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October 2013 Issue [Reviews]

First Family, Second Life

Thomas Pynchon goes online

Discussed in this essay:

Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press. 496 pages. $28.95.

Pinco de Normandie sailed to England with William the Conqueror. His son, Hugh, held seven “knights’ fees in Lincolnshire” and four “bovates in Friskney.” Four centuries later, his descendant Edward Pynchon was ennobled and granted a coat of arms “per bend argent and sable, three roundles with a bordure engrailed, counterchanged.” By then the Pincheuns had settled snugly into gentry life in Essex. Nicholas Pinchon became High Sheriff of London in 1533, and his son, or nephew, John married Jane Empson, daughter of Sir Richard Empson, a minister to, and casualty of, the doomed regime of Henry VII. John’s son was also John, and his son was William Pynchon, who in 1630 sailed with John Winthrop to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which he was elected treasurer. He established the towns of Roxbury and, while pursuing the fur trade, Springfield, where he deposed the accused witches in the trial preceding Salem. He served as model for Colonel Pyncheon in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, and in 1650 wrote The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption, whose critique of Puritan Calvinism caused it to be burned in Boston and to become the New World’s first banned book, though only nine copies survived the pyre. (Among those who voted against the censure was William Hauthorne, Hawthorne’s first colonist ancestor.) This was the proto-American literary debut of a family that later included the Reverend Thomas Ruggles Pynchon (1823–1904), president of Trinity College, Hartford, and author of The Chemical Forces: Heat–Light–Electricity . . . An Introduction to Chemical Physics; Dr. Edwin Pynchon (1856–1914), author of “Surgical Correction of Deformities of the Nasal Septum”; and Thomas Ruggles Pynchon Jr., born in 1937, in Glen Cove, Long Island, author of V., The Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, Slow Learner, Vineland, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day, Inherent Vice, and now Bleeding Edge.

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Illustration by Simon Pemberton

Anyone who’s written at the end of so long and distinguished a line has been faced with a choice: either embrace the legacy or attempt to disassociate from it. (Hawthorne added the w to distance himself from John Hathorne, cruelest of the Salem magistrates.) This, of course, is merely a more public version of the decision of whether, and how, to transmute individual experience into prose. Thomas Pynchon — the most private, or publicly private, of American novelists — has been considering such disclosures for half a century now, in the way he’s handled both his famous family in his work and his own fame in life. The single overtly autobiographical statement he has provided to date appears in the introduction to a collection of his early and only short fiction, Slow Learner:

Somewhere I had come up with the notion that one’s personal life had nothing to do with fiction, when the truth, as everyone knows, is nearly the direct opposite. . . . [F]or in fact the fiction both published and unpublished that moved and pleased me then as now was precisely that which had been made luminous, undeniably authentic by having been found and taken up, always at a cost, from deeper, more shared levels of the life we all really live.

I’ve read that introduction a dozen times, and most of Pynchon’s novels at least twice, yet I’m still not sure what to make of this assertion. I’m still not sure whether V. (1963) — which takes as its premise the search for a mysterious, free-floating signifier that might be a woman named Victoria, and/or Veronica, and/or an incarnation of the goddess Venus, and/or the city of Valletta, and/or victory in WWI and/or WWII — becomes any clearer with the knowledge that Pynchon wrote it after serving in the Navy and attending Cornell, where he audited lectures by that shape-shifter Nabokov. Nor am I sure whether The Crying of Lot 49 (1966) — which concerns the machinations of a certain Yoyodyne, “one of the giants of the aerospace industry” — is enriched by the information that between 1960 and 1962 Pynchon lived in Seattle and worked for Boeing as a technical writer for the Bomarc interceptor-missile project. Then again, it strikes me that Pynchon’s defense-contracting stint finds direct expression in Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), that treatment of the Third Reich’s V-2 rocket program. But I’m still confused as to whether I should read the hero of that novel — Tyrone Slothrop, an American G.I. whose erections foretell the ground-zero impacts of V-2s in London — as an embodiment of John Winthrop or, because Slothrop’s ancestor William Slothrop is portrayed as having published a controversial theological treatise called On Preterition, as a surrogate for the author himself.

