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Book review: Bleeding Edge, By Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's novel predicts the non-human spookiness of the future, says Pat Kane

''Ascreaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now." Quite the opening line, from Thomas Pynchon's 1973 masterpiece set in the Second World War, Gravity's Rainbow. On a Glasgow morning, 11 September 2001 – after I had slowly put down James Harding's hopeful business article about the "counter-capitalist movement", then stared at the first screen images of the punctured North Tower of the World Trade Centre – Pynchon's words were the first thing that came to my mind. And they remain there still.

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So for this ardent Pynchonist, the advance hype reporting that Bleeding Edge was to be his long-rumoured "9/11" novel is a little moot. The carnivalesque pursuit of rocket power that makes up the action of Gravity's Rainbow, with Nazis and Allies alike intoxicated by dreams of annihilation at an abstract distance, was always the darkest possible wit. Post 9/11, and now with killer drones remotely flown into far-off lands by youths wielding joysticks (joysticks: how Pynchon does it get?), the book feels near-oracular.

To enter fully into Thomas Pynchon's literary imagination is to be in a dangerous playground of world-systems and implicit orders – those systems and orders mostly gaming among themselves, occasionally toying with us, or (worst of all) revealing how much of our inner lives is actually their external scripting. Gilles Deleuze once called this our "dividuality", our susceptibility to wider control via our aspirations towards self-control.

For the 1968-ers it was desire that gave us escape routes from, or even just wriggle room within, this ensnaring social kudzu. For Pynchon, it's comedy. Extended moments of farce, cheesy songs and talking dogs, emblematic characters and place names (Benny Profane, San Narciso, Webb Traverse, the escapist webspace in BleedingEdge called DeepArcher): all of this anticness grants us an inch of real autonomy, amidst the choking over-determination. Much more than his immediate American peers – the analytical realism of Philip Roth, the apocalyptic fabulism of Cormac McCarthy, the chilled code-surfing of Don DeLillo – Pynchon relies on humour, in the classic Rabelaisian manner, to keep options open in an enclosing world.

And in the 40th anniversary year of the literary watershed that is Gravity's Rainbow, we can now see how Pynchon has continually tried to write his way beyond the shadow of that giant, oneiric book. One strategy has been to push pretty far back into American history, and undergird the familiar chronicle of events with a wild new logic of fantasy, radicalism and excess. Mason & Dixon (1997) subverts the American Enlightenment's metric confidence ("Who claims Truth, Truth abandons," as its narrator the Rev Cherrycoke quips), mobilising a menagerie of singular humans and even odder animals. Against The Day (2006) deliriously posits utopian anarchists, renegade boffins and underworld explorers, to countervail with railroad barons and warring imperialists at the start of the 20th century.

It's hard not to put these along with Rainbow as the best American attempts to pick up the ludic, mythic and polymathic gauntlet thrown down by James Joyce with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.This is authorial style as a cosmos, vital and entire unto itself.

But in order to get there, over the past few decades, it seems to me that Pynchon has had to get lesser (though still characteristic) works out of his system – as if Joyce had handed in a few Flann O'Brien-style farces between his monuments. For Pynchon, his "Third Policeman" is the stoner hippy – Zoyd Wheeler struggling with 1980's Reaganism in Vineland (1990), or Don Sportello as an original late-1960's furry freak in Inherent Vice (2009). And while both novels set counter-rebels against mysterious authorities in the familiar Pynchon mode, the style tumbles through cultural references in an almost dutiful, tick-box way – as if Pynchon was both reassuring himself, and us, that he was an authentic hipster of that era.

So it's sad to report that Bleeding Edge takes this tendency to an annoying and tiring extreme. The New York of the late 1990s dotcom boom-and-bust, frittering away into the violent event-horizon of 9/11, is adequately captured by the title – but only adequately. Indeed, it seems beneath Pynchon to be to so painstakingly geeky about the socio-linguistics of this thin, weightless, credit-extended period – its luxury-pad fittings, its designer shoe labels, its bloviating biz-speak.Compared to the techno-fictions of William Gibson – for years, an author happily scuffling around on Pynchon's giant shoulders – Bleeding Edge's digital shenanigans are, to be honest, a little vicar- at-the-disco-ish.

Early commentary on the book has tried to laud the prescience, in this post-Snowden and PRISM moment, of its plot mechanics. A wise-cracking fraud investigator called Maxine is slowly revealing a virtual world (DeepArcher) designed for robust privacy, in a climate of increasing state incursion into the data-flows. And it's true that Pynchon understands our pressing anxieties about communication power, life in (and under) the Cloud. "Call it freedom – it's based on control," says Maxine's father Ernie. "Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you've got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable."

So Pynchon follows his nose, and invokes some expected players of this system – variously, cornball mafiosi, value-free dot-moguls, the jetsam of post-Soviet wars; never mind vaguely time-travelling CIA agents, or half-ghostly kidnapped children. For the first time in my life as a Pynchon fan, I must reluctantly demur. The targets are clearer than that. Those in charge of Google – the most ambitiously panoptic of digital companies, aiming to "organise the world's knowledge" – are pretty explicit about their android-aspirant, robo-inflected motivations.

DARPA, the US government's military research arm, is actively building a science-fictional near-future, under the battlefield imperative of achieving "full spectrum dominance". Of all writers, I would have least expected Pynchon to be sentimental here, beginning and ending Bleeding Edge with a mom's tender meditations on the school commute. But invoking our better angels is not adequate to the real, non-human spookiness of the coming epoch of super-intelligence. Not when Google's driverless car will be coming to pick up those kids in a few years' time.

Pat Kane is the lead curator of Nesta's FutureFest at Shoreditch Town Hall, London EC1, on 28 and 29 September (futurefest.org)

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