Love letter to New York that explores a sense of personal violation at 9/11

My review of the latest Thomas Pynchon novel, written almost two months ago but only published in yesterday’s Irish Examiner

Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
Jonathan Cape; £20
Review: Val Nolan

He’s a literary giant but you won’t see him on magazine covers or even on the jacket of his own books. No, Thomas Pynchon has never given an interview and never allows himself to be photographed (only a handful of verified images exist) but, as with most things, he seems to regard seclusion as one big joke, having happily appeared on not one but two episodes of The Simpsons with a paper bag over his head shouting, “Hey, over here! Have your picture taken with a reclusive author!”. Now comes Bleeding Edge, a mystery both slapstick and Chandleresque where a sombre treatment of September 11th undercuts the usual Pynchon tomfoolery. It is, in the biggest surprise of all, the closest thing to an autobiography he is ever likely to produce.

The year is 2001 and Maxine Tarnow, citizen of New York’s “Yupper West Side”, is a recently de-certified fraud investigator juggling a Beretta and two pre-teen sons, dallying between a “sort of semi-ex-husband”, a Spetsnaz tough turned mobster, a violent neoliberal fixer, and a “professional nose” (“born with a sense of smell far more calibrated than the rest of us normals enjoy”). Things get ugly when she is tipped off to irregularities at a computer firm run by billionaire geek Gabriel Ice, who may be the devil or, worse, an IT contractor for the Bush-era national security apparatus.

Maxine, like Pynchon, has “a tendency to look for patterns” and a “paranoid halo” vibrating to the hum of propriety’s outer boroughs. Certainly there is no shortage of things to ping her investigative antennae – let alone her more amorous receptors – in the months between the explosive burst of the dot-com bubble and the even bigger bang of 9/11. Her pursuit of “bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs” circles a larger conspiracy, or at least a conspiracy to create the sense of conspiracy – a United States “being silently replaced screen by screen with something else” – and one cannot help but see in Bleeding Edge what Salman Rushdie saw in Pynchon’s Vineland (1990): “A major political novel about what America has been doing to itself, to its children, all these many years”.

Readers new to the manic and famously difficult Pynchon will find Bleeding Edge a brisk and accessible introduction to a septuagenarian who established his reputation with an early trio of postmodern masterpieces: the enigmatic V. (1963), the labyrinthine The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and the bawdy, pseudo-encyclopaedic Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), the latter best described as the kind of Ulysses which Joyce might have written if he had been a Boeing engineer with a fetish for quadrille paper. Pynchon’s more recent fiction has varied in quality but rarely in tone, with 1997’s Enlightenment buddy-comedy Mason & Dixon being both the pinnacle of his later work and, arguably, one of the greatest American novels.

Like that book, Bleeding Edge is a romp. On full display are Pynchon’s trademark linguistic and imaginative acrobatics as Maxine contends with a “schadenfreudefest”, a “karmic crime scene”, and a “boot camp for military time travellers”. It may sound frivolous but an emotional maturity counterpoints the silly songs, deliberately bad puns, and pop-cultural references. Indeed, those who deride the author for such things miss the point, if one dares attribute such a thing to Pynchon, that these half-remembered pieces of the past are what our present days are made of (that said, were we really so obsessed with Jennifer Aniston’s hair in 2001?)

For existing Pynchophiles, Bleeding Edge supplies a familiar thematic palette which segues seamlessly into contemporary scepticism of government surveillance and late capitalism’s progress towards “a pyramid racket on a global scale, the kind of pyramid you do human sacrifices up on top of”. There is suspicion, of course; there are improbably named movers and shakers who elude constraint; there is irrationality and delusion, absolutely, but though Pynchon’s characters include 9/11 “truthers”, the author’s own misgivings stem as much from longstanding dissatisfaction with America’s political and social order as from inconsistencies in the official narratives.

Which brings one neatly to the novel’s autobiographical element. By setting the book mostly in Manhattan, on ground he has stomped for at least two decades, Pynchon allows us see the city through his own eyes. It is a place not officially mapped, an Escherine metropolis of “dope-scourged hipsters, funseekers who have failed to hook up,” and cops “dealing with bagel deficiencies”. Bleeding Edge is a love letter to New York, the kind of true love where one partner’s tics infuriate and inflame the other in equal measure, and, as the ominous shadow of the Twin Towers grows across the page, one realizes that the author is not merely unpacking national tragedy here, he is exploring his own sense of personal violation at 9/11 and the conservative kneejerk it engendered.

“But wait,” as the Simpsonized Pynchon once declared, “there’s more!” It’s impossible to read Bleeding Edge without feeling that each of the female characters here is an iteration of the novelist himself. There is Maxine, pursuing a shaggy-dog story while trying to maintain familial normality; there is Tallis, Gabriel Ice’s wife, coyly manipulating everyone with her assumed persona; there is Tallis’s mother, a grizzled old conspiracy theorist; the list goes on… Meanwhile, stand-ins for the readership are to be found among the male characters, reliable consumers of media from computer games to ill-advised movies-of-the-week (anyone for “Anthony Hopkins in The Mikhail Baryshnikov Story”?).

Likewise, Pynchon’s definition of the “bleeding edge” itself might well serve as a description of his own fiction: “no proven use, high risk, something only early adoption addicts feel comfortable with,” though those brave enough will find in it an astute dissection of fears both personal and societal. Mind you, if you’re wondering what the point of it all is then you already know the point. The Pyn-zen of Pynchon, as it were.

Dr. Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature at NUI Galway. 

This article originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, Saturday 9th November 2013 (p.18).

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