested itself countless times in the last twelve odd years. What it did was remind us that irony doesn’t work all of the time, and for it to retain its bite, you have to allow for moments of fear and sincerity and bravery, not to mention silence. “For many people, especially in New York,” Pynchon jabs, “laughing is a way of being loud without having to say anything.”

When discussing postmodernism in general, and Pynchon in particular, these days, irony is the word burning on every tongue of every critic/commentator, easily the most vilified and misused word of the past decade and a half.

It’s nearly impossible to discuss postmodern irony without making reference to “E Pluribus Unum: Television and U.S. Fiction”, the ubiquitous essay by the late David Foster Wallace that decried mass culture’s co-option and subsequent neutering of irony, and proposed a revival of sincerity.

“The next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels,” Wallace wrote, “born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue.

While a new group of authors, Wallace, Franzen, Safran Foer et. all, ushered in a new era of sincerity in high art, the true cultural rot that Wallace had warned against wasn’t happening in lit mags, but quietly on the lower rungs of the cultural ladder. Most people took DFW’s essay as a grand metaphor for literature, but anyone with any cursory biographical knowledge of Wallace would know that he loved, to the point of addiction, bad television. And it was here that Wallace saw the writing on the wall. The Mark Leyners of the world were never the problem. Literature was too diffuse even then to really have the sort of devastating societal ramifications that Wallace foretold; but if you lose sincerity in “low” art, when it embraces what it is and no longer holds any pretensions about maybe passing as the “real” thing, and when it multiplies like wildfire, you’re doomed.

““Ain’t like I was ever Alfred Hitchcock or somethin,” Maxine’s filmmaker friend/client-pro-bono Reg admits proudly. “You can watch my stuff till you’re cross-eyed and there’ll never be any deeper meaning. I see something interesting, I shoot it is all. Future of film if you want to know—someday, more bandwidth, more video files up on the Internet, everybody’ll be shootin everything, way too much to look at, nothin will mean shit. Think of me as the prophet of that.”

What you see in cultural phenomena from professional wrestling to country music is that dreaded wink and nod, that spark of self-awareness that in metafiction was, at worst, obnoxious, but in the hands of infomercial hosts and reality television stars raises bigger metaphysical questions than perhaps any of us are ready to deal with. And those are, per usual, just the kinds of questions Pynchon has built a career off of asking and, to a lesser extent, answering.

Some reviewers have lamented Pynchon’s handling of the events of 11 September, that they were too cursory, too we’ve-heard-this-story-before, especially for someone with such a distinctive voice heavy with cultural gravitas.

But sleep walking through that day in writing to me seems exactly what is called for, because for all the vivid accounts, all the “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s”s, what I felt that day, and what many of us felt who weren’t directly impacted, was an absolute and surreal detachment. Tears came later, but that day was business like for most of America in the deliberate way in which daily duties, however disrupted, were performed; picking up kids from school, leaving work without any real need for an obligatory OOO message, hunkering down in front of the television. In hindsight, we might think that the emotional outpouring, the spiking flag sales, the We Are All New Yorkers t-shirts happened all at once, but in truth, that day, we were numb because we had to be. There was no distance anymore between us and tragedy, no gap at all for irony to be wedged into, no ability to go to sleep reminding yourself that the terrible thing you had seen was somewhere far away, and things would be ostensibly the same for you when you woke up the next day.

What is utterly haunting is how Maxine’s late-book breakdown, the one in which she can’t seem to get a grip on reality, isn’t at all caused by the whole virtual world/”meatspace” dichotomy that we’ve been set up for over the previous 28 chapters.

It’s possible that Pynchon, in his handling of that day, was also trying to subvert our expectations in a book where it’s irony of the dramatic fashion that takes center stage. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s still just too close for home. “Time travel, as it turns out, is not for civilian tourists,” he writes, “you don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor, and loss, and there is no redemption—of, or from, anything.”

For the most part, Pynchon’s nostalgia stays on the lighter side, and we’re treated to an onslaught of “Whoa, that takes me back!” moments, with maybe a little obvious hindsight thrown in for good measure (“No, I meant late capitalism is a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of, meantime getting the suckers to believe it’s all gonna go on forever.”)

Recent history, ripe as it is for parody, presents its challenges to the writer. What is remarkable is that I’m barely, if ever, consciously aware that this is a 76-year-old man tossing out Keenan and Kel references. Referentialism has become a ubiquitous part of culture, but Pynchon someone never becomes your obnoxious friend who can always be heard asking, “Didn’t you catch the reference?” It’s a troubling trend, and one that doesn’t go unnoticed by the author. “What passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder,” Maxine once quips.

What seems to be universal among readers of Bleeding Edge — especially those of us who (frequently ashamedly) identify as Gen Y-ers — is the very present feeling that Thomas Pynchon knows far more about us that we thought, and might be comfortable with. Somehow, this far into his career, Thomas Pynchon is still proving himself to be an ever more astute student of culture than we’ve given him credit for.

There’s an old rule of thumb among fiction writers that to write convincingly about a subject, you have to know enough about a topic to be able to pass for an expert to the average person you might sit next to on an airplane. After reading Bleeding Edge, I have the sneaking suspicion that, were a conversation about turn-of-the-century popular culture to strike up on a flight from LAX to JFK, Mr. Pynchon may very well follow me up the jet bridge and into the taxi line to make a few additional points vis-à-vis the socioeconomic hierarchy of AOL chat rooms. Hell, he might even offer to split a fare.


James J. Fitze was born and raised in rural North Carolina. He is a writer and editor, splitting his nonfiction endeavors between music journalism and reviews and criticism of postmodern novels. He also currently contributes to a “living” novel at Fitze lives and works in New York City.

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  1. Citric

      pynchon has kinda always slipped around the irony dilemma at least as DFW posed it.. he has never been a particularly ironic writer but he also doesn’t write from “sincerity” because his own life is not usually his subject matter & if some emotion makes his way into his books it’s typically in a tangential side-item nudge and wink rather than something front-and-center…. because that’s how his personality is. the people DFW presaged writing with reverence from within the pain of life i think are out there but their fate is to always be somewhat underground because they are resistant to turning themselves into a spectacle for gossip and caricature… kurt cobain probably being the best example of a “sincere” artist wrecked by public exposure

  2. FYL