We have an occasional feature here at Mad Padre called Language Play of the Week. Actually it’s more like Language Play of the Quarter but I digress. Every now and then I come across a passage that makes me say “Wow, Writer Dude, you totally nailed that.” OK, that last phrase wasn’t especially felicitous, but you get my point.
Thomas Pynchon is one of the last men standing from the American literary subculture of the 1960s. If your library or memory goes back that far, you know the guy – Crying of Lot 49, Gravity’s Rainbow, etc. Bleeding Edge was published last September and is a long novel, described by some reviewers as a shaggy dog story about 9/11 and the dot.com bubble years leading up to it. Well, sort of. The first three hundred pages are about a fraud investigator, Maxine, who tries to protect her precocious kids (adept in computer skills and Jewish martial arts), and reconnect with her WASP stockbroker husband Horst, well getting lured into a dark world that includes a renegade software company run by a sinister Bill Gates type, a Cold War experiment in time travel that may still be running, an alternate web world called Deep Archer (a kind of Second Life in which a kind of supernatural post-death existence may be possible), an IMF/CIA agent who may or may not have a heart of gold, a Russian mobster and his goofy Hip-Hop loving henchmen who also may or may not have hearts of gold …. and so on. And all this in hundreds of pages before we ever get to 9/11, an event which plays strangely in the background of these busy and strange events.
Here’s a taste, a paragraph about the two internet pioneers who create Deep Archer.
“Having managed to score not only seed and angel money but also a series-A round from the venerable Sand Hill Road girl of Voorhees, Krueger, the boy, like American greenhorns of a century ago venturing into the history-haunted Old World, lost no time back east in paying the necessary calls, setting up shop around early ’97 in a couple of rooms sublet from a Website developer who welcomed the cash, down in the then still enchanted country between the Flatiron Building and the East Village. If context was still king, they got nonetheless a crash course in patriarchal subtext, cutthroat jostling among nerd princes, dark dynastic histories. Before long they were showing up in trade journals, on gossip sites, at Courtney Pulitzer’s downtown soirees, finding themselves at four in the morning drinking kalimotxos in bars carpentered into ghost stops on abandoned subway lines, flirting with girls whose fashion thinking included undead signifiers such as custom fangs installed out in the outer boroughs by cut-rate Lithuanian orthodontists.”
This gets the Language Play of the Week award or a number of reasons. First, it’s hard to believe that this stuff is written by a man in his 70s, and one who is notoriously reclusive at that. Bleeding Edge is so full of 90s pop culture and tech references that it feels like a younger man’s work, say William Gibson in his earlier career. Second, the language has a fluid quality, a sense that it could unspool itself like this for ever, and that the author is only capping his sentences with the odd period to give the reader a quick respite. Third, there are references in the book that could or could not be real, and like the alternate web-world flickering on the edges of Maxine’s perception, it almost feels plausible. I sort of new what a kalimoxto was, but I had the strange feeling that if I googled it, it might not exist. Later, there is a reference to Ben Stiller starring in The Fred McMurray Story, which I am fairly sure does not exist. It’s like the reference to the “cut-rate Lithuanian orthodontists” – of course they would have to be in “the outer boroughs”, but why Lithuanian? It sounds faintly plausible, whereas if he had made them “Russian orthodontists” it would have seemed like a lazy stereotype, whereas just calling them “cut-rate orthodontists” would have just been lazy. Lastly, there is the sense of the exotic, as in “bars carpentered into ghost stops on abandoned subway lines”. Are there such bars? How would one find them or find these “ghost stops”? That’s the whole point of the off-the-grip hipster-hacker-nerd world that Maxine ventures into. And using “carpentered” as a verb is to my mind a minor gem of a word play in itself.
I recommend this book highly for summer reading, but don’t feel cheated if you end up scratching your head and asking what the heck it was all about, though if you do, there’s a Bleeding Edge wiki here just in case.