As a beautiful Fourth of July weekend came to a close, I was coincidentally reading the section in Thomas Pynchon’s most recent novel, Bleeding Edge, that describes the events of 9/11 and some of the immediate responses it provoked. Among those responding are the “truthers,” who at once smell something foul about the official narratives surrounding what Pynchon’s narrator calls “the atrocity,” teasing out alternative narratives from what they themselves see, hear, know, and guess. As one character—a leftie activist/blogger named March Kelleher—brazenly puts it, 9/11 is an American Kristallnacht, mobilizing what she sees as the Bush adminstration’s desire to consolidate power in the White House.
Pynchon being Pynchon, these alternative narratives make up a large part of the storytelling for the last third of the novel. But I disagree with those who claim that Bleeding Edge reveals Pynchon as a “truther.” Rather than believe the conspiracy theories his characters spin, Pynchon merely keeps open the door for other possibilities than those most of us—at times all too readily—assume. It’s a theme he developed in his underrated novel Against the Day and is stated with uncommon explicitness in Bleeding Edge:
If you read nothing but the Newspaper of Record, you might believe that New York City, like the nation, united in sorrow and shock, has risen to the challenge of global jihadism, joining a righteous crusade Bush’s people are now calling the War on Terror. If you go to other sources—the Internet, for example—you might get a different picture. Out in the vast undefined anarchism of cyberspace, among the billions of self-resonant fantasies, dark possibilities are beginning to emerge.
It’s not just that these possibilities are fostered to grow in “other sources,” it’s that they create currents moving counter to those forces that sometimes threaten to sweep us away. As the narrator continues:
Though everybody south of 14th Street has been directly touched one way or another, for much of the city the experience has come to them mediated, mostly by television—the farther uptown, the more secondhand the moment, stories from family members commuting to work, friends, friends of friends, phone conversations, hearsay, folklore, as forces in whose interests it compellingly lies to seize control of the narrative as quickly as possible come into play and dependable history shrinks to a dismal perimeter centered on “Ground Zero,” a Cold War term taken from scenarios of nuclear war so popular in the early sixties. This was nowhere near a Soviet nuclear strike on downtown Manhattan, yet those who repeat “Ground Zero” over and over do so without shame or concern for etymology. The purpose is to get people cranked up in a certain way. Cranked up, scared, and helpless.
The truth of the conspiracy theories isn’t as important as how they allow those who express them and those with whom they’re shared, to see the “etymology,” the broad cultural and historical contexts, in which the events of 9/11 take place. The theories allow for narratives that aren’t about evil jihadists or a backward kind of fundamentalism versus forward-thinking modernity, though there may be those elements too. Rather, the events of 9/11 are shown to be inextricably linked with venture capitalism, colonialism, and the shadowy form of American imperialism that reigned during the Cold War and the decades that followed. Pynchon deploys paranoia as an analytical tool.
He also reminds us how, in those uncertain days after 9/11, patriotism was used as a weapon to coerce Americans into toeing the official line on the attacks. Recall what happened to Susan Sontag, who was pilloried for critiquing what she felt were the infantilizing commentaries dominating the media when she declared that the men who hijacked those planes and flew, or attempted to fly, them into their targets, whatever else they might be, were not cowards. As much as the celebrations on July Fourth encourage me to reflect on the ideals of our nation’s founding so eloquently stated in The Declaration of Independence, I can’t help but think of the threats that can lurk behind patriotism too, especially if one is seen as occupying a place outside of or foreign to the country with which the patriots are aligned. Those cheers behind the waving flags can, in a heartbeat, turn to jeers, or worse.
The final morning I spent at the cabin where I’d stayed during the Fourth of July weekend, I went for a walk. It was a gorgeous day—sunny, puffy clouds in the sky, and a stiff wind keeping it from getting too hot. Almost back at the cabin, I saw a hawk soaring just above the treetops. I watched it, so graceful up there, looking for distinguishing marks to check against the bird identifier at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. The hawk sawed effortlessly back and forth in the wind before turning back toward me and clenching, diving toward me. I was thrilled. It was hunting something that must have been close to me.
But when I looked at the hawk again, I realized it was flying straight at me, aiming, it seemed, right for my face. I ducked, hearing it swoosh less than a foot over my head. I straightened up, looking for the hawk. It spun in the air, diving toward me again. I ducked lower before sprinting into the ditch, under the cover of trees, and ran back to the embowered driveway leading to the cabin. I looked back up at the sky and saw the hawk flying off in the opposite direction, perhaps returning home, as I soon would be.