Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin/Random House, 477 pages
The publication of a new Thomas Pynchon novel always generates comparisons with his first, most celebrated novels. Critics cite the genius of V. (1963) and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and then use them to draw unfavorable comparisons with the new work. These criticisms mostly have to do with style.
Pynchon is accused, after all these years, of still writing as he did back then. Consider the slurs leveled at his 1,085-page, 2006 novel Against the Day. Louis Menand, in The New Yorker, said it was “just yards and yards of Pynchonian wallpaper.” In the Los Angeles Times, novelist Christopher Sorrentino also invoked the author’s name to damn it, calling the book “Pynchonesque.” Once celebrated for his unsettling worldview and exhilarating way with words and substance, Pynchon is now criticized for clinging to them.
The circumstances of his latest novel provides the perfect Pynchonian backdrop. Bleeding Edge bubbles with they’re-watching-us paranoia and barely visible conspiracies of the sort found in all his work. The book opens in the spring of 2001 in New York City, after the dot-com bust and ahead of the atrocity that’s coming in September, some 316 pages distant. The intrigue emanates from secret organizations hidden away in the deepest recesses of the internet. As in Pynchon’s less-celebrated second novel, The Crying of Lot 49, the main character is a woman. Lot 49 centers on a shadowy ancient organization that exists to shuttle secret information by regular mail. Bleeding Edge brings that idea into the 21st century. It deals with mysterious realms of the World Wide Web (the term takes on a sinister meaning in Pynchon’s hands) — ones that serve, among other things, to conceal insidious investment transactions.
Maxine Tarnow is a financial fraud investigator who is delving into a questionable computer-security organization. A mother with two young boys and an ex-husband who is still a presence in her life, she uncovers, in true Pynchon style, more than she bargained for. The book has the usual abundance of gags, cultural references, and intertwined subplots as well as a bloated cast of characters. But there’s also something different: between the connected closets of the internet and the stampede of conspiracy theories that spread after 9/11, Pynchon seems to say that his brand of paranoia, entertaining as he has made it, served as a prophecy of sorts.
Bleeding Edge contains the usual imagined and exaggerated scenarios, at times presenting the virtual world as the real one. But its author didn’t have to invent the conspiracies and entanglements the book harbors. Investment fraud, hidden bank accounts, the Mossad, Islamic front groups disguised as charities, the Russian mob, internet gaming cults, blanket internet spying on behalf of businesses and governments — these things exist, and Pynchon makes them part of a whole.
The book has flaws; for example, Pynchon doesn’t do women well, and Tarnow seems out of her element when she’s being most womanly. But these shortcomings don’t hide the book’s achievement. Even as it rambles, it remains Pynchonesque. And that’s high praise.