By Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press, 496 pp, hardcover
Look, Thomas Pynchon isn’t an idiot. He knows as well as anyone that his novels, zany and panoramic as they may be, have some recurring features: a treasure trove of silly names and ’60s slang, a fascination with illicit economies, and a voracious appetite for pop culture that will choose junk food over fine dining every time, to name a few.
That self-awareness might explain why Pynchon allows the heroine of Bleeding Edge, the small-time fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow, to plainly state what is perhaps his truest guiding principle—certainly the one that grad students have spent decades glomming on to—in its opening pages. When an old friend comes to Maxine and suggests that a computer-security company called hashslingrz is secretly working with some powerful but unsavoury groups of people, and then wonders out loud whether he’s being too paranoid, she scoffs: “Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”
Such is the catalyst for Pynchon’s eighth novel, which drops us into New York’s Silicon Alley just after the bursting of the dot-com bubble and, in the process, into the 21st century for the first time. His references have caught up to 2001, too, with Ally McBeal, Mitch Hedberg, the erstwhile Jay-Z/Nas beef, and limited-edition Princess Diana–brand Beanie Babies all making an appearance.
What’s interesting about Bleeding Edge is how it grapples with the fact that Pynchon’s wildest and darkest ideas about surveillance have now come true. His signature paranoia, which began as a kind of reductio ad absurdum response to the Cold War, has slowly become (especially in the wake of ongoing revelations about the NSA) a basic fact of life. So as Maxine gets pulled deeper and deeper into a case that’s part murder mystery, part international embezzling scheme, and part deep-sea dive to the hidden depths of the Internet, it reads not as off-the-wall fantasy, but as barely exaggerated realism. Pynchon is surely the only heavyweight of modern literature who can count 4chan as an influence.
This is also the first time the staunch but reclusive New Yorker has addressed 9/11 head-on. The tragedy occurs halfway through, but it isn’t long before it becomes yet another cog in Pynchon’s latest Rube Goldberg machine. Evidence piles up that 9/11 was, indeed, an inside job, masterminded either by some rooftop snipers or a bagpiper “whose career depends on widespread public bereavement”—he plays a lot of funerals, apparently.
To be honest, Bleeding Edge kind of fried my brain. Pynchon’s last novel, 2009’s Inherent Vice, was a similar attempt to inhabit the detective genre in order to detonate it from within, but at least there the overall mood was one of marijuana-induced stupor. Here, however, in the straight-edge world of computer geeks, it feels more like an accidental short circuit. 404 error. Page not found.