[inline_ad ad=2]Gravity’s Rainbow was written by hand on quadrille engineering paper, and on Kool cigarettes, coffee, and cheeseburgers (to name just the legal substances), in Mexico City and in a whitewashed bungalow on 33rd Street in Manhattan Beach, California. The 1974 Pulitzer Prize committee refused to honor the novel, despite the jurors’ unanimous recommendation (the committee called it “turgid” and “overwritten,” “obscene” and “unreadable”). But it went on to win the National Book Award in 1974, for which ceremony Pynchon dispatched a comedian, “Professor” Irwin Corey, to deliver a nonsensical improvised speech. In the Eighties, Pynchon left his agent, Candida Donadio, to be represented by Melanie Jackson, great-granddaughter of Theodore Roosevelt and granddaughter of Robert H. Jackson, the Supreme Court justice and Nuremberg prosecutor. The two married in the Nineties and had a son, Jackson, who was such a fan of The Simpsons that Pynchon made a cameo (his animation was drawn with a paper bag instead of a head). Only ten images of Pynchon are publicly available, including a video captured by CNN in 1997 that occasioned this rebuke: “ ‘Recluse’ is a code word generated by journalists . . . meaning ‘doesn’t like to talk to reporters.’ ” Then there’s the photo published by the Times of London in 1997, which provoked legal threats from Henry Holt, Pynchon’s publisher at the time.

What else? Pynchon was raised Catholic and attended Mass. He was the best friend of Richard Fariña (author of Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me) and the best man at Fariña’s wedding to Mimi Baez (Joan’s sister). He was reportedly so ashamed of his Bugs Bunny teeth that he underwent extensive cosmetic dental surgery . . .

All this information came to me via the Internet, which has established Pynchon as its literary divinity. Not Philip K. Dick, not William Gibson — it’s Pynchon who commands the largest and loudest community online. It’s a congregation of fanboys, academics, techno-anarchists, wannabe fictioneers, parents’ basement–dwellers, and burnouts — some using real names, some using fake names, many anonymous — who analyze and squabble over every scrap of the Shroud and sliver of the Cross, in search of the Message.

In the early days of home-use Internet, back when the first major e-marketer appeared under the sobriquet Yoyodyne (sold to Yahoo in 1998 for $30 million in stock), users of Yahoo and AOL message boards and chat rooms asserted that Pynchon was J. D. Salinger or the Unabomber, a Branch Davidian or “Wanda Tinasky,” who in witty mock-Pynchonian letters to the editors of the Anderson Valley Advertiser identified “herself” as a bag lady living under a bridge in northern California. With the gradual uploading of scholarship in the form of journal PDFs and dissertation .docs, the Internet got its act together, and by the mid-Nineties the digital Pynchonverse had become a disciplined research collective of amateurs and professionals, though one that took a break every toke or two to speculate wildly. Hey, get a load of this — Pynchon’s working on a novel about Lewis & Clark (rather, Mason & Dixon); Michael Naumann, past publisher of Henry Holt and former German minister of culture, helped Pynchon gather materials concerning the David Hilbert circle in Göttingen, and said the author’s next book would trace the amours of the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya (material appearing in Against the Day). Pynchon himself never participated in any of this, of course, though there were at least a dozen contributors I can remember who claimed to be him, or were suspected of being him. My favorite posted under the webonym Martin Scribler, and if you’re bored already:

Serious literary discussion on the Internet began with Pynchon fans — which is just the type of generalization to spark a flame war with the science-fiction freaks, who’d claim that the Pynchonites showed up late to the party. I certainly did. It was 1994, and I was thirteen or fourteen when I found the Playboys in the basement and the Pynchon novels on a shelf in my father’s office. On the floor between was the new computer, a Gateway. Internet porn was difficult to find and slow to load, but the Pynchon guides, being text-based, were instantly gratifying. I read the threads — the rumor and gossip arbitrage, conspiracy swaps and paranoia — as if they were stray strands of Pynchon’s own narratology. I had a 28.8k dial-up modem and, despite all Pynchon’s warnings about technocracy’s incursions, no notion of what surveillance and social control lay ahead.

