Bleeding Edge: A Pynchon Moment

The fact that I don’t love Thomas Pynchon is statistically nearly impossible.

Any literary heat map of my favorite writers would find Pynchon near the center, hovering somewhere between Brautigan, Vonnegut, Kesey, Burroughs, Thompson, Acker, Coetzee, Auster. And yet I can’t stand his thick, impenetrably clever prose. I find his hysterical habit of packing multiple cosmic curlicues, pop-culture puns and obscure historical references into every sentence simply obnoxious. I don’t like a writer who keeps trying to distract my attention when I’m trying to read.

But, well, here’s the thing. All my friends and literary comrades and people I respect love Thomas Pynchon. I guess they find his convoluted style fun and challenging. Who knows? My friends have Pynchon tattoos, have named their bands or websites after Pynchon, have even written adoring Litkicks articles about Pynchon. I don’t understand why all these smart people love him so much and I don’t, and I feel very isolated in this position.

I want to like Pynchon, especially since the kind of cutting social satire that I understand his books add up to ought to be right up my alley (if only I could stand reading them). My dislike of Thomas Pynchon is not fashionably correct, the way my dislike of Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy is. (In this sense it is, however, exactly like my dislike of David Foster Wallace, and I can summarize how both of these opinions make me feel: It’s lonely out here.)

With that said, a new Pynchon novel is definitely an event, and everyone I know is super-excited about Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s brand new novel. Here’s Carolyn Kellogg in the Los Angeles Times.

Each new Pynchon novel presents a different way to parse his bibliography, and “Bleeding Edge” makes a solid case for a divide between books set roughly in present moment and not, Now versus Then. Now includes “Bleeding Edge,” “Vineland,” “The Crying of Lot 49” and the frame of “V.” The Then books are “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1944-45 seen from the vantage of 1973), “Inherent Vice” (1970 seen from 2009), “Against the Day” (circa 1900 via 2006) and “Mason & Dixon” (the 1760s by way of 1997).

The Then books have a deliberateness to them, a deep dive into a specific set of ideas dappled with carefully chosen historic details. The Now books have the quality of an exploration, of digestion in progress. “Bleeding Edge,” in particular, seems to be a data dump that’s being processed on the page.

All of Pynchon’s works are crammed with cultural references; here they seem less mysterious and significant than in previous novels. In “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon seems like a kid playing in a ball pit, having an awful lot of fun tossing around whatever is brightly colored and within reach.

Carolyn Kellogg clearly knows her Pynchon, though it’s not clear that she’s blown away by Bleeding Edge. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times also suggests that this Pynchon work has problems:

In his latest novel, Bleeding Edge, Mr. Pynchon tackles Sept. 11 head-on. And he also addresses the other great contemporary subject — the Internet and its transformation of our world — that happens to mesh so completely with his enduring fascination with hidden connections, alternate realities and the plight of people caught up in the gears of a ravenous and gargantuan techno-political machine.

The result, disappointingly, is a scattershot work that is, by turns, entertaining and wearisome, energetic and hokey, delightfully evocative and cheaply sensational; dead-on in its conjuring of zeitgeist-y atmospherics, but often slow-footed and ham-handed in its orchestration of social details. All the author’s familiar trademarks are here: a multitudinous cast with ditsy, Dickensian names; shaggy-dog plotlines sprouting everywhere, like kudzu; large heapings of coincidence; and a plethora of jokes, ditties, dead-end digressions and trippy, playful asides about everything from Benford Curve anomalies to Beanie Babies to the mysteries of the “Deep Web.”

It’s worth remarking that Thomas Pynchon’s career has now been going on nearly as long as Bob Dylan’s. As Ed Park says in BookForum:


That is a lot of years. I’m also intrigued that this novel covers New York City’s Silicon Alley scene during the years of the dot-com boom, the dot-com crash, the millennium and the World Trade Center attack. This is, of course, a setting and an era that I have written extensively about myself. I’m still not going to read the book.

You can, though. You’ll probably love it.

