'Bleeding Edge': Thomas Pynchon journeys to the Internet's underbelly

In pre-9/11 New York, technology gone awry

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The pull of a cursor across the screen, lists of identities written in code, the dilation of pupils as the screen goes black. "We're beyond good and evil here, the technology it's neutral, eh?" says a minor character in Thomas Pynchon's "Bleeding Edge."

By Thomas Pynchon.
Penguin Press ($28.95).

A jumble of characters with funny names connects the strings between the fraud investigator protagonist and the shady Internet mogul villain, but it's technology that steals the show. Can technology, specifically the layered Internet worlds, direct action, or does it follow the logic of gun rights advocates: "Guns don't kill people, people kill people"? Mr. Pynchon won't answer this question. Instead, he tosses the reader into the deep web, on the journey of DeepArcher.

DeepArcher is bleeding-edge technology -- a program created with "no proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with."

In a sense it is a private experience lost in the underbelly of the Internet known as the Deep Web, where technology insiders roam, steal, hide and escape. It plunges unlicensed fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow into a patchy mission probing the finances of a shadowy computer-security firm called hashslingrz, and its elusive CEO, Gabriel Ice.

Maxine gets lost in New York City as 9/11 looms. She bumps into Russian and Italian mobsters, kinky drug runners in the Hamptons, possible al-Qaida operatives in a locked room at hashslingrz. She is a professional nose who can sniff out a murderer and an ex-husband who got some office space in the World Trade Center.

Maxine speeds along on this lively journey filled with tension, action, puns and pop culture references. But like clicking around the "surface Web," getting lost follows no clear plot -- just themes that pop up along the way.

Webs draw some characters and objectives together, but some threads sag and others just hang frayed thin, as relationships between characters are almost exclusively unplanned encounters, materializing when Maxine and the reader wait in the dark for what happens next.

Mr. Pynchon revises the 2001 reality, where everyone but Maxine is placed on an even plane of significance, and the two settings -- cyber- and meatspace (New York) -- frame equally valid realities. As physical time ticks away, her avatar talks to the dead in the Deep Web, and meatspace Maxine has a difficult time adjusting to the glare of her relationships to her ex-husband, children and a dangerous fraud investigation.

The two dreams or realities blur what is real in 2001. Conspiracy theories, attempts at hipness (as when a character "sez" something) and long-winded sentences distract the reader from a surprising page-turner.

The pace allows the reader to allow for a lack of plot or character development and the occasional gimmickry, and just go along with it, to keep clicking on the ideas the reader finds interesting and forgetting about all the rest.

The banner idea tugs between freedom of information and surveillance. Before Edward Snowden and the National Security Agency's PRISM, the young people in this 2001 world cried for information to be free. But how innocent are they and their beloved technology?

Here they code and get lost in the aimless worlds of the Deep Web, while trying to find the secret way to hack their way to another world, to find a back door to get out if they need to.

They are willing accomplices, under surveillance, but they don't care, striving to create a unique private space and then selling their work to the highest mainstream bidder to turn a profit.

As Maxine's young hacker sidekick, Eric, concludes, "Meantime hashslingrz and them are all screaming louder and louder about 'Internet freedom,' while they go on handing more and more of it over to the bad guys. ... They get us, all right, we're all lonely, needy, disrespected, desperate to believe in any sorry imitation of belonging they want to sell us. ... We're getting played, Maxi, and the game is fixed, and it won't end until the Internet -- the real one, the dream, the promise -- is destroyed."

Even in the Deep Web, capitalism defines what freedom means.

Capitalism also selects who gets to control freedom, where meatspace hierarchies trickle down, placing power in a dark collaboration with the government and big corporations, leaving the lowly Internet geeks to plunder the remains.

An outsider to this world, Maxine's aging father leans into the Internet and its promise of freedom, "Call it freedom, it's based on control. 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."

Consumers in 2013 are free to read this work of warning on their own choice of technology.

Julia Fraser is a writer living in Penn Hills (julia.d.fraser@gmail.com).

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