Bleeding Edge
Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press, 2013
477 pp., $28.95

Buy Now

Alan Jacobs

Unexpected Refuge

Thomas Pynchon comes home.

3 of 7view all
"Like the San Andreas Fault," it occurred to Doc. "Rats living up in the palm trees."
"Well," Sauncho blinked, "maybe if you wrote a marine policy on L.A., considering it, for some closely defined reason, to be a boat …"
"Hey, how about a ark? That's a boat, right?"
"Ark insurance?"
"That big disaster Sortilège is always talking about, way back when Lemuria sank into the Pacific. Some of the people who escaped then are spoze to've fled here for safety. Which would make California like, a ark."

California, then, is Lemuria's aftermath, but also the possible seed of its renewal. The once and future Lemuria, and yet vulnerable just as Lemuria and Atlantis were, since an earthquake sent them beneath the sea. So the stoner denizens of Doc's wastrel world carry in their dna the memories of a perfected society, memories that arise from their unconscious minds in drug-enhanced visions. Our best hopes and dreams, then, are exercises in recovery of what has been lost, recuperation of an ideal past.

In Bleeding Edge there is no Lemuria, no ideal past. Instead there is a video game.

It's called DeepArcher—pronounced, more or less, "Departure"—and it's built to be part of the Deep Web. This is an actual term, coined by a computer scientist named Mike Bergman, for a real thing, or a real multitude of things: the vast number of websites that are for various reasons unreachable by the "crawlers" that Google and other search engines send out to harvest the online. The makers of DeepArcher want to make their virtual world uncrawlable, unfindable by casually prying eyes, but available to those who know (or truly want to know). When those developers decide to open their whole code-base to the world (and also for other reasons too complex to go into here) it becomes more vulnerable to unwelcome outsiders—but at the same time, hackers jump in and extend the world vastly. It becomes for many people a kind of (one might say) Second Life. Among them, briefly anyway, is the novel's protagonist, Maxine.

Once when Maxine, seeking refuge from various sources of stress and anxiety, is traveling in these digital worlds, she meets a woman in a coffee shop—or, it would be more accurate to say, she converses digitally with an apparent person whose avatar is female. This person proves to be a kind of philosopher of DeepArcher. "These days you look at the surface Web," she says,

"all that yakking, all the goods for sale, the spammers and spielers and idle fingers, all in the same desperate scramble they like to call an economy. Meantime, down here, sooner or later someplace deep, there has to be a horizon between coded and codeless. An abyss."
"That's what you're looking for?"
"Some of us are." Avatars do not do wistful, but Maxine catches something. "Others are trying to avoid it. Depends what you're into."

Another time Maxine meets a dead man she knows—or perhaps he is not dead after all, which she has already suspected on other, spooky grounds; or perhaps someone else is using his name; there's no way to tell—a man whose death she feels vaguely responsible for. They converse:

"How about at least letting me bring you back up. Whoever you are."
"What. Up to the surface?"
"Closer anyway."
"I don't know." She doesn't. "If it's really you, Lester, I hate to think of you being lost down here."
"Lost down here is the whole point. Take a good look at the surface Web sometime, tell me it isn't a sorry picture. Big favor you'd be doing me, Maxine."

Why would you want to leave Lemuria? Or the closest thing to it people can make.

But: Is such a refuge the sort of thing people can make? Lemuria, the lost Lemuria, was not made, at least not in the same way. A technological Lemuria certainly cannot be designed, but that does not mean that it cannot, at least possibly, emerge. At one point late in the story, at a strange and disturbing and sort-of wonderful Halloween party that goes long into the night and then into the next day, two young Russian gangster-hackers meet one of the creators of DeepArcher and express their devoted awe at its constant expansive evolution. They ask one of the creators, "Tell us, Justin. Did you design it that way?" And he answers, "No, it was only supposed to be the one thing, like, timeless? A refuge. History-free is what Lucas and I were hoping for."

icon3 of 7view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide