The novels of the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon provide a unique insight into the playful and possibly paranoid psyche of their creator. As his latest book, Bleeding Edge, is published and hailed as a return to form, Saul Austerlitz considers the works of probably one of America’s greatest living writers
Anyone who has ever cracked the spine of Thomas Pynchon’s legendarily forbidding 900-page masterwork Gravity’s Rainbow likely remembers its opening line: “A screaming comes across the sky.” It is a harbinger of the famously dense book’s fascination with rockets and entropy and the seeming downward slope of twentieth-century history into chaos and formlessness. But how many people recall the next scene? Captain Geoffrey “Pirate” Prentice is in the kitchen of his London apartment, preparing his famous Banana Breakfast (Pynchon is enamored, as readers of Mason & Dixon will surely remember, of Random Capital Letters).
As Pirate puts the finishing touches on his feast, an assortment of employees of the war emerge from behind bedroom doors and clatter into bathrooms, their step now containing an extra spring from the heady scent in the air. “With a clattering of chairs, upended shell cases, benches, and ottomans, Pirate’s mob gather at the shores of the great refectory table…crowded now over the swirling dark grain of its walnut uplands with banana omelets, banana sandwiches, banana casseroles, mashed bananas molded in the shape of a British lion rampant, blended with eggs into batter for French toast … tall cruets of pale banana syrup to pour oozing onto banana waffles, a giant glazed crock where diced bananas have been fermenting since the summer with wild honey and muscat raisins, up out of which, this winter morning, one now dips foam mugsfull of banana mead … banana croissants and banana kreplach, and banana oatmeal and banana jam and banana bread, and bananas flamed in ancient brandy …” There is significantly more banana talk on this page alone.
Rereading Pynchon all at one go is perhaps to overdose on the Banana Breakfast for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it also helps to identify some of the unifying markers of his fiction, up to and including his new novel, Bleeding Edge. They are as much about the banana waffles as the existential terror, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as performed by the Marx Brothers.
Pynchon’s novels are historical in orientation, if deliberately anachronistic and ludicrous, drizzled with references to old movies (some of them imaginary) and song lyrics. He is a remarkable mimic, self-consciously mimicking the stilted rhetoric of 18th-century English in Mason & Dixon, the boys’-adventure serial in Against the Day (“lots of this dang Irredentism going around lately”), and endless-summer surfer lingo in Inherent Vice.
Wherever we are, we seem to be among Pynchon’s 1960s refugees, hippies and burnouts on the run from pursuers that may be entirely imaginary, or all too real. We are repeatedly warned that the marvels Pynchon displays for our amusement are ultimately no hedge against brutish reality. “Do not imagine,” the second-in-command of the boys’-adventure hot-air balloon argues at the outset of Against the Day, “that in coming aboard Inconvenience you have escaped into any realm of the counterfactual. There may not be mangrove swamps or lynch law up here, but we must nonetheless live with the constraints of the given world …”
Here is a semi-annotated list of what Pynchon’s novels do not provide. First, linearity. The passage of time is murky at best. It is a few hundred pages into Gravity’s Rainbow before we realize that the Second World War has ended some unspecified time in the past. Pynchon generally makes sure to provide a detailed map at the beginning of each novel, only to drift, like one of Against the Day’s runaway balloons, further and further away from the familiar.
Second, characterisation is deliberately minimalist. The litany of disaffected military men and rocket enthusiasts in Gravity’s Rainbow, or private eyes and dynamiters in Against the Day, are like a series of mousetraps designed to snare wary readers. Which one is Tchitcherine again? And how does he relate to Enzian? The slow drip of deliberately undifferentiated characters is a kind of comic torture, up until that blissful moment when you realize, with a kind of Pynchonian insight, that it does not matter at all which character is which. They are all differing permutations of the same persona, and any distinctions between them are merely cosmetic. There is a reason most newcomers are encouraged to begin with the comparatively simple, two-character The Crying of Lot 49.
Third, Pynchon prefers the complications to the resolution. The fundamental mysteries that animate Pynchon’s best work – where is rocket #0000? Is the W.A.S.T.E. mail-delivery system real, or an elaborate hoax? What happened to the missing Eleven Days? What is the Golden Fang? – are never solved, or intended to be. They are philosophical MacGuffins.
With its interest in rocketry and the history of the Herero people of southwest Africa, its immersion in technical and scientific language, and its sheer imposing bulk, Gravity’s Rainbow is often classified alongside Ulysses, In Search of Lost Time, and Infinite Jest as novels to be regarded by the newcomer with as much terror as delight. And yet Pynchon, for all his forbidding exterior, is as much a comic novelist as Philip Roth, his delight in wordplay and absurdity and musical interludes undiminished after more than half a century. Pynchon would likely bring on the high-kicking pitchman here with a snappy ditty: what if I told you there was a novel about randy soldiers whose conquests directly correlated with the pattern of V-2 rockets falling on London, coprophiliac officers, awkward encounters at the Potsdam conference with actor Mickey Rooney, and jaunty tunes about nuclear holocaust? And what if I threw in – free! – a collection of bawdy stories about nubile girls and randy widows chasing eighteenth-century explorers?
