Friday, February 20, 2015

Not a Review of BLEEDING EDGE by Thomas Pynchon

     By definition critics turn criticism into a career, but they often raise disappointment to the level of art. We read some reviews and think, Oh, that one’s sharp, has good taste and a certain alacrity with the written word. Then a book comes along, and those same critics we found so illuminating completely miss the boat. They should have been sounding the clarion call for the novel of its time, for a novel that peels away the scabrous obfuscations and shallow preoccupations that litter the cultural dialogue, that cuts deep into the quick and teaches the lessons we’re most in need of. It’s frustrating enough when the new book comes from the pen of a relative unknown. When it’s coming from the inimitable Thomas Pynchon it’s unforgivable.
     Pynchon has made an illustrious career of reanimating the past with madcap vibrancy and breathtaking wisdom, of translating it and revealing the secret roots of the present at its most confounding. In BLEEDING EDGE he hews closer to the present than he has at any point since V. Published in 1963 V was set partially at the height of Eisenhower conformity in 1956, just as The Sixties as we know it was coming of age. BLEEDING EDGE is set in the several months bookending September 11, and the seminal event of our time is the seminal event of its story.
     Thomas Pynchon was the rock star gunslinger for years, the voice of his generation, but he’s in his seventies now. He’s an elder statesman looking back at opportunities squandered, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s aged into a bitchy old man hiding in the walled-off world of his own devising, selfishly lamenting how the young have wasted all the ground he and his gained. No. Pynchon gets it. He hasn’t curled up in a cave of glowing reputation. He has engaged the world, and its creature comforts and most poisonous vices are as obvious to him as they are to you and me. That’s where the genius of BLEEDING EDGE resides, in our distractions and ambitions and in particular our most debilitating weakness: fear.
     Maxine Tarnow is a single mother and freelance fraud investigator who starts looking into the suspicious finances of a computer security firm and its ubergeek CEO, Gabriel Ice. As with every Pynchon novel the premise doesn’t matter nearly as much as the cavalcade of oddball characters and near-absurd episodes that course through the pages. And what could be more insane that September 11, an event that Pynchon posits has left our whole country in nothing less than a post-traumatic regression into infantilized self-absorption?
     The pop culture nerds, the computer geeks, the hackers have all taken refuge in online simulacra, the architecture throbbing with a digital marrow coded for the instant gratification of their escapist dreams. Gabriel Ice, the villain, is the geek gone over to the Dark Side, trembling with the anticipation of flexing his unparalleled intelligence. Take away his fortune and he’s AwesomeSauce42 on the Ainitcool message boards. And the book’s older characters suffer the same plague of self-satisfied sturm-und-drang. Maxine’s lifelong friend, now in her forties, thinks she can still play the Upper West Side J.A.P., simultaneously fending off and entertaining the advances of the Wall Street up-and-comers. Maxine’s surrogate mother, formerly an anti-establishment flower child who railed against Vietnam and Kent State and screamed for Nixon’s head on a pike, has aged into a paranoid conspiracy-theorizing muckraker with a blog.
     Only Maxine is aware of the turn her nation has taken. She understands the lure of anonymity. She feels the sensuous warmth of its liberating ephemera. She loves her children, loves being a mom, but the youthful vitality of chasing the bad guys is a narcotic. She could see herself back with her ex-husband. He has his flaws, but he’s a good father and a good man. But, oh, that corrupt CIA spook excites her like the boys she danced and shared bumps with at the clubs back when the future wasn’t worth considering. She’d love to dole out advice to her friends, set them on the right path, but how can she do that and avoid becoming that yenta of a mother she’s spent her whole life not being? Maxine is as scared as anyone, of the truth, of uncertainty, of death. 
     But…
     And that’s why she’s the hero of BLEEDING EDGE. When the unthinkable occurs, when the unimaginable goes down, when terror becomes an unavoidable reality, our culture is given a stark choice, and Maxine alone makes the right one. She doesn’t retreat into an imaginary garden of digital delights. She embraces a brick-and-mortar world, well aware that it sits always on the precipice of self-immolation.
     I could go on and on about Pynchon’s dynamite prose, his character development, his sense of humor and dramaturgy, but all of that is something you as the reader either get or you don’t. But if you are plugged in at all, you would be deaf, dumb, and blind to deny the sage and quiet heroism at the heart of BLEEDING EDGE’s message. You have to face the world no matter the terror. Your only other option is to inhabit a fraudulent existence, a world that is not real. And if your world is not real, what makes you think you’re real?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

