Culture

Should Thomas Pynchon play Grand Theft Auto V?

What a literary genius and the video game of the year have in common

A frame from GTA V
Rockstar Games/AP

Thomas Pynchon's eighth novel, "Bleeding Edge," was released on the same day as the newest entry in Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto series. That the most secretive literary genius of our time and the most guarded video-game developer in the world should issue new works on the same day is either a confluence of mystical energy or — on the secular side of the coin — the most startling coincidence of cultural significance since the passing of the European filmmakers Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni on July 30, 2007.

Anyone who knows Pynchon as the poet of paranoia knows that coincidences should be respected as cause for investigation: "Random… Another fairy tale word," says an actress in "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973). Thus, it doesn’t seem particularly quixotic to suppose that the author of the famous question "Shall I project a world?" might share certain affinities with the pacesetters of the open-world genre, whose latest venture grossed over a billion dollars within three days of its release.

Pynchon's last novel, "Inherent Vice" (2009), was a smoked-out detective tale set in late-'60s/early-’70s Los Angeles, whereas GTA IV is set in post-9/11 New York — aka Liberty City. In "Bleeding Edge" and GTA V, these locations are reversed — with Pynchon's novel exploring the months surrounding September 11, 2001, and GTA V looking ahead at our postfinancial collapse malaise through its rendering of "Los Santos" and its surrounding environs. In the book and the game, Pynchon and GTA hold up dark, necessary mirrors against the American soul.

Both Pynchon and Rockstar excel at creating immensely detailed worlds that caricature the one we inhabit. In terms of action, the excitement of reading a Pynchon novel typically results from watching how his characters respond to a mystery that upends their perceptions of the world, then observing how they overcome the imperatives and injunctions by which they'd previously organized their lives. In a kindred fashion, the thrill of playing GTA comes from plotting how to thread one’s way through its "open-world" design — whereby the player is offered a wide-range of locations to visit and activities to participate in as they see fit — while pondering what social norms to observe and which to shed.

The porous boundaries between the real and the virtual are integral to the structure of "Bleeding Edge." At one point, while considering the popular use of the word "avatar" as a means of denoting the character one uses to navigate a virtual world, Maxine Tarnow, the novel's heroine says, "Somebody told me also that in the Hindu religion avatar means an incarnation. So I keep wondering — when you pass from this side of the screen over into virtual reality, is that like dying and being reincarnated." If you've seen the outside world recede into little more than a diorama because you've been caught up in playing something as vivid as GTA, you've probably experienced a similar metaphysical chill from feeling so absolutely transported.  

Quizzically, he answered the phone. Then his head exploded.
cover
The cover of Thomas Pynchon's new book, "The Bleeding Edge"

Indeed, video-game culture deeply informs Pynchon's new novel. There are references to Final Fantasy X, Deus Ex, Metal Gear Solid, Super Mario and the like. In a fine passage, a free-spirited father takes his children on a Midwest tour on which they visit timeworn arcades to learn "what blowing aliens away was like in the olden days." Throughout the narrative, the language of gaming bubbles up in unexpected places, as in this description of a tryst between Maxine and Windust, a neoliberal covert operator whose malefic past disgusts her: "His hands, murderer's hands, are gripping her forcefully by the hips, exactly where it matters, exactly where some demonic set of nerve receptors she has been till now only semi-aware of have waited to be found and used like buttons on a game controller." Even one of the book's major plot devices, a program for exploring the unmapped regions of the Internet known as the Deep Web, is itself structured like a game.

Maxine is drawn into a mysterious world of entrepreneurs, financiers, mobsters and other sketchy folk after an old flame, Reg Despard, turns up at her office, where she works as an unlicensed fraud examiner. A filmmaker of dubious talent, Reg is under contract to make a documentary about a computer-security firm called hashslingrz. Spooked by his inability to find "normal company records — daybooks, ledgers, logs, tax sheets," he hires Eric Outfield, a hacker, to help him suss out this information, which is buried somewhere in the Deep Web. Since everybody in the book is connected in ways that shatter all odds of probability, it's totally normal that the parents of a kid who goes to the same school as Maxine's children, California transplants Vyrva and Justin, should invite her to their apartment to peep out a program for exploring the Deep Web.

Developed by Justin and his buddy Lucas, DeepArcher is a 3-D program that allows one to leave the trackable web behind, to dodge the straight world's designated paths of communication — just like the secret mailing system in Pynchon's novel "The Crying of Lot 49" (1966). A wide range of interests, including hashslingrz, wish to acquire it.

Seated before a monitor, Maxine learns just how engrossing DeepArcher's virtual space can be:

When the program is loaded, there is no main page, no music score, only a sound ambience, growing slowly louder, that Maxine recognizes from a thousand train and bus stations and airports, and the smoothly cross-dawning image of an interior whose detail, for a moment breathtakingly, is far in advance of anything she's seen on the gaming platforms Ziggy and his friends tend to use, flaring beyond the basic videogame brown of the time into the full color spectrum of very early morning, polygons finely smoothed to all but continuous curves, the rendering, modeling, and shadows, blending and blur, handled elegantly, even with … could you call it genius?

Much later in the novel, after her investigation into hashslingrz uncovers a variety of disreputable figures who know more about the events surrounding 11 September than what's being disclosed to the public.  Maxine is alarmed to find DeepArcher's days as a sanctuary from the surface web are nearly over. Trawling the program's depths, she finds that commercial and government interests have pierced its firewalls. In time, this leaves her with the feeling that no spot on the Internet is safe from large-scale organizations that wish to reach into the lives of the general populace.

