To longtime fan(atic)s of Thomas Pynchon’s fiction—to that cohort of smart-ass baby boomers who followed him through the 1960s and 1970s in novels like The Crying of Lot 49 and Gravity’s Rainbow as he cooked up his bracingly paranoid vision of a Menacing Force out there bent on wringing every last drop of humanity out of modern life—Bleeding Edge is going to be fairly familiar. The Menacing Force, it turns out, is “Late Capitalism,” same as it ever was: capitalism in its multinational corporate phase, an international loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires, as Paul Simon once put it, which pulls the strings of economies and governments everywhere.
In the new novel, Pynchon’s eighth, he targets one place, New York City, and two events—the dot-com bust in 2000 and Sept. 11th of the following year - that, to a novelist like Pynchon, for whom “everything is connected,” seem too good to pass up. What connections could he draw between the first economic catastrophe of the Information Age and the fall of the Twin Towers? How might the boy billionaires of the dot-com age be linked with Islamic terrorism? Falling Man, Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, covered some of the same territory (as did DeLillo’ still unsurpassed essay on 9/11, “In The Ruins of the Future,”), but that novel was a disappointment. What rough beast, slouching toward Bethlehem, would Pynchon pull out of the rubble?
At first, Bleeding Edge reads like a detective novel—there are plenty of echoes here to The Crying of Lot 49 and Inherent Vice—but Pynchon loves to fuck with form, so if you’re thinking some mystery is going to get resolved here by some plucky heroine, find yourself another way to spend the next 25 hours of your leisure time (the book’s 477 pages long, and Pynchon-ly dense). We do have a plucky heroine, one Maxine Tarnow—worried Jewish mother, defrocked fraud investigator, and possessor of the tartest of film-noirish tongues, but the mystery she’s trying to solve, which at first seems manageable, just keeps metastisizing.
At the beginning, she’s hired to find out why a surviving dot-com company called hashslingrz, run by one of those frozen-hearted boy billionaires with the fabulous name of Gabriel Ice, is diverting funds from his company through labyrinthine channels to shadowy actors in the Middle East. Is Ice in cahoots with terrorists planning a 9/11 attack so that he can profit from the defense contracts that will come when the War on Terrorism follows? (The novel gives 9/11 Truther Conspiracy way more legitimacy than most of us feel comfortable with, but you can’t say it “endorses” it.) Is Ice, in an effort to keep his business interests alive and worried about terrorism, sending funds to anti-jihadists? Bleeding Edge considers these and a lot of other possibilities, and draws into its web Russian mobsters, geek hackers, web loggers (he uses the term current at the time), stringers for the Israeli Mossad, a sexually irresistible American “neoliberal” terrorist who Maxine can’t help but give herself to, an investor who crosses Ice one too many times and ends up dead, a Caribbean delivery guy who leaves a video at Maxine’s door that seems to suggest Americans were behind 9/11, a couple of Silicon Valley/Alley veterans who have come up with a “Deep Web” site called Deep Archer that hopes to evade the surveillance and commercialization that has already started to creep onto an Internet that was supposed to be “free,” and much much more.
Pynchon’s penchant for pop culture ludicrousness, despite the ostensible seriousness of his themes, is on elaborate display: this is 2001 we’re talking about, and so you’ll find Jennifer Aniston haircuts, obsessive collectors of Beanie Babies, references to The Mummy, public-access TV sex-talk shows and the full panoply of yuppie silliness on every other page. The tone, except for about 30 pages when Pynchon chronicles Manhattan’s response during and immediately after the planes crash into the buildings, is sometimes jarringly cheery: bouncy, antic, anarchic, its dark investigations of shadowy powers heavily dosed with snark. Not for Pynchon the notion that 9/11 constituted the end of the postmodern irony that he himself pioneered: this is a man who after all, thinks of irony—not to mention deconstruction of artistic form and a principled anti-authoritarianism—as one of the primary weapons we can still wield against The Man.
I happen to be a card-carrying member of Pynchon’s baby boomer cohort. I cut my literary teeth on the extraordinary Gravity’s Rainbow, got lost and found inside its vertiginous illogics, and was super-excited when I heard that Pynchon was writing a novel about the Internet and 9/11. That I feel slightly deflated—unsurprised - with what he came up with probably only means that he already taught me, and all his readers, to read phenomena like the Internet as the corruptible thing it’s always been. (Hard to believe anybody ever thought the Web wouldn’t get co-opted by the Evil—utter commercialization and that its early advocates, Google included, claimed to stand against.)
Bleeding Edge is written with such verve and imaginative invention—the sentences crackle with jokes, puns, startling phrases, and can suddenly dive into shocking despairs as fast as it can rise to beautiful epiphanies—that its 77-year old author puts almost every American writer to shame. That I want even more from Pynchon is a testament only that to the fact that he’s already given so much: I still expect him to be an oracle.
BLEEDING EDGE, by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin Press, 477 pages, $28.95. Reviewer Cornel Bonce is a professor of English at the California State University, Fullerton.