Pynchon’s Children

Christopher Nealon

The work of Thomas Pynchon has long been synonymous with literary postmodernism, especially the version that involves manic overplotting and paranoid speculation about sinister systems whose names elude us. He has also always been understood to be broadly “countercultural” in some ’60s sense, championing the little guy against those sinister forces. While these characterizations are true enough, they have obscured the ways in which Pynchon has been writing, all along, about capitalism in particular, and doing it through the lens of a complex and disturbing vision of sexuality.

Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is set in a very specific time, from spring to fall of 2001, and in a very specific place: the Upper West Side. Its relatively restricted compass and detective-story frame link it to earlier Pynchon novels like The Crying of Lot 49 (1965) and Inherent Vice (2009)—“minor” novels, ones that feel like breathers between the epic Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason and Dixon (1997), and Against The Day (2006). It is his first novel since Crying to feature a female protagonist—the private investigator Maxine (Maxi) Tarnow—and it is framed quite pointedly by two scenes of Maxi taking her sons to school.

For all these reasons, Bleeding Edge has been read as the fiction of a domesticated Pynchon, Pynchon come in from the cold of postmodern paranoia. In a review of the novel for Harper’s, Joshua Cohen writes, “Bleeding Edge ... offers an indication that Pynchon has finally given up on seeking the soul of the nation his family helped found. For Pynchon—the embattled bard of the counterculture, disabused of all allegiance—the last redoubt has become the family.”

I can’t quite read the novel this way. For one thing, it explicitly wants to pose a political question about the turn of the millennium, which is whether there was a substantial link between the dot-com boom and the attacks of September 11, 2001. The novel answers “yes”—but the way it answers “yes” doesn’t have much to do with paranoia, or the complexity of the “postmodern” world for which Pynchon is so often taken as diagnostician. It has to do with capitalism, and with something like shame.

More than paranoid overtones or the conventions of detective fiction, what links Bleeding Edge to the rest of Pynchon is that this latest novel, like all his others, is set in a period of high profitability for capital.

More than paranoid overtones or the conventions of detective fiction, what links Bleeding Edge to the rest of Pynchon is that this latest novel, like all his others, is set in a period of high profitability for capital. V., though centered on late-1950s New York City, is built around long flashbacks to the early 20th-century “scramble for Africa”; Gravity’s Rainbow explicitly highlights the role of war conditions in setting up what would be the high profit rates of the post–World War II era; Mason & Dixon tracks the value-potential of the westward expansion across the continental US; and Against The Day turns its attention repeatedly to struggles between labor and capital at the end of the 19th century, when new mining techniques and technologies of electrification promised vast profits for whoever was brutal enough to harness them most effectively. Even The Crying of Lot 49, a bauble by comparison to the epic novels, makes the link between profitability and violence crystal clear: as Oedipa Maas traces the sources of her ex-boyfriend’s wealth, she discovers that the cigarette company in which he’d heavily invested drew its superior taste (and market share) from charcoal made from the bones of World War II GIs.

Bleeding Edge, while certainly a novel about the dot-com boom, does not—to say the least—have a triumphalist story to tell about how profits are made on and off the Internet. This is in itself an achievement, since even after two economic crashes in which Internet technology was directly implicated, we still tend to tell a story in which the web can serve as the vehicle for infinite profit, and for a kind of profit that finally washes the blood from the hands of earlier forms of capitalism. In the narrative we know best, scrappy, forward-thinking young geeks figure out how to give everyone on earth access to cheap, speedy personal computers, and how to link them all in a new kind of network that promises a post-industrial and exploitation-free prosperity.

In Pynchon’s novel, by contrast, the virtual space of the web is just another frontier to be pillaged, just like sub-Saharan Africa, or the post-war suburbs, or the Wild West. Like those other frontiers, Pynchon’s Internet attracts a tremendous motley of characters (speaking, as ever, pitch-perfect frontier slang), willing in different degrees to commit to whatever might be necessary to keep the boom booming. What that commitment means in Bleeding Edge depends on whether you’re capital or labor. For the young idealists who design a deep-web space called DeepArcher, the choice is to sell the source code to big sharks and give up on the dream of a humane, exploratory virtual reality, or to go open source and never make a name for themselves. For the big sharks—here, in the person of one Gabriel Ice, a kind of diabolical Bill Gates figure—the only choice is to keep moving, which means to keep buying out potentially profitable start-ups on more or less unrefusable terms. The defeats are bitter, the triumphs cold.

So while Pynchon does dally with Internet-related 9/11 conspiracy theories in Bleeding Edge (there are pointed passages about fluctuations on the stock market just before the attacks), he prefers to connect the attacks and the boom whose end they mark in language that’s less about “paranoia” and more about how the violence feels—not least the way it feels, uncannily, like we asked for it. He puts these thoughts in the words of March Kelleher, Maxine’s longtime friend and the mother-in-law of the evil mogul Ice. Kelleher is a stalwart old-school radical, and the only character in the book with a blog—which is where Pynchon has her write, on September 12 or so,

 

Just to say evil Islamists did it, that’s so lame, and we know it ...But there’s always the other thing. Our yearning. Our deep need for it to be true. Somewhere, down at some shameful dark recess of the national soul, we need to feel betrayed, even guilty. As if it was us who created Bush and his gang ... And whatever happened then is on our ticket.

