Books

The Man Is Far from Dead: On Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Over the last several months, I have been rereading Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow with a leisurely book club, crawling through The Zone at an average pace of about a hundred pages a month. Ever since I read Gravity’s Rainbow in college, I’ve called it one of my favorite books—and it is, in the way that Mount Everest is the adventurous climber’s favorite mountain. It’s an epic, essential, breathtaking novel, with high returns for a lot of hard work. It hasn’t been easier the second time around (turns out I retained very little beyond the weird sex and colorful set pieces), but I’ve been reading it in small chunks in the pauses between faster novels. Pynchon’s new book Bleeding Edge was one of these faster novels.

There is no denying that Bleeding Edge is a weaker brew than the works that cemented Pynchon’s canonization. The plot is linear, the subject matter accessible, the sentences short (relatively speaking). I understand why some fans might be disappointed. Pynchon is seventy-six and likely to retire, let’s say, without coughing up another tome. Until recently, Bleeding Edge was an unnamed Pynchon novel, the only one of its kind, dense with possibility. Now that novel has a cover, a page count, a finite shape. It isn’t his final difficult masterpiece; our children will not use Bleeding Edge to impress their friends in college.

You can’t see me right now, but I am shrugging very slowly.

It doesn’t take long to get situated in Bleeding Edge. Here’s the opening line of the novel: “It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school.” Maxine is Pynchon’s first maternal protagonist, a Jewish woman raising two sons with and sometimes without the help of her “sort of semi-ex-husband” Horst.

But while her domestic life offers structural and emotional background to her arc, the primary concerns of the novel stem from Maxine’s career. Maxine is Pynchon’s first female protagonist since Oedipa Maas, and Pynchon, surely, is aware of the significance of that choice. At one point he narrates, “Generally, all-male narratives, unless it’s the NBA, challenge Maxine’s patience.” And to my relief, anyway, Bleeding Edge is a very good female-driven narrative.

Maxine is the proprietor of a small fraud investigation agency called Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em. At the start of the book, she has lost her license as a Certified Fraud Examiner, a development that has done no harm to her business. Her decertification makes her a sort of rogue investigator, and she attracts a surfeit of clients, a good number of them less than savory. Unlike Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge is not an explicit mystery novel, but Maxine takes lots of cues from the classic private detective. She follows leads that unspool, meeting a broad cast of characters in the process. She carries a gun and follows a personal code that only sometimes coincides with strict professional ethics. She sniffs after murders and has sex with inadvisable partners. She is brave, inquisitive, and classically Pynchonian, a woman who declares offhand, “[P]aranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”

A whole three sentences into Chapter One, we find ourselves on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and from the get-go, we know to anticipate the events of September 11. If I had to classify Bleeding Edge, I’d call it a 9/11 conspiracy thriller, though one with an attention to time and place that gives it the researched texture of historical fiction. (Incidentally, I’ve never read another 9/11 conspiracy thriller, but I am certain that it exists as a subgenre, populated by a whole lot of garbage.) Now that the book is out, I feel like it could hardly have been about anything else. The chain emails forwarded by your uncle, the Twin Towers smoking in the folded twenty-dollar bill—who better to take on that strange moment of American paranoia than Thomas Pynchon?

Of the Pynchon books I’ve read (and I won’t pretend to have read them all), Bleeding Edge is most comparable to The Crying of Lot 49, a conspiracy novel of a quieter sort. The obvious reason is that both novels feature leading ladies, and Maxine and Oedipa share a good deal of DNA, even for literary cousins. The books are also similarly structured: linear, third person limited point of view, with a more or less steady unraveling cadence. Where Oedipa chases the Trystero, Maxine goes after the myriad entanglements of computer security firm hashslingrz and its sinister geek CEO Gabriel Ice. Like that baffling muted post horn, hashslingrz and Ice seem to turn up everywhere. It’s worth noting that Bleeding Edge is a much more structurally conservative novel. It sprawls, sure, but the plot converges in a way that while not quite pat, is far from the infinite web that Oedipa barely starts to uncover. It splits the difference with the detective fiction conventions followed in Inherent Vice, though its zany, frequently surreal tone is far from hardboiled.

