Observant words: Thomas Pynchon on the Dot Bomb Bubble

Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, concerns New York c. 2000-2002, the tech bubble deflation. Don’t know where he gets his info, but this is pretty spot on, particularly given that he is in his mid-seventies now.

Faces already under silent assault as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out into the casting-off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamour of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not lost, the 3 a.m. kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the startup parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night – which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of the binary, tracking earthwide everywhere through dark fibre and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of – to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions how to look for it.

Two great reviews of Bleeding Edge are out in the LRB and TLS respectively, here are bits. Both unfortunately behind paywalls.

Christian Lorentzen in the LRB.

Silicon Alley was a name given around 1996 to the cluster of internet companies in Manhattan. The phrase is mostly in disuse now: it connotes boosterism, puffery, and a lot of money lost on ventures that had little chance of turning a profit. It was a silly name in an era of silly names. I worked in Silicon Alley for a few months in the spring of 2000, first at an unnamed travel website where I was paid in cash. After a few weeks, the site had a silly name: peterplan.com. I almost quit out of embarrassment, but after another few weeks the Nasdaq started falling and I no longer had a job. Then I found a job at a website about jobs. I wrote daily newsletters advising professionals in the human resources industry about the latest in recruiting tactics, benefits packages, compensation and retention. I was told that if I stuck around I would accumulate stock options. The website was run out of a loft in Chelsea full of coders, designers and content producers. I made a lot of friends. I attended a focus group, and from behind a one-way mirror I watched several HR professionals discuss how useful, informative and entertaining my newsletters were. I was praised for my ‘out-of-the-box HR thinking’. The newsletters would become a channel, I was told. Then the Nasdaq definitively crashed. I quit for a job at a magazine. I was invited many times over the next two years to drinks marking my old colleagues’ layoffs. The company never quite folded, and was sold to a venture capital firm in 2007. The man who hired me, one of the ‘founders’ – what is it about starting a website that makes people think they have a lot in common with George Washington? – is now a not very funny comic wine columnist.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is a period novel about Silicon Alley. Pynchon is fond of silly names, and in the dotcom bubble they seemed to be self-generating: Razorfish, AltaVista, HotBot, Yahoo! There was a strange connection during that boom between whimsy and greed, as if the internet had brought about a completely innocent, even goofy way of becoming fantastically rich.


Lidija Haas in TLS.

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel is his first in fifty years – since V – to take a long look at New York, and if that seems to merit a sense of occasion, he doesn’t shrink from it: on the first page, we land squarely in the spring of 2001. Fortunately, the book does not appear to be chastened by the spectre of September; as you might expect with Pynchon, there is too much else going on. As well as being a heartsick ex-wife and one in a line of anxious Jewish mothers, Maxine Tarnow is a gumshoe of the Philip Marlowe school. Not technically a private dick, she is something a little nerdier: a “Certified Fraud Examiner”, which still involves a fair few “matrimonials” but tends to require her to “chercher le geek” rather than la femme. Relieved of her licence for bending one too many rules (and thus forced to close her bar tab at the exclusive CFEs’ club), she and her tiny firm now inhabit a kind of financial netherworld: “some days it seems like every lowlife in town has Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em on their greasestained Rolodex”. “When I was a CFE I was cute”, she tells a friend, “but a defrocked CFE? I’m irresistible. To a certain type; you can imagine what comes in the door.” Maxine is good at spreadsheets, but also carries a concealed weapon and has a penchant – in Pynchon’s terms, “a fatality” – for poking around and wandering into hidden places, “which is what got her kicked out of the profession to begin with and will maybe someday get her dead”.

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NASDAQ, I remember thee well.

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