It was the Web that educated me about contemporary literature, not through any primary or even secondary texts that were published there, but through its use. To go online was to experience in life what Pynchon — and his heirs closer to my own generation, like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — were working toward in fiction: a plot that proceeded not by the relationships developed by the characters (“people”) but by the relationships to be discerned among institutions (businesses, governments), objects (missiles, erections), and concepts (hippie-dippie Free Love and the German Liebestod). I read about Modernism — big M — and postmodernism — small p — thanks to links sent to me by strange anagrammatic screen names, and if I couldn’t get through Fredric Jameson yet, I could get through a GeoCities site that summarized his work. Modernism was something made by and intended for a small but discerning audience; postmodernism, by contrast, had popular or populist aspirations — it wanted to be famous, and complex! It wanted money, and respect! The two movements connected in the “systems novel,” a phrase minted by the critic Tom LeClair to describe the methods of John Barth, Robert Coover, Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Joseph Heller, Ursula LeGuin, Joseph McElroy — and Pynchon.

Before these writers, books deployed closed systems of symbols that, if untangled, provided a substrate of meaning separate from, but communicating with, the action and dialogue (think of Fitzgerald’s ad for Dr. T. J. Eckleburg or Hemingway’s bullfighting). But these new writers favored books that operated on open systems, that treated the entire world symbolically, and that were inextricably enmeshed with the literary whole (think of the contrast between twentieth-century sensibility and eighteenth-century language in Mason & Dixon, or the palimpsest of genres — scientific, spy thriller, teen adventure, western — in Against the Day). Perhaps the paragon of the systems novel’s associative processes is the Byron the Bulb episode of Gravity’s Rainbow. An ostensibly immortal lightbulb named Byron illuminates, among other places, “an all-girl opium den” and “the home of a glass-blower who is afraid of the night” in Weimar Berlin, the brothel of a Hamburg prostitute whose “customer tonight is a cost-accountant who likes to have bulbs screwed into his asshole,” and the bunk of a Nazi scientist in a subterranean rocket factory in Nordhausen. It’s a section whose fifteen-year time frame also accommodates examinations of “ ‘Phoebus,’ the international light-bulb cartel, headquartered in Switzerland”; the mutual business interests of General Electric and Krupp; the production of filaments; and the synthesis of tungsten carbide.

Fiction has long been described in the terms of a coeval technology, at least since the fade of the vacuum tube, but it was the genius of the systems novelists to produce fiction expressly along the same schematics. In the Seventies their novels could be said to function like transistors, while in the Eighties they could be said to function like integrated circuits. By the Nineties, however, systems technique had been usurped online: the Internet replicated its protocols, while the Web replicated its surface-shifting — the rapidly changing scenes, the characters introduced, developed, then dropped.

Back when I frequented Amazon — before my favorite independent bookstores began closing and I quit the site, cold turkey, in 2006 — I was fascinated by how much it resembled the novels I was buying on it: I’d click on a book by Pynchon, and then lower down or on a sidebar of the page I’d find other titles to add to my cart, suggestions generated by the site’s algorithms, but also supplied by other users. People who bought Mason & Dixon also bought Vineland; if I clicked, I found that people who bought Vineland also bought books about the history of the FBI, the CIA, and the War on Drugs, and from there I’d be just a click or two away from the people who also bought fallout-shelter survival kits, pallets of canned meat, bottled water, and tinfoil. Wikipedia’s debut reinforced this organizational lesson. As of the date of this writing, the voluminous Thomas Pynchon wiki — which if printed out would surely eclipse the oeuvre of its subject — links to a list of American tax resisters (Pynchon refused to pay any war-designated tax increase in 1968); the American tax resisters wiki links to the Redemption Movement (a group maintaining that when America abandoned the gold standard, in 1933, it continued to back its debts by pledging its citizens’ lives to foreign governments as collateral); which in turn links to the wiki for The Matrix (1999); linking to Laurence Fishburne; linking, no doubt, to Kevin Bacon.

