“Bleeding Edge” by Thomas Pynchon (The Penguin Press, 477 pages, $28.95)
Thomas Pynchon, named by critic Harold Bloom as one of the four major American novelists of his time, along with Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, writes complicated, demanding novels that explore multiple themes. At the same time, he fills his works with pop culture references (real and made up) and includes much humor and satire.
His new novel, his eighth and a finalist for this year’s National Book Award, is set in New York City in 2001, following the collapse of the dot-com boom and leading up to and after the tragic events of Sept. 11. But while it’s a historical novel and captures that period with its references to pop music, TV shows, movies (many invented), as well as to Microsoft as the Evil Empire, it also introduces elements that feel contemporary.
For example, he explores the Deep Web, the vast World Wide Web content that is not part of the Surface Web that is indexed by standard search engines. (Time magazine recently ran a cover story about it.) Or the NSA controversy. One character predicts “a total Web of surveillance, inescapable.”
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Reg, a documentary filmmaker, talks about trying to spread around DVDs, “hoping somebody with the bandwidth would post one at least.” He predicts that “someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.” Yep. And the protagonist responds with another contemporary truism, “How could anybody make money doing that?”
The protagonist here is Maxine Tarnow, who runs a small fraud-investigating agency called Tail ’Em and Nail ’Em. She works on the Upper West Side, hunting down small-scale con artists. But she has had her license revoked, so she’s less inclined to follow legal guidelines. She carries a Beretta handgun and hacks into people’s bank accounts. She’s also the mother of two school-age boys, Ziggy and Otis, and her ex-husband, Horst, soon shows up and eventually moves in. (Pynchon makes many jokes about Jewish mothers.)
Maxine looks into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire CEO, Gabriel Ice, who is as cold and ruthless as his name (the names of Pynchon’s characters are almost never random), and trouble brews all around her.
She gets mixed up with all kinds of characters, though it’s often difficult to distinguish their differences, other than their names. Their speech sounds similar, and Pynchon doesn’t offer much description of them. One is a drug runner; one is an investigator who hunts clues with his nose. Another is an enforcer who has a foot fetish. Some are connected to the Russian mob, while others are bloggers, hackers, code monkeys or entrepreneurs. Some of these latter turn up dead.
Mixed in with all these shenanigans are conspiracy theories. When a tape reveals a group of men on a rooftop with a missile launcher, one character is sure they are part of a government plot to bring down the Twin Towers.
What there is of a plot is often hard to follow, as Maxine moves from meeting one character to another. New York City itself is a major character, and Pynchon dwells on the mood of the city following 9/11. More fun are his descriptions (“eyes wide as fairground lollipops”), his puns (“Zorba the Geek”) or his humor (one character says, “with your neo-Brechtian subversion of the diegesis,” which Maxine thinks “sounded like a pitch for a Christian weight-loss program”). An aspect of his humor is the plethora of topics he delves into, from opera to an invented African-American romance show.
Pynchon develops multiple themes, including the search for what’s real. The darkness of a computer screen is “a darkness pulsing with whatever light was before light was invented.” His description of those who write code to create a virtual world reminds readers of the work of fiction writing.
Pynchon also likes to mix comments with his descriptions. For example, he describes “oil-storage tanks, tanker traffic forever unsleeping,” then adds, “addiction to oil gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse.” He goes on to describe heaps of landfill “reaching close to 200 feet overhead.”
Is there a point to all this? I’m not sure. Perhaps bleeding-edge technology, which one character refers to as having “no proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with,” is some metaphor for our world today.
“Bleeding Edge” is a complex, demanding novel. But it contains much clever writing that’s fun to read. It will also leave readers with much to ponder.