THE BALLAD OF LIVING MEMORY

     I remember the early morning’s gradient ambience of blue and orange as the sun started to make itself known. I remember Mom behind the wheel in her green scrubs. I remember thinking that green was a weird color for them. They look sick, but you’re supposed to get better in a hospital. I remember Mom always walking us into Nan & Granddad’s house, even when she was running late. We’d walk in, and the smell of eggs in the pan and bread in the toaster would welcome us. Granddad was still working then, but Nan was up and in the kitchen. I’d run up to her and wrap my little arms around her as far as they’d go. I’d feel the billowy flab of her arms wrap around my head and pull me into her soft belly. “Hi, Bubby,” a mellifluous ring of unconditional love.
     Egg-in-a-cup she called it, two fried eggs and crumbles of toast mixed in a mug. The toast would absorb the yolk, and the whole thing was a perfect balance of dry and wet, convenience and affection. That was Nan & Granddad. They made unconditional love look effortless, even when we didn’t.
     I was always in front of the TV by the time Pop came down, probably watching The Price Is Right and wondering why Bob Barker used such a weird-looking microphone. I would hear Pop in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, and a few minutes later his cautious weakened steps would start down. Even with the stoop of a man in his eighties he was tall. He would come into view with his last few steps, his white hair glowing in the shadows.
     “Buon giorno,” I’d call out, really leaning into the Italian accent.
     “Buon giorno,” he’d answer with an octogenarian’s warm wavering grin.
     My session of pre-school was scheduled for the afternoon. One morning I needed to ask Pop a very important school-related question. I greeted him as he came down the stairs, but I was prepared to wait until after his morning ritual. It seemed like the right thing to do. He took his seat at the kitchen table, let Nan bring him his cereal and coffee, and waited for an opening.
     “Pop,” Nan said, “Dot brought over the pictures from the shore,” reaching across the table to get them.
     “What do you need to look at pictures for? You were there.”
     “Oh, God, Pop. You don’t want to see pictures of your great-grandkids.”
     He pointed to my sister and me. “What? They’re right there.”
     “Oh, Madonna, I don’t know. I don’t know.”
     When I remember all those petty arguments between father and daughter, I wish Pop had lived long enough for me to fully appreciate what a smartass he was. I didn’t recognize that side of him at the time. How could I? I was five. But somehow I intuited that they were fights I could laugh at, maybe because my laughter encouraged Pop to frustrate Nan even more.
     After his breakfast Pop moved into the family room and took his seat, the plush maroon leatherette chair next to the front windows and closest to the TV. He took the nub of last night’s cigar from his ashtray and struck a match. The bluish smoke filled the sunlight pouring through the windows. To this day cigar smoke smells like aged wizened jollity.
     “Pop,” I said, “can I ask you something?”
     He waved me over as he would, and I gingerly hoisted myself onto his knee so as not to break it, which I could’ve with my size. “What is it, Bubby?” he asked.
     “Next week is Grandparents Day, and my teacher,” whose name I no longer remember, “wants us to bring one of our grandparents to school and tell why you’re important to us. Can I bring you?”
     “Sure, Bubby,” he said, “Sure you can,” and kissed me on the cheek.
     “Thank you, Poppy,” I exploded and ran into the kitchen, telling Nan that Pop was coming to school with me next week. Then I had to explain why since I hadn’t thought to give her any backstory. No one’s going to bring their great-grandfather, I thought. I don’t even know anyone who has a great-grandfather.
     Then I thought of the day after, once our grandparents had been tucked away where they belonged, in our homes where we were free to be as brazen and carefree as we liked, where the monsters couldn’t find us. I would walk into the classroom. The vampires would be lurking in their shadows. My pride and love for Pop would still be wafting off me, and they’d smell it. Once Mrs. What-Was-Her-Name’s back was turned they’d emerge, gnashing their teeth, salivating with a lust for cruelty, and they’d fall upon me. They could feed on the fat boy or the shy boy. I was used to that. But on the boy with naked defenseless love for Pop? I couldn’t bare that. The morning of Grandparents Day, I asked Pop if he would mind if I took Nan instead.
     Pop died when I was eleven. I remember the flowers arranged around the coffin. I remember kissing his cheek and stopping myself from jumping back from the cold, solid slab. I remember Dad waking me the next morning for the funeral. I remember telling him, “I don’t want to go,” and Dad telling me without a hint of parental rancor that I had to or I would regret never saying goodbye to Poppy. I remember riding in the car to the cemetery, losing my patience with the constant oblivious questions from my four-year old cousin who had no conception of mortality. I remember not understanding why my parents were telling me to stop. I was the one showing the appropriate amount of grief. Look at the red in my eyes, the wet tracks running down my cheeks. And I remember really not understanding the grownups at the luncheon, those who didn’t seem to be grieving at all, laughing over the chicken parm, talking about the Eagles’ chances in the playoffs. Pop was gone. I had said goodbye to him. And regret still tore me into an open wound. I’d forsaken him on Grandparents Day.
     A few months later I was by Nan’s side as she was grocery shopping. I laid out my guilt, conscripting her into the role of confessor, begging for penance.
     “Oh, Bubby,” she said with a wave, “he was glad he didn’t have to leave the house.”
     I never forgot my regret or how Nan had absolved it with one sentence. And neither did she. When I was in high school I would often stop at Nan & Granddad’s after football practice. They would feed me leftovers from their dinner or whatever Nan had to make. One night she whipped up some giambotte, which I don’t think was a real word but Nan’s pidgin term for a bunch of disparate ingredients she would combine into something mouthwatering. I sat with Nan & Granddad at the kitchen table, spooning giambotte into my mouth and talking old movies with them. Granddad and I were debating who was more attractive, Ingrid Bergman or Gene Tierney, when Nan told me, “Bubby, when we’re gone, don’t you regret anything.”
     Unconditional and effortless.