When news of the publication of Bleeding Edge went around Twitter this spring, it set off a surge of chatter on the usual sites, but not for the usual reasons. This wasn’t just another Pynchon book; this wasn’t even just another Pynchon book with the Internet in the margins (ARPANET, which was developed in the Sixties and Seventies by an arm of the American military, had a cameo in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice). Rather, this would be a book dramatizing it all front and center, “a historical romance of New York in the early days of the internet,” according to the P.R. copy. I was excited, but also wary. As a reader I was hoping for Pynchon’s ultimate reckoning with the surveillance state he’d been railing against since the reign of J. Edgar Hoover — a culminant tilt at an institution of spying and mass mind-manipulation more powerful, and more voluntarily submitted to, than anything ever dreamed up by Reagan, Nixon, the KGB, the Stasi, or the Nazi SS. But as a novelist I also worried about how Pynchon would write about the very technology that has plagiarized his methods, and that has made the sporadic lapses of fact in his meticulous research — indeed, that has made his face — a matter of public record.* Ahem, ahem: the novel was also about 9/11.

“Bleeding edge” is a techie phrase meaning beyond even the “cutting edge” — so new that it hurts. The irony of this as a title is that the novel is set mostly in the spring and summer of 2001. Pynchon offers such nostalgic references as Beanie Babies, Furbys, Pokémon, Razor scooters, and Jennifer Aniston still in Rachel mode alongside a presidency just stolen and a tech bubble just burst. Downtown, the towers of the World Trade Center throw their foreshadows over Wall Street. A stretch farther north, between TriBeCa and the Flatiron, lies Silicon Alley, a New York tech district that actually existed, or that was actually hyped to have existed — a real estate figment like NoHo or SoHa or even the West and East Villages (most of that area was originally just the Village).

Here, in Pynchon’s telling, two types prevailed. One consisted of generic deracinated White People who went out West like the prospectors of yore, but who when they bottomed out amid the Zen gardens and organic-smoothie chains found themselves yearning for grit — or at least for the yuppified grit of gentrifying Giulianiville. The other was made up of city lifers, the ethnically identifying — or not yet postidentity — strivers who’ve always served as New York’s color: the wise black bike messenger, the Irish cop and fireman, the social-club Italian, the backroom-fixer Jew; the “genuine,” the “authentic,” the huddled masses yearning for cash.

Meanwhile, “on the Yupper West Side” — Pynchon’s own neighborhood — Maxine Tarnow is just trying to get her life back together. She’s a gun-toting fraud investigator who’s recently had her certification revoked for unwittingly abetting an embezzlement, and a doting single mother of two precocious young boys, Ziggy and Otis, whose stock-trader father, Horst Loeffler, keeps offices in the World Trade Center and casual mistresses throughout the boroughs. Filmmaker Reg Despard, hired by a computer-security firm called hashslingrz to make an in-house documentary, retains Maxine to background-check his employer’s finances once his access is curtailed by CEO Gabriel Ice, “One of the boy billionaires who walked away in one piece when the dotcom fever broke.” This would be the same Ice who’s after the source code for a clandestine second-life website called DeepArcher (pronounced “departure”), developed by Maxine’s acquaintances Lucas and Justin, two Valley vets out to raise a ruckus, and capital, in the Alley.

