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Monday, June 16, 2014

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Release Date: September 17, 2013
Publisher: Penguin Press
Age Group: Adult
Format: Hardcover
Source: Publisher
Pages: 477
Buy: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / IndieBound
Description: Goodreads
Thomas Pynchon brings us to New York in the early days of the internet

It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dot-com boom and the terrible events of September 11th. Silicon Alley is a ghost town, Web 1.0 is having adolescent angst, Google has yet to IPO, Microsoft is still considered the Evil Empire. There may not be quite as much money around as there was at the height of the tech bubble, but there’s no shortage of swindlers looking to grab a piece of what’s left.

Maxine Tarnow is running a nice little fraud investigation business on the Upper West Side, chasing down different kinds of small-scale con artists. She used to be legally certified but her license got pulled a while back, which has actually turned out to be a blessing because now she can follow her own code of ethics—carry a Beretta, do business with sleazebags, hack into people’s bank accounts—without having too much guilt about any of it. Otherwise, just your average working mom—two boys in elementary school, an off-and-on situation with her sort of semi-ex-husband Horst, life as normal as it ever gets in the neighborhood—till Maxine starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm and its billionaire geek CEO, whereupon things begin rapidly to jam onto the subway and head downtown. She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead. Foul play, of course.

With occasional excursions into the DeepWeb and out to Long Island, Thomas Pynchon, channeling his inner Jewish mother, brings us a historical romance of New York in the early days of the internet, not that distant in calendar time but galactically remote from where we’ve journeyed to since.

Will perpetrators be revealed, forget about brought to justice? Will Maxine have to take the handgun out of her purse? Will she and Horst get back together? Will Jerry Seinfeld make an unscheduled guest appearance? Will accounts secular and karmic be brought into balance?

Hey. Who wants to know?

Bleeding Edge has been stuck in my head for almost six months. I devoured it upon its release, breezing through it over a weekend in two marathon sessions. Ever since, I’ve been trying to figure out what I could possibly write in a review of it. Bleeding Edge is one of the best, most enjoyable books that I’ve ever read and I have no idea how to explain why.

After about 700 pages, it’s difficult to even tell you what the plot is about. It’s sort of about America before and after 9/11. It’s sort of about a possible-rogue (or worse, not) government contractor and its mysterious owner. It sort of about a piece of software, reminiscent of Snow Crash’s Metaverse, that’s poised to revolutionize digital interaction. It’s kind of a murder mystery which hinges on the unique ability of a man with a superhuman sense of smell. All of these disparate threads (and more!) may or may not be part of a government conspiracy that may or may not exist. At its heart, Bleeding Edge is about a private detective named Maxine and her attempt to navigate all of the above and keep her family alive and together.

All of the disparate plot threads do a wonderful job of evoking the sense of confusion that overwhelms Maxine. The novel seems to be more interested in invoking an impression of confusion and the post-9/11 paranoia than it is with relating a concrete plot. In that way, it’s pretty similar to Pynchon’s other books, but none of those has clicked with me in the way that Bleeding Edge did.

Bleeding Edge, again like Pynchon’s other books, is packed with pop-culture references, these from the ‘90s and early ‘00s. Unlike his other books, which made references to Malta’s political situation in the 1950s or specific World War II trivia and evoked little reaction in me, I understand Pynchon’s references to Metal Gear Solid as knowing winks and hints that the plot is overly convoluted on purpose. I understand the language Pynchon’s using in this book because it’s the language of my childhood and teenage years. Another example, possibly my favorite from the book, uses IKEA as a metaphor for the conspiracy-that-might be: “An entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue. Inside the store proper, you walk forever from one bourgeois context, or ‘room of the house,’ to another, along a fractal path that does its best to fill up the floor space available. Exits are clearly marked, but impossible to get to.”

The previous paragraph underscores what makes the book great: it’s simply a blast to read. While the novel does touch on truly heavy and tragic topics with the proper respect, it’s also willing to have its fair share of fun. Pynchon constantly inserts jokes or short (and sometimes very long) asides that are frequently gut-busting. He also has a way of immediately shifting from straight-forward to off-kilter to keep the reader on guard, like in the following: “Due to some likely 007-related mental block about packing it, she has tried to avoid the Walther PPK with the laser in the grip, depending instead on her secondary, the Beretta, which, if handguns had conscious careers, it might consider a promotion.”

It may be difficult to point to a particularly badass plot point or a classic new character, but that’s not to say that the only thing going for the book is its writing style. While the plot arcs and threads don’t necessarily seem to complete, the treatment of the novel’s themes is. It’s been six months and I’m still pondering the novel and realizing new connections. Bleeding Edge is one of the few books that I see myself revisiting every few years.

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