     I’m taking a last walk through the house before the new owners arrive. Every corner thrums with a different echo that catches in my throat. I’ve said goodbye to Nan & Granddad. I’ve said goodbye to every one of their generation. Aunt Theresa and Uncle Juno, Uncle Jim and Aunt Bev, Aunt Molly and Uncle Joe. They all beamed with a charity and spoke with a warmth that now dwells with the dinosaurs. I’m standing in a hearth aglow with my most welcoming memories still flickering and lapping. I’m lingering. There’s nothing else for me to do here, but once I leave, the fire will die in ash and gray. I don’t want to forget their voices.

     That used to be the living room over there. Nan & Granddad remodeled when I was in middle school, but it’s the original d├ęcor, the kind a contemporary woman would reject in favor of a sinkhole, that crackles and sparks in the hearth. Cream wallpaper with bulging flourishes. I would poke it and watch the divots slowly refill. The couch with its blooming tufts of Dijon velour. Two orange chairs and a green one of scratchy material nobody sat in, because who wants to sit on steel wool? There was no plastic covering on the furniture though. Nan & Granddad had made too warm a home for that.
     I remember that one of the endtables, the one with the rotary phone, which fascinated me as a child, held all the photo albums. The oldest image in any of the albums was a portrait of Pop’s parents taken when they were well into middle age. I couldn’t help but notice that something had happened between the generation of Italian women who came over on the boat and their daughters. Maybe it was the voyage across the Atlantic, or maybe assimilation has some genetic consequences. In any event, Pop’s mother did not have features you would necessarily describe as feminine. Even Granddad would say, “Man, the women back then? Woof.”
     “Ant, stop,” Nan would tell him. “That’s my grandmother.”
     “Come on, Marion. She’s faccia brute.”
     “ANT.”
     And he’d turn to me, and we’d share the laugh.
     Along with the photo albums was an old box of stained alder. Inside were a series of slides and a viewer. I remember first handling the viewer, thinking, It’s like my viewer but not. My toy was light and cheap, intended to break easily in the hurly-burly of a child’s hands and be replaced. It was a garish red of novelty. Nan & Granddad’s viewer was larger, hefty, solid. You felt the bright clink of gears within. It was colored a permanent mahogany. It had been built to endure.
     At first the slides confused me. Why put two of the same picture on one slide? I slipped one into the viewer, raised it to my eyes, and pressed the button. It was a Nan I’d never seen before, in her wedding gown, young, thin, the poise of someone whose future is an invisible irrelevance. She was standing before the same mirror still affixed to the same bureau from Nan & Granddad’s bedroom, but the furniture’s wood was intact, no chips or scratches, and it gleamed with a fresh polish. So did Nan. 
     I fed slides into the machine with the same rapacity I would stuff my face with cupcakes. I was stunned to see they were projected in 3D. That’s like a new thing, isn’t it? They snapped out of the viewer in razor-edged black-and-white. The images weren’t cracked and yellowed from exposure. They were crisp with thick blacks you could run your fingers through and flawless whites that would illuminate a cavern. They shimmered with the glamour of Casablanca or Laura. Look at Granddad. Look how young he is, how smooth his face is, how dashing he cuts in his tuxedo, how straight he’s standing, before decades of manual labor will bow his legs and fill his joints with arthritis. There they are kneeling at the altar in church, back when mass was said in Latin, and the priest had to rest the Eucharist on your tongue, lest the laypeople taint the Body of Christ. I was witnessing the birth of Nan & Granddad, their first moments as a married couple, the grown children of their proud parents. I saw my elderly aunts and uncles dancing tarantellas with youthful exuberance rather than nostalgia, their hands in the air, batting the world around like a beach ball.
     “Doesn’t Nan look beautiful?” Granddad would ask me.
     “She looks like Olivia De Havilland,” I’d say.
     I remember looking through the viewer when I was around thirteen. Nan told me to hold on and went upstairs. Nan had dedicated one of the drawers in her dresser, the memory drawer as she called it, to storing anything she remotely cared about, even a fingerpainting from one of the grandkids, and she always heralded an object’s consignment to the memory drawer with the announcement, “This is going in the coffin.” It was a running joke within the family that she’d need more than one coffin. Apparently Nan thought she was Egyptian.
     She came down and said, “Look at your grandmother here.” The portrait she showed me had obviously come from the memory drawer. Its sides were frayed, its face was yellowed, and the lower left quarter of it was missing. But all of that escaped me at the time. This was a photograph from a model’s shoot. Nan was the youngest I’d yet seen her, barely a woman. Her pose was nothing short of a feminine slink. Her shoulders were bare. Long thin arms flowed into gloves at the elbow. Her hands opened like a flower beneath her chin, her face tilted up to catch the key light. If she looked like Olivia De Havilland in the wedding photos, here she was daring Jack Warner not to put her next to Errol Flynn.
     “Are you on your way to the Brown Derby,” I asked.
     Nan smiled. “Well, you know why it’s torn up?” she asked, and jabbed a finger at Granddad.
     “Why?” I asked him.
     “Because,” Nan said, “he was so jealous when he found it, he snatched it out of my hand and ripped it.”
     Granddad said, “This ‘talent scout,’ ” he put the quotation marks around the phrase, “saw your grandmother in Macy’s—”
     “He was a nice man.”
     “Sure. He wanted to get you on the couch.”
     “ANT.”
     Granddad’s scowl burned with the same insecurity of the twenty-eight year old who married Nan. Increased weight didn’t matter. Diabetes and the array of prescription bottles didn’t matter. All the drama that comes with the decades of a shared life didn’t matter. She was the same woman she’d been in the portrait, and his scowl was the same. “I don’t like it,” he said.
     My smile pulled my jaw off the ground.