Maxine’s inquiries into DeepArcher and hashslingrz serve as the book’s basic binary. The former gets her caught up in an insomniac second life in which she wanders through an unregulated cyberniche, a “framed lucid dream,” that morphs in appearance and purpose according to user input — mediascapes of ghetto squalor one moment and pristine desert the next, all “in shadow-modulated 256-color daylight, no titles, no music,” untainted by advertising. The latter entangles her in the physical world, what Pynchon calls “meatspace,” investigating a host of sketchy (in every sense) personalities: Nicholas Windust, a federal agent whose first job was “spotting for the planes that bombed the presidential palace and killed Salvador Allende” on 9/11/73, and who went on to run “interrogation enhancement” and “noncompliant-subject relocation” squads in South and Central America; Avi, Maxine’s brother-in-law, a recovering Mossad agent; Rocky, a fugazi Cosa Nostra venture capitalist; Igor and his stooges Misha and Grisha, Russian gangsters who’ve invested with Bernie Madoff. All or some of these characters point to the idea that the U.S. government, or rogue elements within it, was aware of and maybe even plotted — perhaps in league with Ice — the 9/11 attacks (for which readers will have to wait until page 316).

Obviously, the opposite might also be the truth. Ice, through his partners in the Middle East and shell companies in the Emirates, might be a hero, if not of America then of the right — laundering money for the undisclosed locations of the “war on terror,” coming soon to a screen near you.

But wait, there’s more — if you enjoyed 9/11, you might also enjoy red herring, which aren’t native to the coast of Long Island, unlike the Montauk Project. This actual paranormal conspiracy theory — regarded as the successor to the Philadelphia Experiment — is, in Pynchon’s telling, “a kind of boot camp for military time travelers” that kidnaps, starves, beats, and sodomizes American preadolescents. They — “Boys, typically” — are trained to become the agents of tomorrow, or yesterday, “Assigned to secret cadres to be sent on government missions back and forth in Time, under orders to create alternative histories which will benefit higher levels of command who have sent them out.” Now, keep in mind that this explanation of the Montauk Project, which is supposedly accessible by a tunnel under Ice’s vacation property, comes to Maxine not in meatspace but in DeepArcher, from an Adderall-addled “IT samurai” named Eric Outfield, or rather from his avatar, whose “soul patch pulses incandescent green.”

Page 316:

Maxine heads for work, puts her head in a local smoke shop to grab a newspaper, and finds everybody freaking out and depressed at the same time. Something bad is going on downtown. “A plane just crashed into the World Trade Center,” according to the Indian guy behind the counter.
“What, like a private plane?”
“A commercial jet.”
Uh-oh. Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse. All day long. At around noon the school calls and says they’re shutting down for the day, could she please come and collect her kids.
Everybody’s on edge. Nods, headshakes, not a lot of social conversation.
“Mom, was Dad down there at his office today?”
“He was staying over at Jake’s last night, but I think he’s mostly been working from his computer. So chances are he didn’t even go in.”
“But you haven’t heard from him?”
“Everybody’s been trying to get through to everybody, lines are swamped, he’ll call, I’m not worrying, don’t you guys, OK?”

Maxine — part JAP, part MILF — consoles her guys, as does Pynchon’s flattest style in what’s inevitably the book’s roughest stretch (roughest to read and to write, I’d imagine). The novel’s zany tangents and waves of punning fall away for a spell. We’re left with a possibly husbandless woman on the couch alongside her possibly fatherless children, who’ve temporarily forgotten their game cartridges because the on-screen carnage is so compellingly uncontrollable. That excerpt’s last quoted line and its implications are key to every family’s sense of frustrated codependence. Sometimes the phones work and sometimes they don’t, leaving Dad — Horst — in limbo incommunicado, his fate in the hands of God, or Wolf Blitzer.

The attacks of 9/11 gave rise to bad invasions, bad occupations, and bad laws, but one of their greatest impacts on the home front was how they encouraged a society of total contact with a furious and mortal urgency (which Pynchon reinforces by using the present tense). Nowadays, to lose touch is to die; if you’re ever buried by rubble, the first thing you do is call and pray that the signal’s strong enough to let your last words live at least on voicemail. Before 9/11, the online world was engaged with at home, in a chair, at a desk. Having a cell phone — Pynchon prefers “mobile phone” — wasn’t a social norm, let alone a requirement akin to having a heart, or a brain, or lungs. In Bleeding Edge, cell phones ring fewer than a dozen times, and their occasional presence merely accentuates their absence.

