Philadelphia Inquirer // Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

My review of Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday Sept. 8, 2013.

Thomas Pynchon is best known for his aversion to publicity.

It’s a bit of a shame, considering he has written at least one indelible classic in Gravity’s Rainbow, a National Book Award winner that must be mentioned in any serious discussion of the Great American Novel. Personally, I’m equally fond of his Mason & Dixon, which is in some ways even better. The fact that he has stayed out of the public eye for so many decades has, ironically, focused popular attention on his supposedly enigmatic persona instead of where it belongs: on an oeuvre without equal in contemporary American letters.

Pynchon’s potboiling and masterful new novel, Bleeding Edge, is set in New York City and takes place after the late-’90s dot-com crash. It also stands as one of the few novels with something of real substance to add to our national discourse about the attacks of 9/11. Our hero, or I suppose heroine, is one Maxine Tarnow, a recently unlicensed fraud investigator snooping around the suspicious goings-on in Silicon Alley, which, you might recall, was Lower Manhattan’s tech corridor. When it comes to getting her job done, Maxine doesn’t feel particularly bound to such trivialities as law and order:

“Since going rogue, Maxine has acquired a number of software kits, courtesy of less reputable clients, which have bestowed on her superpowers not exactly falling with Generally Accepted Accounting Practices, such as thou shalt not hack into anybody’s bank account, thou shalt leave that sort of thing for the FBI.”

When she goes snooping into the affairs of a new billionaire and his computer-security company, she sets off a series of events that gives Pynchon every opportunity to write a love letter to his home city. He holds the tragedy and comedy in perfect balance. In one of the more chilling scenes, Horst Loeffler, Maxine’s former and perhaps future husband – she calls him her “sort of ex” and her “quasi ex-husband” – and their kids are enjoying a pleasant lunch at the Windows on the World restaurant in the World Trade Center:

“There happens to be a more-than-moderate wind blowing that day, making the tower sway back and forth in five-, what feel like ten-foot excursions. On days of storm, according to Horst’s cotenant Jake Pimento, it’s like being in the crow’s nest of a very tall ship, allowing you to look down at helicopters and private planes and neighboring high-rises. ‘Seems kind of flimsy up here,’ to Ziggy.

‘Nah,’ sez Jake, ‘built like a battleship.'”

Their obliviousness to the national battles that are about to begin feels both liberating and heartbreaking. It’s an era of addiction to oil “gradually converging with the other national bad habit, inability to deal with refuse.” And, indeed, Maxine ends up at one point at a landfill: “toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself.”

Although Bleeding Edge puts to use many tools of the gumshoe noir genre, the tone – which I take as a kind of bemused nostalgia for newly outmoded technologies – owes as much to The Big Lebowski as to The Big Sleep. Pynchon remains the funniest novelist in America. Maxine’s work takes her undercover – or uncovered – in a strip club. A venture-capital firm goes by the name Voorhees, Krueger after the villains of two mostly terrible slasher movies. The riff on shopping at IKEA alone is worth the price of the book.

At the same time, however, the description of 9/11’s aftermath will halt your breath:

“The plume of smoke and finely divided structural and human debris has been blowing southwest, toward Bayonne and Staten Island, but you can smell it all the way uptown. A bitter chemical smell of death and burning that no one in memory has ever in this city smelled before and which lingers for weeks. 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 combination of intellectual bravura and crude slapstick is vintage Thomas Pynchon, as is his characters’ mostly justified paranoia about the secret systems governing their day-to-day lives. He is not afraid to tell it like he sees it:

“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.”

Line by line, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, Bleeding Edge reveals the workings of an uncommonly humane thinker and uniquely American voice working at the peak of his talents.