And then, like in the work of the fictional medieval playwright Richard Wharfinger in The Crying of Lot 49, the ostensible Pynchon plot encounters a heretofore hidden void, a terror with no words capable of paying it adequate service: “It is about this point in the play, in fact, that things really get peculiar, and a gentle chill, an ambiguity, begins to creep in among the words … It can only be called a kind of ritual reluctance. Certain things, it is made clear, will not be spoken aloud; certain events will not be shown onstage...”
Everything is a sign, a symbol, a totem of the eternal parable of order and rebellion. Conspiracy thinking is the only kind of thinking, even as it is exposed for all its overblown absurdity. “Charlie the … Tuna, man,” a drug-addled attorney moans in Inherent Vice. “Charlie really has this, like, obsessive death wish! Yes! He, he wants to be caught, processed, put in a can, not just any can, you dig, it has to be StarKist! Suicidal brand loyalty, man, deep parable of consumer capitalism, they won’t be happy with anything less than drift-netting us all, chopping us up and stacking us on the shelves of Supermarket Amerika, and subconsciously the horrible thing is, is we want them to do it …” American history – world history – is a secret record of the pitched combat between order and disorder, with Pynchon planted with paranoid certainty on the side of the anti-hierarchical and self-organised.
In the vein of his previous work, Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is half jeremiad, half banana cream pie. We are in Manhattan (where the interview-shy Pynchon is believed to live) in the fall of 2001. The tech industry has just crashed precipitously, but mogul Gabriel Ice, the chief executive of a shady firm called hashslingrz, is scooping up the city’s discarded bandwidth.
Frazzled Upper West Side fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, sole employee of the esteemed firm Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em, sets out in pursuit of Ice’s nefarious dealings, her chase extending through both “meatspace,” as hackers charmingly refer to the physical world, and the “Deep Web,” where outlaws and adventurers gather, exchange trade secrets, and collectively create an outpost of freedom threatened by Pynchon’s usual representatives of repression. “Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” Maxine, the protagonist of Bleeding Edge, says. “You can never have too much.”
Pynchon’s vaunted perfect pitch has not departed him yet; this is one of the best books yet about the feel of the internet, its speed and grace and depthlessness. And Maxine – at least for the book’s first two-thirds – is one of his most appealing characters, outfitted with an endless array of snappy comebacks, like any good New Yorker should be. When a naysayer accuses her of having sold her soul, she demurs: “maybe a couple bars of rhythm and blues here and there.” There are jokes about Jamaicans (they think “joint custody means who brought the ganja”) and riffs on yuppie-hunting video games and real-estate developers’ ditties called This Land is My Land, This Land is Also My Land.
If any writer has effectively closed down the biographical approach to his work, it is Pynchon, about whom the only fact we can safely assume is that he is currently alive. “Best disguise is no disguise,” a radical clergyman tells a dynamiter in Against the Day. “You must belong to this everyday world—be in it, be of it.” For all his highfalutin aesthetic, Pynchon has always belonged to the everyday world – its technologies, its passing fancies, its fleeting news stories. But reading Bleeding Edge, one has the nagging suspicion that Pynchon, now in his late 70s, just might be one of those white-haired gents muttering darkly about neoconservative cabals at the local Fairway, or hectoring some hapless speaker at the public library with a question that’s really more of a declaration of principles. Some of Pynchon’s playfulness is leeched away by his story’s proximity to the present day; compare Bleeding Edge with the phantasmagorical inventiveness of Against the Day. The world simply does not need another novel devoted to proving the iniquities of the presidency of George W Bush. That ticket, as Maxine might say, is defunct.
As the Pokemon reference above might indicate, Pynchon is astonishingly well-versed in the cultural minutiae of late 2001, from the feud between Jay-Z and Nas to the cult movie Office Space. Only occasionally does he fall prey to the desire to mock the past from the safety of the present, as with the character who believes her Beanie Baby collection’s value will soon be “uncomputable.” Instead, a powerful sense of foreboding hangs over the first two-thirds of Bleeding Edge, with stray references to the destroyed Bamiyan Buddhas, hawwala vendors, and secret money transfers contributing to a spooky sense that the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington are somehow foreordained.
All this ominous gloom is mixed with pitch-black comedy, as when Maxine’s kids visit their father’s new offices atop the World Trade Center, swaying in the wind, and his business partner hastily reassures them of their safety: “built like a battleship.” We veer on the precipice of disaster, swaying in the wind while being reassured that the rickety edifice of civilization will never collapse. “Out of Mercy,” the ludicrous Rev Cherrycoke wisely observes in the colonial-American farce Mason & Dixon, “we are blind as to Time, for we could not bear to contemplate what lies at its heart.” By his own terms, Pynchon is a serious writer, and not a frivolous comic novelist, because lurking behind all his inspired silliness is an undimmed terror at the creep of death. “When we speak of ‘seriousness’ in fiction,” Pynchon says in Slow Learner, “ultimately we are talking of an attitude toward death.” Like Roth, to whom he bears a closer resemblance than a quick glance might indicate, the wild comic invention of Pynchon’s work is an extended hedge against our common fate.
