October 2013

Arts & Letters

‘Bleeding Edge’ by Thomas Pynchon

By Michael Lucy
Jonathan Cape; $32.95

“We have come to live among flows of data more vast than anything the world has seen,” Thomas Pynchon wrote in his 1984 essay, ‘Is It O.K. To Be a Luddite?’ Pynchon was building stories around ideas from information theory as far back as the ’60s, and you might have thought he’d have had more to say about those onrushing currents of “the Computer Age”. But he stayed silent for the rest of the ’80s, and when he started publishing again, he looked resolutely back in time rather than forward – decades, in the stoner jaunts Vineland (1990) and Inherent Vice (2009), or centuries, in the heftier Mason & Dixon (1997) and Against the Day (2006).

Thirty years seems to have been long enough for the affably paranoid great-uncle of American letters to resume his train of thought. Bleeding Edge starts among the tech companies of New York in 2001 and rolls along from one northern spring equinox to the next. Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator with a couple of kids and a flaky ex-husband, arrives at her office one day to find the first of what will prove to be several hommes fatale, this one asking her to look into a mysteriously solvent computer-security company called hashslingrz. Maxine follows the money like the kvetchy gumshoe she sort of is, and finds an array of venture capitalists, hawala networks, government operatives, fibre-optic speculators and perfume enthusiasts, all somehow connected to a sinister apartment building and a secret, idyllic online world called DeepArcher. (“Like ‘departure’, only you pronounce it DeepArcher?”)

Before long, people start turning up dead, the Twin Towers come down, and the free wilderness of the internet ends up being just another territory cleared by military force and only temporarily outside the machinery of commerce and government, like postwar Europe in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and the 18th-century American frontier in Mason & Dixon. Maxine keeps looking for answers, well past the point where the questions have become unclear.

The tone is light and loose, Maxine and her cohorts are good company, and the technical and pop-cultural verisimilitude is remarkable. Not many 76-year-olds can deploy Linux jargon and talk about the Nas–Jay-Z beef with this kind of convincing ease. On the other hand, DeepArcher owes less to any actual online happenings than to the “consensual hallucination” of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). It’s only fitting, since Gibson (an avowed Pynchon fan), and his cyberpunk dreams, fed the culture that produced the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden, who have lately reminded us that, as Maxine says, “Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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