     I walk up to the second floor, past the plastered-over hole in the wall that Granddad made when he fell down the steps, the hole that at last convinced the widower to live what remained of his life with my parents. I look into Pop’s old room. For the twenty-four years after he died, his furniture, his affects stayed in his room. Only once we’d sold the house did we take them out with everything else. The empty room feels like a renunciation of his existence. I walk into Nan & Granddad’s room. The dresser with the memory drawer is gone. We never did put any of those memories into the coffin with her. Their bed is gone. I’m thirty-five and I want to crawl under the sheets on a Saturday morning and nestle between them again. But there’s nothing of them left. I leave what was once their bedroom and turn back down the hall.
     I stop.
     There’s one thing left, a small painting in a cheap wooden frame on the wall. I’d forgotten about that painting. It’s been on this wall, in the same place, for as long as I can remember. I don’t know how old it is or when Nan & Granddad bought it. It’s a simple street scene, almost in silhouette. The simple brick tenements are painted with a slight bow, and their roofs are leaning toward the street. Thin black clotheslines flit from one building to the next, but there are no clothes hanging from them. The street is empty but for a single horse and buggy trotting toward the orange horizon. The sun has set, but darkness still has to descend. This is isn’t a painting of the world as it was when Nan & Granddad were children. It’s the memory they chose to hang on their wall.

     I remember going into Nan & Granddad’s attic one winter I was home from college and finding two small suitcases full of Super 8 reels. Granddad remembered taking home movies with a Super 8 camera, but neither of them had any idea of what the film in the suitcases had captured. I saw the glinting nostalgia in their eyes as they handled the rolls of film, turning them over in their hands, desperate to see their memories enlivened on the wall of the living room.
     I located a projector, and we watched every reel I’d found. I’d seen photographs and slides, but I was transported by the Kodachrome splotches of light dancing across the wall. Even with the clattering of the projector replacing their words and laughter, Nan & Granddad’s lives came spilling out, reanimated. I saw them driving to Florida for their honeymoon, Nan lying on the beach and Granddad swimming in the ocean. I saw them on vacation with my aunts and uncles in the Poconos, skiing during the day and dancing into the night. I saw them in the red and green of Christmas, enjoying their children’s wonder as the wrapping paper came tearing off each new present.
     As the reels unspooled Nan & Granddad didn’t talk much. Tears ran down Nan’s cheeks as she watched her parents return to life, not as I’d known Pop, slow and hunched over, but as she had, swift and upright. I even saw the light of the projector reflected in the occasional tear of Granddad’s. He kept it locked in the corner of his eye like a man should. They sometimes broke the silence with the notice of someone whose name I’d never heard before. “Oh my God, it’s Katz.” “Look at Fatty Annie.”
     These were people, members of my family, whose lives had never intersected mine. Death had met them before I had. I couldn’t share in the memory of their lives. They’d never touched me, and I had no real love for them. But Nan & Granddad had known them. They’d loved them, and the memories they still harbored welled up as each frame flickered before the light.

     I’ve mourned my loss of Nan & Granddad and lived on as I have to. I still have moments where their deaths feel fresh, and I’m sure I’ll have them forever. But the fear of life without them is gone. When I enter my twilight, I’ll still have my memories, and if they happen to fuzz with age, I’ll have my photographs and home videos to remind me. Nan & Granddad aren’t going anywhere as long as I’m alive.
     But will my children remember them? When they’re my age, will they still feel love for them? They never knew Pop. In time they’ll have their own children who’ll never have known Nan & Granddad. They’ll hear me speak of them, hear the love I still have for them in my voice, but they won’t know them as I did. Nan & Granddad will become two more people whose lives no longer intersect living memory. It happens, and it scares me.