The story unfolds at a fast, enjoyable pace, running all over the irrecoverable streets of 2001 New York. The setting yields many pleasures, as it’s both familiar and far in the practical past, in a “When I was your age” sort of time. Pynchon takes clear joy in sprinkling the landscape with signifying props; there are winking references to Eliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff, the enormous profit potential of Beanie Babies. At one point, someone postulates, “Someday there’ll be a Napster for videos, it’ll be routine to post anything and share it with anybody.” Maxine is incredulous, as unable to imagine YouTube as any of us were just twelve years and a zillion views ago.

The episodes are consistently entertaining, pumped vivid with Pynchon’s ferocious imaginative breadth. There’s a cruise for borderline personalities, a tourist excursion to Loehmann’s. There is, of course, a whole lot of singing and dancing, and plenty of sex and gunfire. The characters are hard to keep track of, even with names like Vyrva McElmo, but that’s par for the course. Bleeding Edge is otherwise a fairly unchallenging read, one that you might recommend to a friend who cares little about the cult of Thomas Pynchon. Here’s a typical sentence: “Fuck here we go, Maxie half-subvocalizes, having only herself recently learned of Conkling’s longtime obsession with, not so much Hitler in general as the even more focused question of, what did Hitler smell like? Exactly?” Good-natured cursing, colloquial/sophisticated syntax, and of course, the substance alludes to a rather colorful quirk.

If anything, Bleeding Edge is almost too fun, crammed cover to cover with pop culture references and old man humor. There’s a VC firm called Voorhees, Krueger, a law firm called Hanover, Fisk. There is a character named Stu Gotz, the Italian equivalent of Hugh Jass or Amanda Hugandkiss—he works at a strip club called Joie de Beavre. (As viewers of The Sopranos might recall, Tony names his boat Stugotz, which means, you know, “balls.”) At one point, Pynchon lovingly describes a whole made-up episode of Scooby Doo, all for a punch line about Medellín kids. The writing comes off as gleeful, and if that’s not your thing, I can see how it might be off-putting, but also have you never read Pynchon before? I suppose if you haven’t, you might ask why you should bother with a 9/11 conspiracy novel full of corny jokes. After all, your uncle wrote one and you pretended it never happened.

The answer is that your uncle is not a genius, whereas Thomas Pynchon almost defines that word in his field. Bleeding Edge might lack some of the unrivaled brilliance of some of his other work, but it is still written by a man of staggering ability. The prose is heavy on dialogue and functional description, but the language is lively and evocative, the style unmistakable. I love this passage on New York subways, and I imagine it’ll change the way I observe the Metro the next time I ride it:

Sometimes, down in the subway, a train Maxine’s riding on will slowly be overtaken by a local or an express on the other track, and in the darkness of the tunnel, as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards being dealt and slid in front of her… Maxine has come to understand that the faces framed in these panels are precisely those out of all the city millions she must in the hour be paying most attention to… they are the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World, where the days are assembled one by one under non-union conditions.

This passage leads into a lovely surreal episode in which Maxine makes eye contact with another passenger who turns out to be an actual messenger, someone she’s never met who has something to give her. It’s the kind of event that takes Bleeding Edge out of the realm of straightforward genre storytelling and into something stranger and more sublime. The novel may be simpler and more conventional than much of his other work, but it still flickers with something, anyway, that only Pynchon can provide.

At the end of his life, Vladimir Nabokov wrote Ada, or Ardor, his longest and most difficult novel. It was an ornery thing to do, but his effort yielded a beautiful, lasting work of art, comparable in value to Lolita or Pale Fire. I know this because my pretentious Gravity’s Rainbow book club read Ada earlier this year. Bleeding Edge may not be the same kind of standout in Pynchon’s legacy, but it’s an entertaining book of considerable merit. If anything, it indicates that the man is far from dead, that he is in fact sharp and active and paying close attention. As for whether we’ll see more where it came from—well, let’s borrow one of Pynchon’s many one-liners: “One cannoli hope, as the Godfather always sez.”

Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.