Has Reality Finally Caught Up to Thomas Pynchon?

“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” remarks the central character, Maxine Tarnow, of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. “You can never have too much.” Pynchon seasons his latest epic voyage into the American psyche with enough paranoia to ward off even the most persistent of vampires, if not his critics. Since winning the 1974 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction for Gravity's Rainbow, Pynchon’s watched the trajectory of his stature as a novelist steadily rise, all while he remains grounded in a worldview based in a distrust of systems and a faith in the individual. Bleeding Edge begins just before September 11, 2001, in the calm after the bust of the dotcom boom and before the storm of the terrorist attacks on America and the ensuing and never-ending War on Terror. Pynchon travels back a decade to show us the beginnings of the American age of paranoia, an age that might one day be called the Age of Pynchon. With Bleeding Edge, can we accept that reality has finally caught up to Thomas Pynchon?

Pynchon takes his title from the concept of “bleeding edge technology”—technology so cutting edge that it hurts, financially in terms of the monetary cost of keeping it running and psychologically in terms of its unreliability for still being in basically the testing stage. For Pynchon, the internet remains bleeding edge technology regardless of how we view it. As in all his books, Pynchon dives deep into the language of the internet itself and resurfaces with a fresh appreciation to share with his readers. What The Crying of Lot 49 was to snail mail, Bleeding Edge is to e-mail and online communication. Many of the characters in Bleeding Edge work in the virtual world in the wake of the dotcom crash and still feel the aftershocks. At the center of the web of internet-related intrigue is a program titled DeepArcher, both a pun on “departure” as well as perhaps an allusion to Aristotle’s archer analogy in his Nicomachean Ethics that likened the search for a good life to the quest of an archer to hit the bull’s eye. All of Pynchon’s characters miss the mark to varying degrees, but the fact that they keep trying to the end gives all his work its poignancy.

All the usual suspects of Pynchonianism appear in Bleeding Edge: eccentricities such as “professional nose” Conkling Speedwell’s obsession with how Adolf Hitler would have smelled, snicker-worthy character names (Vip Epperdew, Nick Windust, and others), sudden breaks into little doggerel ditties, groan-worthy puns (a ladies fitness center offering pole-dancing classes called “Body and Pole”), and an almost endless range of cultural allusions (from opera and Bernie Madoff to Space Ghost and Scream, Blacula, Scream). For the uninitiated, the first dip into Pynchon’s pool can be chillingly intimidating, but once you allow yourself to splash around in the playfulness of the text, you’ll find the water’s more than fine.

All those stylistic touches, however, serve as a framework for the real star of any Pynchon novel—the system, the plot, the conspiracy that drives the paranoia of the characters and the involved reader. The New York TimesMichiko Kakutani slammed Bleeding Edge as “weirdly Pynchon Lite” based on what she saw as a plague of two-dimensional characters. I’ll concede to Kakutani her point about the fullness of the characters, but I’ll counter that the real main character in Bleeding Edge is the internet itself, which emerges with a stunning three-dimensionality. In the post-9/11 world of Bleeding Edge, the internet becomes a kind of modern Elysian Fields where those killed in the attacks spend a virtual afterlife as avatars. Just as Odysseus is shocked and saddened to see his comrade Elpenor among the dead in Book 11 of Homer's Odyssey, Pynchon’s Maxine expresses her shock and sadness over the dead of September 11th there, but not there, in the virtual world of DeepArcher. Such departures from the madcap into the sublime mark the true greatness of Pynchon, who rewards those who follow him into the depths.

Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a cautionary tale of the internet and post-9/11 America. “11 September infantilized this country,” a character rails. “It had a chance to grow up, instead it chose to default back to childhood.” The security blanket infantilized America reached for was the internet, where all your dreams seemingly come true. Maxine’s father alludes to the government and military origins of the internet when he says “[i]t was conceived in sin, the worst possible.” “As it kept growing,” he continues, “it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet.” Long before anyone heard of Edward Snowden, Pynchon knew that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that nobody’s after you. (NSA, are you listening?) Rather than freedom, the internet offers only control: “Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again.” Those are strong words from an author who’s resisted the public eye for the past 40 years, who values the freedom to “get lost.” He anticipates a day when we all wear “Dick Tracy’s wrist radio,” which will be the “handcuffs of the future.”  Try watching the Samsung Galaxy Smart Watch commercial with all the pop culture references (including Dick Tracy) now and not think of Pynchon.

As I read Bleeding Edge and the adventures of Maxine as a fraud investigator, I couldn’t help but draw parallels to Herman Melville’s grossly underrated, last full-length novel The Confidence-Man. In Melville’s 19th century, people suffer from a loss of confidence in the face of forces (political, social, economic) increasingly beyond their control and allow themselves to believe any “con” played before them. In Pynchon’s 21st century, the internet becomes the big “con” we use to shelter ourselves against the forces fraudulently offering us freedom and opportunity in exchange for compliance and control. Is that paranoia? More importantly, is that justified paranoia? The Bleeding Edge cuts through all the noise of modern America and strikes a clear, troubling warning bell for us to “get lost” before we lose our souls.

[Image: Detail of cover to Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.]

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.