 

Yearning, need, shame, guilt—and, of course, complicity: readers on the left may recall feeling complicit in the history that could be said to have contributed to the attacks, but I think this passage is less about 9/11 as anti-imperial blowback than a description of the psychic reality in which Americans could be said to have allowed violence to take place—or failed to resist it.

In other words, the shame is there before the violence. Since at least V.’s Kurt Mondaugen, wallowing in decadence in German Southwest Africa, more Pynchon characters than I can count have been avatars of this message, that maybe humanity is so harried by a guilt anterior to any one of us that we’re endlessly compelled to seek individual and collective punishments that, however ruthless and perpetual, can never redeem it.

<i>Tribute in Light</i> (2008) th.omas / flickr

This agony of shame is Pynchon’s pivot between the profit rate that drives his plots and the abyss to which his characters invariably turn. It’s also the link between capital and sexuality—especially, as it turns out, sadomasochistic sex and anal sexuality. Gravity’s Rainbow is the crucible in which this first gets worked out: in an infamous scene from the novel, an obscure psy-ops hierarchy turns out to be keeping an aging Brigadier General in line by submitting him to nightly S/M rituals at the hands of a Dutch dominatrix. Elsewhere, the novel’s arch-villain, the Nazi Lieutenant Weissman, turns out to be able to keep the profitable German rocket program running because of the power he exerts over a boy he’s training to accept anal penetration.

These forms of sexuality are also, in Pynchon, forms of training and control. The first character we see in Gravity’s Rainbow, Captain “Pirate” Prentice, turns out to be a “fantasist-surrogate,” a holding vessel for the disturbing erotic fantasies of higher-ups. We learn, too, that the novel’s would-be protagonist, Lieutenant Tyrone Slothrop, was experimented upon as an infant, so that as an adult his sexual arousal is linked to the trajectories of V-2 rockets. Like the masochistic General, and Weissman’s ingénue, their training is in the service of the market—or, as one character puts it, “A market needed no longer to be run by the Invisible Hand, but now could create itself—its own logic, momentum, style, from inside.” That “inside,” in Gravity’s Rainbow and elsewhere, is both your fantasy life and your anus.

That’s what the men in Pynchon endure, in one form or another: the implantation of fantasies and motivations not their own, which can never quite be purged. When it’s not put in terms of anal rape or Pavlovian manipulation, this dilemma is often phrased in terms of whether or not a young man will agree to submit to working for The Man (Gravity’s Rainbow’s Roger Mexico; Against The Day’s Traverse boys). Sexuality and capital keep becoming metaphors for each other.

Pynchon depicts women’s sexuality as caught up in an attempt to undo evil brought into the world by men who submitted under duress to the rule of capital.

Pynchon’s women suffer differently. For them, the shame and guilt that enable capital accumulation are sexualized via plotlines (helpfully schematized by David Auerbach in The American Reader) of women making what look like bad erotic choices. And that they surely are. But they are also moral, even religious choices: women in Pynchon are forever taking on the suffering of men, trying to redeem it, submitting to its sexual re-enactment on their bodies, and feeling, quite urgently, that in taking on male suffering they are trying to establish a moral balance in a universe that is likely impossible to balance. Katje Borgesius, the dominatrix in Gravity’s Rainbow, agonizes about whether she will ever do enough sex-work for the Allies to make up for her having worked for the Nazis; she is one of many examples where, consciously or not, Pynchon depicts women’s sexuality as caught up in an attempt to undo evil brought into the world by men who submitted under duress to the rule of capital. It’s as though the violence of the market worked its way inside their bodies, and the women want to work it back out by giving it a place to go.

In Bleeding Edge, the bad erotic choice takes the form of one Nicholas Windust, a former (and possibly present) Federal operative, who take an intense interest in Max’s research—and, soon enough, in her. Like Slothrop before him, Windust was tortured as a child, put through a merciless training program for time-travelling assassins that included endless beatings and deprivation and, of course, sodomization. Unlike Slothrop, though, Windust became a sadist: when Maxine is given Windust’s dossier, she is appalled—for three decades running, he has “taken positions” in the sell-off of public resources in whose forced privatization he had a leather-clad hand.

She’s also attracted to him, and her attraction takes two forms that both resonate with long-standing themes in Pynchon. One is a fascination with how and when, exactly, he went from being an innocent kid to an agent of domination: reading his dossier, Maxine finds herself wondering where the tipping point was. Later, comparing his ’80’s teen years in DC to her own in New York, she wonders, “Did Windust, once in a more sympathetic-juvenile day, actually hang out at the old 9:30 Club the way Maxine did at the Paradise Garage?” By the time they have sex, she’s already transformed him into a boy.

