Bleeding Edge: Paranoia And High Comedy In Thomas Pynchon’s New York
In my experience readers have two reactions to Thomas Pynchon. Either his novels are constructions of such sublime genius that people of merely average intellect cannot hope to comprehend them, or he is an unreadable pseudo-intellectual whose work, to borrow a phrase uttered by Paul Krugman in a completely different context, is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like. A few years ago a friend of mine, having failed to get past maybe the first fifty pages of “Mason & Dixon,” posited that Pynchon was a genius running a scam on his readers by writing utter gibberish that his ardent fans could interpret in all sorts of outlandish and ridiculous ways that had nothing to do with anything.
Count me, at the time, in the unreadable pseudo-intellectual camp. Not long before hearing my friend’s theory I had slogged through “Gravity’s Rainbow” two or three pages at a time, which was usually about all I could manage before falling asleep. As I recall, it took almost two months to read the whole thing. Finishing, I felt as if I’d accomplished some Herculean and unfulfilling task.
So it was a pleasant surprise a few years ago to read the surprisingly readable “Inherent Vice,” Pynchon’s take on the L.A. noir detective novel, a genre I have long loved. His new novel, “Bleeding Edge,”continues his exploration of noir territory, this time in New York in the months leading up to the terror attacks of September 11. It is a crackerjack read, hilarious and menacing, with plenty of that signature Pynchon paranoia about secret conspiracies and entire parallel worlds, strange forces pulling all of us like marionettes, lurking just past the edges of the one we can see.
The heroine of “Bleeding Edge” is Maxine Tarnow, a divorced mom on the Upper West Side who every morning packs a compact Beretta into her purse and walks her two young sons to school before heading off to work as a fraud investigator. Thanks to the bursting of the tech bubble a year before, New York’s Silicon Alley is awash in industry doom, gloom, and shell-shocked hipsters and geeks trying to salvage whatever they can from the startup apocalypse. Maxine’s work keeps bringing her into contact with paranoid programmers, smooth-talking venture capitalists, and a mysterious Russian who spent years as a Spetsnaz commando and now may work as a fixer for the Russian mob.
All of these characters seem to orbit around the shady tech billionaire Gabriel Ice, a sort of hybrid of Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and a tech-age Genghis Khan pillaging what’s left of the desiccated taiga of online companies and infrastructure of Silicon Alley. There are more than a few hints of menace about Ice and his various projects, including what may lie in the secret tunnels under the vacation home he is building near a supposedly long-shuttered military base on Long Island, the interest in his work from a secretive government agent who might be only slightly more interested in Maxine, and the strange and indefinable world of DeepArcher, a sort of “Deep Web” project developed by two programmers of Maxine’s acquaintance where people dissatisfied with their lives in reality are free to build entirely new ones. Not to mention the secret room in Ice’s company where a bunch of dark-skinned Arabs are working on what may be a device that can knock out communications equipment in a certain radius around lower Manhattan, the vast sums of money Ice or someone in his employ is funneling to Middle Eastern banks, and video footage that has fallen into Maxine’s possession showing two men and a Stinger missile launcher on the roof of a New York building, where they seem to be practicing shooting down a passing 767.
Along the way there is plenty of comic relief in Maxine’s interactions with her stereotyped but still hilarious Upper West Side Jewish parents, her once and possibly future husband Horst, and her sharp-tongued best friend Heidi, among others. The dialogue is hilarious and sharp, though the characters do sometimes slip into the same hip, street-smart, elliptical patois that can make them a little difficult to tell apart. And there are the small touches in names of people and businesses – the venture capital firm of Voorhees & Krueger, the strip club called Joie de Beavre – jokes that read like throwaways but that you will find yourself re-reading to make sure you catch the full force. All of it is written in the short and bursting sentences of good noir that you find slipping into your inner monologue even when you close the book – On the subway, Red Line running through what he hoped were really earthquake-proof tunnels under Hollywood, club kids from the deepest Valley, not one of ‘em a lick over twenty and made up to frighten their parents, headed to a two-day rave downtown, DJs and oppressive bass beats and popping molly like Skittles…
See? My inner monologue is a pale imitation of Pynchon. Which is why you should read “Bleeding Edge” and get the real thing.