Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding EdgeIt has been many moons since I picked up my first Thomas Pynchon book, THE CRYING OF LOT 49. I remember the experience being disorienting but strangely addictive — the language swirling, the metaphors glaring, and the plot just barely hanging on to linearity — and that’s one of his more navigable novels. His latest, BLEEDING EDGE, similarly skirts the fuzzy boundary between perception and reality, with plenty of cultural references, campy dialogue, and political rants disguised as character musings thrown in for good measure. Was it just as disorienting to read? At times, you bet. Did it live up to my expectations? Not always. But the nearly 500-page behemoth is worth a gander, if only to glimpse inside the mind of the notoriously reclusive septuagenarian author who has been plugging away at his craft for more than 50 years.

If you’ve read any of the review coverage thus far, you’ll know that BLEEDING EDGE is being billed as a 9/11 novel. But that’s not the whole story. The fateful day doesn’t happen until well over 300 pages have been flipped, and even then the actual events are given short shrift. A more accurate assessment reveals a New York, an America, a world in psychological and technological turmoil post dot-com explosion and implosion, a people enslaved by greed, power, control, and the obsessive urge to feel connected and “in the know” at all costs, despite feeling quite the opposite.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, there’s a semblance of plot here to pay attention to. Maxine Tarnow — our fearless protagonist and gun-slinging fraud examiner gone rogue — is the “Yupper West Side” mom of two adolescent boys and on-again-off-again ex-wife of a philandering husband who really seems more like a dumb, devoted puppy dog than anything else. She’s full of saucy one-liners (cue the camp mentioned previously: “Maxi, whatchyiz doin’ tonight?” Maxi: “Masturbating to a movie on the Lifetime channel, Her Psychopathic Fiancé, I believe, why, what’s it to you?”), and hot on the trail of one aptly named Gabriel Ice, the scummy brainchild behind a Silicon Alley computer security company accused of directly or indirectly financing the 9/11 attacks, and/or siphoning money to the Emirates, with or without knowledge of the CIA and Bush’s cronies, or some combination of the three.

When she’s not busy tracking Ice’s scent (sort of), Maxine can be found sniffing around DeepArcher (pronounced “departure”), a virtual world where users can socialize, exchange information, and explore the dark, lurid corridors of the Internet, and how it either is or isn’t connected to Promis, a data-sharing software program that “anytime it gets installed on a government computer anywhere in the world…anybody who happens to know about this backdoor can just slip in through it and make themselves at home…and all manner of secrets get compromised.” Hello, NSA.

As with any Pynchon-sanctioned investigative caper, Maxine’s approach to snooping isn’t always clear. In fact, throughout BLEEDING EDGE she can often be found entangled (sometimes literally) in one far-flung compromising situation or another: undercover at a packed midtown karaoke bar, at a seedy strip joint called Joie de Beavre on MILF-night, facedown on the carpet of some musty motel screwing a potential suspect, and with a variety of colorful characters — members of the Russian mob, a kinky foot fetishist who likes to wear condoms “just to have them on” — some of whom wind up dead. Sure, these escapades might seem disconnected to the overall story, making it hard to follow and in need of a slash-and-burn edit. But does that matter? Pynchon never has been one to turn away from a tangent, no matter how outlandish it might get. In this case, the devil is indeed in the details.

At the end of the novel, it’s anybody’s guess (well, at least mine) if and how Maxine cracked the case(s), or if that’s even the point. Let’s remember, GRAVITY’S RAINBOW and V. were far more challenging to read than this. A second or third time through might provide a few more clues. Yet, despite this nagging sense of befuddlement, there’s plenty of classic Pynchon to cherry-pick and enjoy. Millennial and ’90s references (Zima: “the bitch drink of the nineties”; the Furby and Beanie Baby crazes;; Jennifer Anniston’s hair) abound, as well as those born or bred New Yorkers will recognize (the Hamptons: “a glittering rat hole and summertime home to America’s rich, famous, and a vast seasonal inflow of yup wannabees”; Dr. Zizmor: “that babyfaced dermatologist in the subway”; “a 24-hour Ukranian joint in the East Village” (i.e. Veselka); the original Loehman’s on Fordham Road in the Bronx; the infamous toilet in the L.E.S. dive bar Welcome to the Johnsons). And let’s not forget Pynchon’s, shall we say, swollen prose: “The details ooze away as dawn light and the sounds of garbage trucks and jackhammers grow in the room, til she’s left with a single image unwilling to fade, the federal penis, fierce red, predatory, and Maxine alone its prey.”

All in all, BLEEDING EDGE is nothing if not a commentary on The State of Things disguised as a goofy potboiler.

Yes, it’s sometimes riddled with conspiracy theories surrounding insider trading, corrupt politicians and the World Trade Center attacks, and sets its stage during a time when New York City and the rest of the country were draped in American flags and pumped full of patriotic sentiment and fear, while Islamic-looking people were carted off by the hundreds for being suspected terrorists.

Yes, it’s sometimes a critique of our misunderstanding of and dependence on the Internet: “Your Internet, back then the Defense Department called it DARPAnet, the original purpose was to assure survival of U.S. command and control after a nuclear exchange with the Soviets…this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time…it was conceived in sin, the worst possible…. Call it freedom, it’s based on control…. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable.”

And more often than not, take it or leave it, it’s also a sobering message to Americans that still resonates today: We have always been “living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs…planet-wide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering.”

Originally posted on September 20, 2013


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