Pynchon’s absurdist riffs are all deep parables of consumer capitalism, which are all absurdist riffs, in an endless recurring cycle of comedy and paranoia. We never know what (giant man-eating worms, talking ears, Oscar Wilde West types, vengeful, lovelorn mechanical ducks, historical barbed-wire collectors, circuit-riding osteopaths, bars with strict electronic-music-only policies) is meant to amuse, and what is meant to unsettle. The existential terror snuggles up close to the Star Trek jokes.
Pynchon is the wised-up local tour guide of our dreams in Bleeding Edge, dissing chic Park Avenue as “the most boring street in the city,” and paying lavish tribute to the now-vanished grubby Times Square of yore. The more the narrator laments rapacious real-estate developers, gourmet food snobs, cable-news networks, and The New York Times, the more the reader begins to suspect that, of all Bleeding Edge’s characters, Pynchon himself is most in agreement, if not psychic harmony, with March Kelleher, the conspiracy-spouting ideologue whose very culinary choices are ideologically dictated: “I don’t do lunch. Corrupt artifact of late capitalism. Breakfast maybe?”
After some casting around, Pynchon finally settles on an elegiac tone apropos for a place and time on the cusp of wrenching change. We are all, the desk jockeys and financial warriors and mouse pushers alike, in search of better climes, and the impact of the journey is searing, and irreversible. “Time travel, as it turns out,” Pynchon tells us, “is not for civilian tourists, you don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor, and loss, and there is no redemption – of, or from, anything.” We might suspect that in addition to providing us with a warning, Pynchon is speaking of himself—time traveler through his own warped historical fantasies – as well.
Bleeding Edge falls apart in its final third, with Maxine’s psychosexual obsession with “neoliberal terrorist” Nicholas Windust echoing the pull of equally loathsome DEA agent Brock Vond over the female characters in Vineland, and the relationship between Lake Traverse and her father’s killer in Against the Day. Of all Pynchon’s manifold recurring themes, among the least satisfying is the unending attraction of well-meaning women toward what can only be described as evil men. “Women could protest from now till piss flowed uphill,” he writes in Against the Day, “but the truth was, there wasn’t one didn’t secretly love a killer.” This is Pynchon at his most irritable, his sense of humor drowned in a sea of women-are-from-Venus pseudo-philosophizing. The wondrous carousel of hackers and private eyes and moguls and West Side yuppies falls away, ditching the Gravity’s Rainbow trappings for a heaping helping of Vineland. This does not, regrettably, make for great literature.
Then again, all of Pynchon’s books tend to fall apart at the end, with the notable exception of the perfectly formed Lot 49. As a comedian, Pynchon prefers the setups to the punch lines. That rocket in Gravity’s Rainbow, screaming across the sky, never quite touches ground at book’s end. The air of free-floating paranoia and dread that hovers over Manhattan in Bleeding Edge never entirely disperses, even after the Twin Towers come down. We never quite grasp what They have planned.
The official truth is a lie, and it is only in lies – or what we prefer to politely call fiction – that truth can be found: “Somebody needs this nation of starers believing they’re all wised up at last, hardened and hip to the human condition, freed from the fictions that led them so astray, as if paying attention to made-up lives was some form of evil drug abuse that the collapse of the towers cured by scaring everybody straight again.” Our fantasies, paranoid or otherwise, are ours alone, and to be treasured. “Cherish it! … What else do any of you have? Hold it tightly by its little tentacle, don’t let the Freudians coax it away or the pharmacists poison it out of you,” a doctor pleads with Oedipa Maas in Lot 49. “Whatever it is, hold it dear, for when you lose it you go over by that much to the others. You begin to cease to be.”
It is in the nature of conspiracies to come apart at the seams, and Pynchon’s tendency to leave his stories unsettled can be read as a desire to preserve the mystery, rather than provide any kind of resolution. The only neat conclusion, as Pynchon would tell us, is death, and his books are monuments to the messy, intemperate, unrestrained life force. Instead of defeating the massed armies of evil, or delivering a blow for righteousness, the bedraggled protagonists of Bleeding Edge gather, bleary-eyed, at a Greek diner on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in search once more of “whatever it was they thought they needed, coffee, a cheeseburger, a kind word, the light of dawn, they’ve kept watch, stayed awake and caught sight of it at least, or nodded off and missed it once again.” A Bushian fog covers the land once more, and as at the moving conclusion of Inherent Vice, the only humane response is to huddle together, trudging forward in “a convoy of unknown size, each car keeping the one ahead in taillight range, like a caravan in a desert of perception, gathered awhile for safety in getting across a patch of blindness.”
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Another Fine Mess: A History of American Film Comedy.