 But that’s just half the attraction. The other half has to do with the man he’s become, the sadist, the asshole. Here’s the sex scene where she finally falls for him:

 

His hands, murderer’s hands, are gripping her forcefully by the hips, exactly where it matters, exactly where some demonic set of nerve receptors she has until now only been semi-aware of have waited to be found and used like buttons on a game controller ... impossible for her to know if it’s him moving or if she’s doing it herself ...

 

This question that dogs such passages is, can a male author explore masochistic sexuality in women, over and over again, without either implying that it’s innate, or letting his fascination with it become a lurid pathway to right-wing valorizations of rape that it would otherwise seem to oppose?

The way that Bleeding Edge deals with this—spoiler alert—is to kill off Windust, which allows us to see what Maxine felt for him more clearly. Just before or just after his bosses murder him, Maxi encounters him in an extra-temporal space on the outer reaches of DeepArcher. He’s his youthful avatar, “a not-yet-corrupted entry-level wise-ass,” and he’s been cut loose at last—no bank accounts, no access to his family. His last exchange with Maxine in this virtual space seizes her with regret and anger:

 

They found his careless gift of boy’s cruelty and developed it, deployed and used it, by tiny increments, till one day he was a professional sadist with a GS-1800 series job and no regrets. Nothing could touch him, and he thought he could just go on, deep into his retirement years. Chump. Asshole.

 

What makes Windust a “chump” is something like the loss of his retirement account: he’s the sadist and the boy who bought into the man’s game of capital, gave it everything, and never got paid back. But he’s also the boy who was tortured into it—so his sadism ends up doing double duty both as a momentary purgative for his lovers’ sourceless guilt, and as the alluring externalization of his own suffering: he beats them like They once beat him. Everyone’s turned on, and nobody’s saved.

Or, not quite. Pynchon’s novels are full of happy endings, which range from minor reconciliations and changes of tone (see the last 100 pages of Gravity’s Rainbow), to family reunions (Vineland), gentle reversals of fortune (everywhere), and full-blown utopias (Against The Day). We tend to think of Pynchon ending his tales with a hammer about to drop—a sinister auctioneer glaring at Oedipa in the last paragraph of The Crying of Lot 49, or a rocket careering to earth as Gravity’s Rainbow winds down—but he keeps so many plots in play, and introduces us to so many characters, that there are many kinds of closure on offer in the novels, only a fraction of which take place on the final page.

In Bleeding Edge, as in every other Pynchon novel, the background is full of late modulations from gravity to grace. The one that I think best captures the echoes of these dilemmas can be found about 30 pages from the novel’s final scene. In this passage, Maxine has logged in to DeepArcher, whose young designers have temporarily placed beyond the reach of Ice-style profitability by making it open source. It is filled with cities—with worlds—that are infinitely far apart and utterly conjoined. Silently, not wanting to disturb them, she watches the avatars of her two sons:

 

She sees the boys, but they haven’t seen her. There aren’t any passwords, still she hesitates to log in without an invitation, it’s their city after all. They have different priorities here, the cityscapes of Maxine’s DeepArcher are obscurely broken, places of indifference and abuse and unremoved dog shit, and she doesn’t want to track any more of that than she can help into their more merciful city, with its antiquated dyes, its acid green shrubbery and indigo pavements and overdesigned traffic flows. Ziggy has his arm over his brother’s shoulder, and Otis is looking up at him with unhesitating adoration. They are ambling around in this not-yet-corrupted screenscape, at home in it already, unconcerned for their safety, salvation, destiny ...

 

The paragraph spins around the axis of the distance between what’s antiquated and what’s not-yet-corrupted: as they travel deeper into the future, the boys move further back in time. Like the obverse of the assassin-children trained to leap into the future to ensure high profits for those that sent them, Maxine’s boys move backwards in time and quietly redeem the past. And in their retrograde, they also become the image of the two things—virtuality and social reproduction—that capital most needs in order to expand forever. It depends as much on fresh-faced innocence as it does on guilt and shame.

Bleeding Edge is dotted with uses of the phrase “late capitalism” and its variants, which characters toss off as though it were ’90’s slang (it sort of was). It’s hard not to read it as a meme, and as a shout-out to Pynchon’s near-exact peer, Fredric Jameson. But the essay in which Jameson first made that phrase well-known ended up igniting even greater fame for the word “postmodern”—a word which has come, in literary criticism at least, to mean something like metafictional antics, a fear of the loss of old foundations, and, in Jameson’s phrase, a general “waning of affect” in the arts. What was lost in the movement from “late capitalism” to “postmodernism” was the sense of capital’s dependency on us for its survival. Asking what capital will do to ensure our compliance—asking what it costs us to comply, in sold souls, in forgotten corpses, in lost children, in goodbyes—is the hallmark and the legacy of Pynchon’s fiction. “Paranoid,” like “postmodern,” has never done him justice.