Given her time with DeepArcher and the fact that she is the mother of two gamers, I'd wager that Maxine would grasp the appeal of GTA V, though I doubt she'd play it, since "all-male narratives, unless it's the NBA, challenge (her) patience." A fair amount of attention has already been devoted to the absence of any compelling female characters in the game. It's a shame that GTA V fails to expunge the stink of misogyny that has plagued the series over the years, because aside from that, it improves upon every other element in its repertoire. Its world is more geographically diverse than any of the previous entries in the series. Its missions are more interesting, and the writing is sharper.

This certainly wasn't something I wanted to do at 5:30 in morning, yet I did, using all of the tools at my disposal.

Like "Bleeding Edge," GTA V devotes much of its satire to calling out our technological passions. (As Pam Grier, who appears as one of the radio hosts in the game, puts it, "Music ain't ever gonna stop making people happy, and technology ain't gonna ever stop making people boring.") Such as micro-blogging: "Bleeter is the perfect storm of blogging, social networking, and text messaging. We’re demolishing 100,000 years of complex linguistic development 140 characters at a time." And this is how another in-game website, cultstoppers.com, describes a Facebook-like site called Life Invader:

When we escaped from that ranch four years ago, we discovered a world in the grips of a cult more terrifying and dangerous than we could have ever imagined: social media. The stark truth of these tech pioneers … (is that) they have the same scheme. They rush in, saying how they're going to revolutionize your life and make the world better, yet what they're really doing is monetizing everyone else’s hard work and private information.

Speaking of Life Invader, of the missions I've played the one that had me cackling maniacally involved going to the company's headquarters, stealing the prototype of a smartphone and replacing it with a clone. Returning to the home of Michael — one of the game’s three playable characters — I watched him watching the product reveal for the phone on television. Just as the audience’s excitement swelled, I had Michael place a call to the CEO, who stood smirking beneath a banner that read, "Peak, pry, populate." Quizzically, he answered the phone. Then his head exploded.

Outside of any of the story missions, my favorite moment thus far was when I unwittingly turned myself into a subject of parody. Worried about how a few of the stocks that I'd invested in were doing — yes, there are stock markets in the game — I pulled up my character’s iFruit phone while he sat in traffic at a light. Then I went on the Internet to see if I'd racked up any returns on my holdings. The light changed. Cars behind me started honking. I ignored them until I’d seen what I needed to see. Closing the phone, I realized that I'd become that guy.

More discomfiting still is GTA V’s most notorious scene, in which the player "must" torture a suspect on the behalf of "FIB" agents to extract information about a suspected terrorist. This certainly wasn’t something I wanted to do at 5:30 in morning, yet I did, using all of the tools at my disposal. After the victim said what the bumbling government overseer needed to hear, the agent left Trevor — another playable character — to dispose of him. Once the FIB guy was gone, Trevor cut the other man loose. It then became my task to drive him to the airport. In the car the man asked why Trevor/I tortured him when he would have willingly cooperated. Trevor believed him, adding that it's well known that torture is an ineffective form of interrogation, that it’s for the torturer's sake, that it’s really performed for the sake of those who command him to do it. Before Trevor dropped him off, he told the man to speak publicly about what had happened to him.    

Perhaps you find this scenario repugnant or wish there were an alternative way to play through it other than purposely failing the mission. Maybe you consider this evidence of how woefully "closed" GTA's supposed open-world design is. A nasty truth about human beings is that our perceptions of obscenity are varied. That said, after I had completed the mission, my thoughts turned again to the manner in which the United States waged the so-called War on Terror. Then I recalled Maxine on the floor with Windust, a man who she knew had tortured people, in the service of a neoliberal philosophy that she abhorred. 

It can be cathartic to screw around in a place where the pretense of communal values is laid bare, where social mobility is your right.

Over the years, Pynchon's work has circled back to a central theme: how societal mechanisms for control are slipped inside individuals. In "Bleeding Edge," it's not only the Internet that facilitates this, but the use of catastrophic events such 9/11 to engineer a docile population. Maxine addresses this when she says of Windust and his cohorts, "Hey … you took our precious sorrow, processed it, sold it back to us like any other product."

Elsewhere, the book laments how quickly the site of the World Trade Center attacks is turned into an object of real-estate squabbling between competing developers. The latter example bespeaks another theme of the novel: the uncapped narcissism of those who have fared well under capitalism. Pynchon expends a lot of ink deriding how the interests of a privileged few — the yups — supersede those of the underclass. Thus we have examples not only of Windust, who in his youth rejiggered economies throughout Latin America to open up pathways for privatization, but also the recollections of Puerto Ricans in New York who were pushed out of their homes to clear the way for the building of Lincoln Center.

Remembering these moments made me think, in turn, about how GTA V benefits enormously from being set in an era that dovetails well with its characters' narcissistic ambitions. In our world, with its dissembling elites, who stifle wages and strip away privacy while swearing they're doing it for our collective benefit, it can be cathartic to screw around in a place where the pretense of communal values is laid bare, where social mobility is your right.

It is on the level of grievance as well as the celebration and derision of virtual worlds that GTA V and "Bleeding Edge" breathe the same air. And bounce on a puff of the zeitgeist. 

 

This story has been updated.

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