In the Cybersweatshop

Christian Lorentzen

  • Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon
    Cape, 477 pp, £20.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 0 224 09902 8

Silicon Alley was a name given around 1996 to the cluster of internet companies in Manhattan. The phrase is mostly in disuse now: it connotes boosterism, puffery, and a lot of money lost on ventures that had little chance of turning a profit. It was a silly name in an era of silly names. I worked in Silicon Alley for a few months in the spring of 2000, first at an unnamed travel website where I was paid in cash. After a few weeks, the site had a silly name: peterplan.com. I almost quit out of embarrassment, but after another few weeks the Nasdaq started falling and I no longer had a job. Then I found a job at a website about jobs. I wrote daily newsletters advising professionals in the human resources industry about the latest in recruiting tactics, benefits packages, compensation and retention. I was told that if I stuck around I would accumulate stock options. The website was run out of a loft in Chelsea full of coders, designers and content producers. I made a lot of friends. I attended a focus group, and from behind a one-way mirror I watched several HR professionals discuss how useful, informative and entertaining my newsletters were. I was praised for my ‘out-of-the-box HR thinking’. The newsletters would become a channel, I was told. Then the Nasdaq definitively crashed. I quit for a job at a magazine. I was invited many times over the next two years to drinks marking my old colleagues’ layoffs. The company never quite folded, and was sold to a venture capital firm in 2007. The man who hired me, one of the ‘founders’ – what is it about starting a website that makes people think they have a lot in common with George Washington? – is now a not very funny comic wine columnist.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is a period novel about Silicon Alley. Pynchon is fond of silly names, and in the dotcom bubble they seemed to be self-generating: Razorfish, AltaVista, HotBot, Yahoo! There was a strange connection during that boom between whimsy and greed, as if the internet had brought about a completely innocent, even goofy way of becoming fantastically rich. A popular trade magazine for the industry was called Red Herring, and Bleeding Edge is built on red herrings. A year goes by, from when the pear trees first bloom in 2001 until the blossoms return in 2002. The novel is soaked in ‘instant nostalgia’, or ‘what passes for nostalgia in a time of widespread Attention Deficit Disorder’. Here is a view of guests leaving a party in SoHo:

Faces already under silent assault as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamour of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not lost, the 3 a.m. kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the startup parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night – which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of the binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fibre and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of – to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions how to look for it.

The passage echoes the first pages of Gravity’s Rainbow, about evacuees fleeing German rocket attacks in London, but mostly the novel avoids the earlier book’s long sentences and stately tone. The narrative voice in Bleeding Edge is warmer: it’s omniscient and at times essayistic but more often casual, chatty and in the present tense. Pynchon has an almost fatherly fondness for his characters, even though the force of his own voice at times makes them seem like pawns being moved around Manhattan’s grid. He takes an obvious pleasure in the game: in his gags and obscurities, in storytelling, and in chronicling the wasted days and nights of a scene that flickered for a few years and then burned out.

In his memoir Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry writes: ‘There circulated, in the Sixties, the legend that Thomas Pynchon read only the Encyclopaedia Britannica; it was even said that much of the erudition in V. came out of the N-O volume of that great work.’ There’s erudition in Bleeding Edge, but also an endless deployment of pop cultural trivia specific to the late 1990s and the first two years of the last decade. The ‘kozmo deliveries’ in the passage above refer to one of those startups that seemed in its very premise preposterous: a service that brought residents of Manhattan the smallest convenience store items 24 hours a day, without a delivery charge or a minimum purchase. In 1999 it generated $3.5 million in revenue and $27 million in losses. Pynchon also resurrects Zima, a clear carbonated beer substitute popular among women in the 1990s and now available only in Japan. There’s a joke referring to the graffiti on the wall of the loo at Welcome to the Johnson’s, a dive bar on the Lower East Side not much frequented, in my experience, by distinguished septuagenarian authors. Whatever his methodology – Wikipedia, fieldwork, a trove of old issues of Time Out and the Village Voice – Pynchon has the detail right. The ‘nowadays’ in the passage above is one of few indications that the book is being narrated retrospectively, from the present. What’s most remarkable, perhaps, is that he’s written a novel about the internet almost entirely free of anachronisms: it’s a still life of the flux. The party the faces are leaving, whose theme is ‘1999’, takes place on Saturday, 8 September 2001: the ‘assault … no one is quite imagining’ is coming on Tuesday morning. Pynchon doesn’t treat the attacks directly; they’re mostly seen on CNN, narrated by an anchor with one of those silly names Pynchon didn’t need to make up, Wolf Blitzer.

Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, and its Nancy Drew is Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator who lives on the Upper West Side. She’s a divorced mother of two sons, Ziggy and Otis, who attend a private school called Kugelblitz, founded by a disowned disciple of Freud’s who believed that each stage of life was a different form of mental disorder, ‘all working up to death, which at last turns out to be “sanity”’. The school is ‘a loony bin with homework, basically’. Maxine’s Jewishness and her status as a single woman are sources of humour: her parents, a couple of ageing leftists, are constantly trying to set her up with men, even one who seems to work for the FBI; she packs a Beretta in a Kate Spade bag; she goes to a strip club called Joie de Beavre and is hired as a performer on ‘MILF night’. Like earlier Pynchon heroines – Rachel Owlglass in V., Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, Prairie Wheeler in Vineland – she is a tough but not altogether unhapless broad in the Barbara Stanwyck mode.

Reg Despard, a man she met on a singles cruise, asks her to look into ‘a computer security firm downtown called hashslingrz’ and its creepy CEO, Gabriel Ice, who has hired Reg to make a documentary about the company but seems to be hiding something. His is the only company in town still hiring, and is training coders in Arabic. Rumour has it that the money is coming from ‘huge government contracts … big deal comin up in the Middle East, some people in the community sayin Gulf War Two’. He’s funnelling money to an entity in Dubai called the Wahhabi Transreligious Friendship (WTF) Fund which bankrolls terrorists, though he may be working as a double agent for the US and/or Mossad. Ice is a corporate predator, and one of his schemes is an attempt to buy ‘DeepArcher’ (pronounced ‘departure’), a virtual reality application that erases a user’s actions instantly and untraceably.

Maxine’s investigation takes her into the ‘Deep Web’, where she’s guided by Reg’s associate Eric Outfield, a hacker and foot fetishist with whom Maxine has a comic sexual encounter. The Deep Web isn’t a fictional term: it refers to anything online not picked up by a search engine – anything protected by a password, encrypted, or simply unlinked to on the surface. Pynchon sees it as a kind of mystical zone, a portal to the derelict cyber-architecture of the past, or to history itself, and a place where the dead may be lingering. He also has a romantic vision of coders, hackers, geeks and nerds. One of them tells Maxine about their fate in the aftermath of the Nasdaq crash:

‘You know what, last year when everything collapsed, all it meant was the nerds lost out once again and the jocks won. Same as always.’

‘What about all these nerd billionaires in the trades?’

‘Window dressing. The tech sector tanks, a few companies survive, awesome. But a lot more didn’t, and the biggest winners were men blessed with that ol’ Wall Street stupidity, which in the end is unbeatable.’

‘C’mon, everybody on Wall Street can’t be stupid.’

‘Some of the quants are smart, but quants come, quants go, they’re just nerds for hire with a different fashion sense. The jocks may not know a stochastic crossover if it bites them on the ass, but they have that drive to thrive, they’re synced in to them deep market rhythms, and that’ll always beat nerditude no matter how smart it gets.’

There’s a strict divide in Bleeding Edge between the good and the bad. There are the geeks who create the internet and the capitalists who exploit it. There are authentic New Yorkers, mostly natives but not necessarily, and the colourless ‘yups’ gentrifying the neighbourhoods and cutting ahead in lines for Thanksgiving turkeys and stealing fruit from vendors (Maxine’s children play a video game that awards points for shooting yups in the street). Most of all there’s a divide between those with a streak of juvenility and the ‘overcompensating’ capitalist grown-ups in thrall to their own greed.

Some, however, fall into a grey area. Maxine’s ex-husband, Horst Loeffler, is a commodities trader from the Midwest with a savant’s gift for predicting the behaviour of, say, rare earths in the market. He’s a capitalist but redeemed by ‘some oath he apparently took at thirty, to spend it as fast as it comes in and keep partying for as long as he can hold out’. He is nostalgic for the recently obsolete, and takes Ziggy and Otis to the Midwest for the summer so that they can play video games in arcades: ‘Maybe I just want the boys to see what blowing aliens away was like in the olden days.’ In the autumn he moves back in with Maxine and the boys, and he’s mostly seen on the couch watching biopics in which contemporary movie stars play dead movie stars (Alec Baldwin in The Ray Milland Story, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Fatty Arbuckle Story) or professional golfers (Hugh Grant in The Phil Mickelson Story, Christopher Walken in The Chi Chi Rodriguez Story). He and a partner ominously rent an office more than a hundred floors up in the World Trade Center. ‘Seems kind of flimsy up here,’ Otis says. ‘Nah,’ the partner says, ‘built like a battleship.’ Horst escapes death in the attacks by oversleeping. Maxine thinks his knack for predicting market behaviour may have had something to do with it: ‘It was that same weird talent that kept you safe.’ Horst doesn’t buy it: ‘Way too anticapitalist for me, babe.’