If one of the barest necessities of fiction is keeping two characters apart for enough time for a misunderstanding to ensue — a misunderstanding that can be resolved only by the protagonists individually moving toward each other, and toward the book’s conclusion — cell phones have become the chief antagonists of fiction. Today, we’re rarely denied the opportunity of contact, and all contacts — phone numbers and email addresses — can be digitally exhumed. Pynchon, by setting his novel on the cusp of the attacks, makes desperate comedy out of this last chance at inaccessibility, this final dark and silent millennial moment. He does so by exaggerating all the improbabilities and coincidence tricks of a previous information revolution — that of the Victorian novel, whose outlandishness was later called realism.

In the Victorian novel, chance is a mechanism of resolution: two characters, separated for a bit, “suddenly” meet in a street, or at the theater. In Pynchon’s books, chance is a religious or spiritual mechanism. Meetings must have “meanings,” mysteries. In V., graffiti in a toilet stall spurs an electricity seminar when the image turns out to be a diagram for a band-pass filter. In Lot 49, the recurring doodle of a muted postal horn leads to the exposure of an underground mail network that has been passing correspondence via trash cans since the French Revolution. Bleeding Edge has a cruder approach, familiar from Pynchon’s other historical novels (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon, and Against the Day), in which happenstance provides the pretext for information exchange: Maxine is lazing by her office window when she notices Igor’s limousine (its Cyrillic bumper sticker translates as my other limo is a maybach); she gets in, only to find March Kelleher, a renegade lefty blogger who just happens to be Ice’s mother-in-law. March has to courier Igor’s Madoff money (thanks to Maxine’s tip, Igor cashed out just in time) to Sid, March’s ex-husband and a drug runner, up at “a dance club near Vermilyea.” Why not, Maxine goes along; once the deal is done, Sid offers to return them to the 79th Street Boat Basin in his antique motorboat, but the DEA gives chase and the trio flee down the Hudson, losing their pursuers by the Island of Meadows, a wetlands preserve just off the coast of Staten Island’s Fresh Kills landfill. This boat ride is merely an excuse for March and Sid to discuss their daughter, Tallis, and their son-in-law, Ice, which itself is merely an excuse to dump tons of data on Maxine and the reader both. But the indulgences are justified by Pynchon’s beautiful way with the trash:

This little island reminds [Maxine] of something, and it takes her a minute to see what. As if you could reach into the looming and prophetic landfill, that perfect negative of the city in its seething foul incoherence, and find a set of invisible links to click on and be crossfaded at last to unexpected refuge, a piece of the ancient estuary exempt from what happened, what has gone on happening, to the rest of it. Like the Island of Meadows, DeepArcher also has developers after it. Whatever migratory visitors are still down there trusting in its inviolability will some morning all too soon be rudely surprised by the whispering descent of corporate Web crawlers itching to index and corrupt another patch of sanctuary for their own far-from-selfless ends.

All the events described above occur in Pynchon’s shortest sentences and shortest paragraphs to date, in fewer than a dozen pages. The result is a breathless major bandwidth rush and a dizzily profound book about the Internet that accomplishes something of which the Internet has rarely been capable. It doesn’t quite make the reader believe that American Flight 11 and United Flight 175 were brought down by Stinger missiles launched from a rooftop in Hell’s Kitchen, but it does make the reader believe why and how someone else might believe this — why and how March Kelleher might believe this — and that, fellow citizens, is sympathy, or empathy, or literature.