11 Responses

  1. Levi: I am 150 pages into
    Levi: I am 150 pages into BLEEDING EDGE. And it kills me that I have not yet had opportunity to finish it — largely because a great deal of reading and writing and other professional obligations have pushed Pynchon into the weekend. But let me assure you that this novel thus far, much like its cousin INHERENT VICE, is not “thick, impenetrably clever prose.” Pynchon has, in his post-MASON & DIXON days (yes, even with AGAINST THE DAY!), moved away from the portentous and ambitious writing that appear to frustrate his more humorless critics (who demand more GRAVITY’S RAINBOW). He is having unapologetic fun. He blends genre without apology — to the point where Michiko Kakutani points the “chick lit” finger at him. And I can safely reveal that I have laughed out loud several times during my reading of BLEEDING EDGE (perhaps once every four pages) thus far. You may indeed be more of a kindred spirit with the latter Pynchon than the former. But all this is a way of saying, sir, that you should never judge the book until you have read it. There may be more kinship here than you are willing to admit!

  2. Hey Ed — thanks for the
    Hey Ed — thanks for the advice. Well, you are presenting the book in a more positive light than most of the reviewers I’ve read. Really, I was thinking of trying this Pynchon book (after giving up on a few of the early beasts) because of the Silicon Alley theme. You’ve convinced me to at least give it a try. And I hope I’ll get to hear or read your thoughts on the book once you’ve finished it.

  3. I am no Pynchon fan either,
    I am no Pynchon fan either, but Harold Bloom loves him. It seems I always disagree with Harold Bloom on writers like Pynchon and Wallace Stephens. But we do both enjoy Cormac McCarthy, though I was sad to hear of your disinterest Levi(?)

    Are there any readers that you and I and Harold Bloom can agree on? Maybe not, I suspect he hates Kerouac.


  4. Started on Inherent Vice –
    Started on Inherent Vice – put it aside. Yes, I agree with Ed Champion, the post-Mason and Dixon Pynchon has indeed shifted gears. I’m going to let this one sit for a while before I tackle it. Might go back and re-read Gravity’s Rainbow first.

    Levi – I can see why you dislike both Pynchon and DFW – their work has a similar tone, like the characters are all caught up in some vast conspiracy that they are barely aware of. I, on the other hand, am all for this. V, Lot 49, Gravity, and of course – Infinite Jest.

  5. Levi – When you find yourself
    Levi – When you find yourself staring at pages of what appears to be one sentence with nary a comma or semi colon just do as I do and as Uncle Tom would have would have you do- wait for the chorus to come around again and then jump right in as we all sing together

    Welcome aboard, gee, it’s a fabulous or-gy
    That you just dropped in on, my friend–
    We can’t recall just how it start-ted,
    But there’s only one way it can end!
    The behaviour is bestial, hardly Marie-Celestial,
    But you’ll fit right in with the crowd,
    If you jettison all of those prob-lems,
    And keep it hysterically loud!

  6. Dear “LWelcomeAboard” — I
    Dear “LWelcomeAboard” — I really don’t understand what you just said, but I’m liking it!

  7. Page 302, during a Silicon
    Page 302, during a Silicon Alley “reunion” party on Sept 8th, 2001:

    “Even though the dotcom bubble, once an eye-catching ellipsoid, now droops in vivid pink collapse over the trembling chin of the era, perhaps no more than a vestige of shallow breath left inside it, no expense tonight has been spared. The theme of the gathering, officially “1999”, has darker subtext of Denial. It soon becomes clear that everybody’s pretending for tonight that they’re still in the pre-crash fantasy years, dancing in the shadow of last year’s dreaded Y2K, now safely history, but according to this consensual delusion not quite upon them yet, with all here remaining freeze-framed back at the Cinderella moment of midnight of the millennium when in the next nanosecond the world’s computers will fail to increment the year correctly and bring down the Apocalypse. What passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder. PEople have pulled their pre-millennial T-shirts back out of the archival plastic they’ve been idling in — Y2K IS NEAR, ARMAGEDDON EVE, Y2K COMPLIANT LOVE MACHINE, I SURVIVED… Determined, as Prince can be heard repeatedly urging, to party like it’s 1999.”

  8. If Michiko Kakutani dislikes
    If Michiko Kakutani dislikes a book go buy it! She sucks as literary critic just as much as you suck!

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