Saturday, April 30, 2016

Traipsing through the Windust

"I've always depended upon the kindness of stranglers," says Maxine Tarnow, and all I can think is I can't believe I had to wade through a page and a half of inane dialogue just to get to that ridiculous punchline. 

But that's the risk you take when you read a novel by Thomas Pynchon: he'll go to any length for a gag--in fact, some of his characters exist primarily as a pretext for trotting out funny names. (Pynchon is, after all, the guy who gave us both Stanley Kotecks and Mike Fallopian in the same novel.) His 2013 novel Bleeding Edge, which only recently rose to the top of my leisure reading pile, offers up Reg Despard, Lester Traipse, a guy named Windust, and Gabriel Ice (a cold-hearted criminal, obviously), along with a mess of throwaway characters no more consequential than dandelion fluff.

What's at stake here, though, is serious: the novel unfolds in Manhattan during the six months leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, which provides all kinds of opportunities for clever ironies since readers know what's coming but characters don't. Suspense mounts as we move closer to that fated day; I turn the pages more quickly, wondering which character will die in the towers or book a ticket on the wrong plane. But then the date comes and goes with little fanfare or impact: the planes come in; the towers fall; the characters pick up the pieces; life goes on for Maxine and her peculiarly named pals, many of whom are entangled in what is either a massive worldwide conspiracy or perhaps simply a bit of dodgy accounting.

Maxine, see, is a Certified Fraud Examiner, or used to be one before she indulged in a bit of dodgy accounting of her own and had her certification revoked. She plays the role here of the hard-boiled detective who gets lured into a web of deceit and corruption involving online hacking, massive shipments of fiberoptic cable, and a weapon oddly reminiscent of those rockets that provide the airborne trajectory to Gravity's Rainbow. In Bleeding Edge, Maxine finds herself drawn deep underground into a mysterious secret bunker and then into the Deep Web, the dark undercurrent of the Internet. Despite her street smarts and savvy banter, Maxine finds herself scrambling, with "no idea how to step outside her own history of safe choices and dowse her way across the desert of this precarious hour, hoping to find what? some refuge."

One possible refuge is a private online space called DeepArcher, which promises departure into a sanctuary where anything is possible; Maxine believes the Internet offers empowerment, but her father offers a darker view, reminding Maxine that the Internet's origins lie within the military-industrial complex: 

"Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid....Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? It’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future."

Soon enough, Maxine's online refuge is invaded by tourists and trolls, becoming as polluted as the Fresh Kills landfill she characterizes as "the perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence," a mound containing the city's "collected history" made up of "everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself." But the trash is impossible to contain, keeps oozing back across the invisible line, just as real life and virtual life seem to intermingle promiscuously while Maxine teeters precariously on the bleeding edge.

Maxine has her moments but I don't find her as compelling or believable as Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 (published 50 years ago!), whose encounter with a worldwide conspiracy seems much more treacherous than Maxine's, even though Oedipa's conspiracy is hopelessly low-tech. Like Maxine, Oedipa must decipher messages indistinguishable from garbage and stumbles into a morass of undecidability, but Maxine gets the satisfying resolution unavailable to Oedipa.

I started reading Bleeding Edge while traveling last week and it's the perfect book to read in transit: interesting enough to distract from the awfulness of travel but lightweight enough to leave behind without regret, consigning it to the landfill Pynchon describes so lyrically.    

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