Here’s another intrigue from the Internet, though this one is verifiable: William Pynchon’s magistrate son, John, was a friend of the colony’s road surveyor, Miles Morgan, “the hero of Springfield,” who in 1675 defended the town against the Wampanoag tribe, and was the forefather of J. P. Morgan (Pynchon was the presiding official at Miles Morgan’s wedding). The Pynchon and Morgan families would go on to maintain business ties for the next 300 years, until the stock market crashed the country into Depression. By that time, Pynchon & Co. had become one of America’s most prominent brokerages (and the publisher of pamphlets surveying investment prospects, including Electric Light and Power: A Survey of World Development). According to Charles Hollander, writing in the journal Pynchon Notes, Pynchon & Co. was destroyed by its brief liaison with Chase Bank — the Rockefeller bank — in what might’ve been a speculation trap aimed at damaging this close associate of the Morgans. The Pynchon family had to auction off their property and furniture and, in debt from a reclamatory lawsuit, senior partner George M. Pynchon Jr. committed suicide. In Hollander’s reading, much of Pynchon’s fiction plays out as revenge against the Rockefellers and their dismantling of the Morgan economy of steel, coal, and railroads in favor of an economy of plastics, oil, and weaponry.

Bleeding Edge, written during our Depression Redux, deals with the next economy — the virtual — in which the Rockefellers aren’t the born elite but the products of meritocracy. Zuckerberg, Brin, Page, Bezos, Jobs, Gates: six sons of American sprawl, three of whom are Jews, one of whom is also a Soviet émigré; one born to a teenage mother and adopted by a Cuban immigrant stepfather; another given up for adoption at birth by his Syrian father and American mother. They are us and we are them, not just biographically but in that we help create what they sell us and improve their services — along with their fortunes — all just by our use.

It follows that the old Pynchonite dichotomy of Us vs. Them doesn’t apply anymore. In canonical Pynchon, when the military police closed in, when the federales swooped down, there was always a stained mattress to crash on in the Village, or a band of pot growers in Mendocino County who’d stash you. You’d be safe there, in whichever countercultural cult — the Whole Sick Crew (V.), or the People’s Republic of Rock and Roll (Vineland); you’d be safe, that is, until your friends got bought out, or sold themselves, and became agents, too, or at least collaborating adults who read non-fiction or nothing at all. If Pynchon’s characters were left behind by America, they denied that America and terrorized only themselves. They regarded any America that would reject them as fake, and only their own inner America as real — a country not of grandly insistent progress and Horatio Alger success, but of Henry Adams regret, and failure. A country of the “preterite” — a characterization Pynchon attributed to William Slothrop in Gravity’s Rainbow — meaning the passed-over, the neglected, the abandoned; the Melvilles, not the Hawthornes.

Bleeding Edge, however, offers an indication that Pynchon has finally given up on seeking the soul of the nation his family helped found. For Pynchon — the embattled bard of the counterculture, disabused of all allegiance — the last redoubt has become the family, and the last war to be waged is between our virtual identities and the bonds of blood; a war to keep the Virtual from corrupting the Blood, if not forever, then for time enough to let the lil’ Ziggy and Otis Tarnow-Loefflers of this world live with the merest pretense of freedom (childhood). Pynchon understands that in the future there will be no secrets, no hidden complots — everything will be aired and any second life, whether in the cloud or in the firmament, will be despoiled or denied us. Adult sanity, then, must depend not on the lives we make online, but on the lives we make off it — our kids — on how we love them, and how we raise them, and the virtues and good-taste imperatives we pass on to them from our progenitors. Smirk if you’re a smirker and claim this as the conclusion of an embourgeoised aging-hippie novelist gone soft (or of the mafia and the Jews), but I’m not sure whether Pynchon means this emphasis on consanguinity in the spirit of salvation or of damnation. It is, regardless, sweetly sad. Sweet and low-down sad. The online moguls have tried to persuade us that we’re not losing a nation, we’re gaining a world. Pynchon proposes that both are mere second lives, fakes. Only family is real.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. His most recent book of fiction is Four New Messages (Graywolf).

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