*

‘Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right,’ Maxine says, ‘you can never have too much.’ And the fun of Bleeding Edge is its proliferation of plots, most of them surrounding Gabriel Ice, none of them quite resolved, up until the real plot comes out of the sky and brings with it ‘a bitter chemical smell of death and burning that no one in memory has ever in this city smelled before and which lingers for weeks’. Pynchon’s interest in the attacks is all to do with perceptions: ‘If you read nothing but the Newspaper of Record, you might believe that New York City, like the nation, united in sorrow and shock, has risen to the challenge of global jihadism, joining a righteous crusade Bush’s people are now calling the War on Terror. If you go to other sources – the Internet, for example – you might get a different picture.’ The chapters that follow the attacks catalogue various conspiracy theories: racist, truther and otherwise. Were Jews working in the towers told to stay home? Were Muslim food truck venders mysteriously absent from downtown? How to explain the behaviour of United and American airlines stock the week before? Did the Bush administration engineer a Reichstag fire of its own to justify a war? And so on. All the familiar rebuttals follow. Maxine herself ‘doesn’t know what to believe’. It’s all a matter of grasping for meaning in the face of meaninglessness or at a time when meaning is being imposed from above by ‘forces in whose interest it compellingly lies to seize control of the narrative as quickly as possible’:

Dependable history shrinks to a dismal perimeter centred on ‘Ground Zero’, a Cold War term taken from the scenarios of nuclear war so popular in the early Sixties. This was nowhere near a nuclear strike on downtown Manhattan, yet those who repeat ‘Ground Zero’ over and over do so without shame or concern for etymology. The purpose is to get people cranked up in a certain way. Cranked up, scared and helpless.

The narrator is talking, and here Pynchon allows himself a bully pulpit. Another idea central to the purpose of Bleeding Edge is spoken by Heidi, a friend of Maxine’s and a professor of pop culture at CUNY: ‘As if somehow irony … as practised by a giggling mincing fifth column actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious – weakening its grip on “reality”. So all kinds of make-believe – forget the delusional state the country’s in already – must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.’ The smothering of make-believe extends to Kugelblitz, where an English teacher has decided that there will be ‘no more fictional reading assignments’. The wild plots of Bleeding Edge, its relentless inventions, turn out to be a protest against enforced solemnity and the forms of mass coercion that come with it. Maxine’s sons engage in their own kind of resistance in the virtual reality of DeepArcher, creating a city called Zigotisopolis, ‘a version of NYC as it was before 11 September 2001 … rendered in a benevolently lighted palette taken from old-school colour processes like the ones you find on picture postcards of another day … a more merciful city’.

Lost American innocence has always been one of Pynchon’s themes. The question in Bleeding Edge is whether the internet is a zone of innocence and freedom or, as Maxine’s father puts it, citing its origins in Cold War strategy, a ‘magical convenience that now creeps 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.’

There may be no redeeming the technology, but what about a war criminal? Of the many dangerous men Maxine encounters in the course of her investigations – a venture capitalist who styles himself a mobster, a Russian oligarch Spetsnaz veteran, a connoisseur of scents on a quest for Hitler’s cologne – the most mysterious is Nicholas Windust. He’s a federal agent for a unit so secretive that it has no name. He was in Santiago on 11 September 1973 as a gofer for ‘a brother or God forbid sisterhood of neoliberal terrorists’ and went on to a career of ‘interrogation enhancement’ and ‘noncompliant-subject relocation’. But he’s also a sort of right-wing holy fool, said ‘to be motivated only by raw ideology’ rather than greed. Maxine fancies him, has an erotic dream about him, then a rather impersonal tryst with him on the floor of his flat. Later, on one of her excursions into the Deep Web, she’s told of a prison where kidnapped pre-adolescent children are trained to become time-travelling agents ‘assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit the higher levels of command who have sent them out’. The boys’ training involves being ‘starved, beaten, sodomised, operated on without anaesthetic’. Windust, Maxine thinks, must be one of these boys. But the truth of her inference, like the rest of the novel’s plots and conspiracy theories, is never made clear. Windust himself, before he winds up dead, is allowed the last word on whether the 9/11 attacks were an inside job: ‘Nobody in the business is that good.’