Thoughts on Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge is filled with 9/11 conspiracy theories, eccentric characters, and a wild alternative universe called the “Deep Web.”  It is very Pynchon; the only difference is that this universe is found through computers and not through hallucinogens like some of his other books.

This was the most comprehensible Pynchon book to me.  Probably because I was alive during 2001, I’ve lived in Manhattan, I am familiar with the techno-jargon, and I’ve at least heard of the exuberant tales of tech boom.  For those that are worrying that Pynchon is becoming more accessible, fear not as Jonathan Lethem writes in his review:

Thomas Pynchon is 76, and his refusal to develop a late style is practically infuriating.  The man’s wildly consistent: the only reason Bleeding Edge couldn’t have been published in 1973 is that the Internet, the Giuliani/Disney version of Times Square and the war on terror hadn’t come along yet.  This book, and Inherent Vice, make jubilant pendants on his mammoth enterprise, neon signposts to themes he took no trouble to hide in the first place.

But in the deep web of this book, lurks a darker message.  Bleeding Edge could not have been released at a more appropriate time.  At its core there is a struggle between those who want to get lost on the Internet and those who want to find them.

In this book, a mysterious government agent declares his agency’s motto is, “No keystroke left behind.” (Their actual slogan is “Collect it all.”)  While back IRL, we know that spooks can’t help but to use the national spying machine to snoop on their love interests and in Bleeding Edge, they have their own system called Facemask, which displays “the kind of merciless humor also to be found in high-school yearbooks.”  Considering how the NSA director likes to play make-believe and pretend he’s on the Star Trek Enterprise, it wouldn’t surprise me if there was a Facemask.

Even though it’s set in 2001, Bleeding Edge is written with scars that have never quite healed.  Even the term “Ground Zero” strikes a chord:

[…] “Ground Zero,” a Cold War term taken from the scenarios of nuclear war so popular in the early sixties.  This was nowhere near a Soviet nuclear strike on downtown Manhattan, yet those who repeat “Ground Zero” over and over do so without shame or concern for etymology.  The purpose is to get people cranked up in a certain way.  Cranked up, scared, and helpless.

Twelve years later and billions of dollars spent into wars and body scanners that don’t work, I agree with Pynchon’s statement:

The day was a terrible tragedy.  But it isn’t the whole story.  Can’t you feel it, how everybody’s regressing?  11 September infantilized this country.  It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.

Pynchon’s one-liners are splattered throughout the book.  He calls the war on terror “the war without end” and postulates that “there may be no accidents anymore, the Patriot Act may have outlawed them with everything else.”

The most powerful comment is on freedom on the Internet:

Call it freedom, it’s based on control.  Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again.  Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable.  You remember the comics in the Daily News?  Dick Tracy’s wrist radio?  it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuff of the future.  What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.

Replace Pentagon with NSA and we have an incredibly accurate description of the NSA spying.  Bleeding Edge is a great novel, one that still should be read twenty years from now.  This book is about our digital life before our fear handed it over.  But we can take it back.  Thomas Pynchon chooses not be seen and is known as a recluse by the media.  But that’s his choice.  On today’s Internet, it’s hard to even have that choice.  That’s why organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and projects like Tor are important to me.  These are the keys that unlock the handcuffs.