For the Thomas Pynchon fanatic, novel release dates are extraordinary events. But the spaces, the years between those rare occasions are filled with the pushing of the hermetic author's works on anyone who'll listen. Then there is the constant re-reading and, in more extreme cases, the scrawling of the Tristero symbol—that muted trumpet—anywhere people might find it: in chalk on sidewalk concrete, in marker on bathroom walls, or with oil paint stick, Basquiat style, on wheat-paste advertisements. Okay, I've only rarely done this, but such is the hold of Pynchon on my imagination that it becomes worth doing at all.
And so this week's news that Penguin has released the first page of Pynchon's forthcoming novel Bleeding Edge was a wonderful treat. Certainly this isn't as important as the other big news of the day, the bombings at the Boston Marathon. But as this novel, due out on Sept. 17, will apparently dig into the years between the dot-com bust on Silicon Alley and the 9/11 attacks, perhaps it's more evidence of how Pynchon's novels, as slapstick and bizarre as they can be, mirror this hyperreal, violent world.
So what do we have in this first page of Bleeding Edge?
Well, for an author of rambling and surrealistic density, who writes opening lines such as “A screaming comes across the sky,” the page looks remarkably mundane. Its text revolves around a stroll to school with a mother, Maxine Tarnow, and her two boys, Ziggy and Otis, in Manhattan's Upper West Side, where Pynchon is said to live these days. A rumor once made the rounds that when Pynchon's boy was in school, the author was beloved by the women of the PTA. And this first page reads rather like a love letter to those Upper West Side PTA moms. This from a guy who is so clearly sympathetic to the madcappers, the rebels, the searchers, the shaggy dogs, and nearly anyone else who ever lived on the margin.
Inherent Vice starts quite simply as well. But, in that novel's first paragraphs the reader feels the drifting of Shasta Fay Hepworth back into Doc Sportello's life in mysterious, drug haze fashion. Only a real Los Angeles lover can appreciate this atmosphere, much less convey it in words. Vineland has a similar ordinariness in its first paragraphs, but Pynchon refracts it through the '60s hangover and the nostalgia of Baby Boomers living the dream, or nightmare, of Reagan's America.
Bleeding Edge's first page has none of this mystery or perspective. Pynchon paints a New York City that is familiar to any New Yorker, even the ones who avoid the Upper West Side like the plague. It is well-written but un-dynamic. And yet: between books, a Pynchon head is as much a patient reader as a patient fan.
If Bleeding Edge is to examine the complex threads between the forces of Silicon Alley, the dot-com bubble, and 9/11 (the axis of terrorist, religion, state and industry), perhaps it's best to start in the eternal land of make-believe. Ah, Manhattan's Upper West Side: where the money flows aplenty, nepotism is a birthright, and the consequence for every action—economic collapse, poverty, fanatical terrorism, etc.—always falls to someone else, outside their zone.
I won't wager whether this will be Pynchon's final novel. He's been unusually productive in the last seven years, publishing Against the Day and Inherent Vice in quick succession. But I am wondering if Pynchon will use Bleeding Edge to effectively tie together some of his lifelong obsessions: communication theory, altered states of consciousness, technology, anarchy, mathematics, conspiracy theory, and, yes, entropy.
Why? The years between the dot-com bust, on March 10, 2000, and September 11, 2001 are a hyperreal gold mine from which to weave a tidy summation of contemporary Western civilization. In those days, investment banking quants on Wall Street tracked Internet Bubble stocks with algorithms, as the world's communication medium hit overdrive. (In many ways, not much has changed.) Who wouldn't want to see Pynchon, creator of the subversive postal service Tristero, the proto Usenet group W.A.S.T.E., and a global network with "The Story of Byron the Bulb", take on the visible and invisible architects of the internet? Inherent Vice included a digression into the ARPAnet, the US government's proto-Internet, but Bleeding Edge could offer a full-on immersion into the subject.
Then there were the al-Qaeda jihadists who, while not bending their minds on psychedelics, each sought ascendence through a type of religious megalomania marked by a longing for imaginary virgin hymens and a total break from the contours of three-dimensional consensus reality. Pynchon always creates a sort of romantic ideal for his novels' anarchists, but the world he's examining in Bleeding Edge was inching toward a type of global anarchism: economic meltdown joined with international mayhem that, while not as bloody as World War I, was and is just as fucking disorienting. The whole period was (still is) a conspiracy theorist's playground. None play so well in this fictional territory as Thomas Pynchon.
Which brings me to the subject of entropy, one of Pynchon's very earliest of themes. From his short stories and V on down to Inherent Vice, the characters and their worlds experience, like any closed system (Earth, the universe), the effects of entropy. From Tyrone Slothrop's fragmenting mind in Gravity's Rainbow to certain characters' war against order in Against the Day, every system succumbs to an unraveling. Elsewhere, I've spent a great deal of time noting that America and the world's current economic state is experiencing the convulsions of entropy. The system, ultimately unsustainable, is experiencing a sort of heat death, in which certain individuals or cabals are in a frantic scramble to keep the wheels rolling. In my Pynchon fantasy, he would examine this situation in depth in Bleeding Edge.
A true Pynchon fanatic, however, should really just dig the experience and not weigh the product against expectation. Pynchon takes his time in unraveling his hydra-headed stem-winders, and Bleeding Edge cannot be judged by its first page. We may not get treated to happenings like coprophilia, the fucking of nubile witches at the peak of Germany's Brocken (Gravity's Rainbow), or a Peyote-triggered astral projection (Against the Day), but it's a good guess that the 75-year old author still has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.