Thomas Pynchon's latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is set in 2001 in New York City. Pynchon is a careful observer, a wizard of wordplay, who is justly revered for crafting paranoid parables. The critics have all been waiting for this, his 9/11 novel, which is also promised to be his take on the early days of this, our internet age.
While 9/11 looms in the background of every reader's mind, the monster we all know is in the closet, Pynchon's people wander and wisecrack their way through a NYC that is not so much doomed as destined to be something that none of us can ever stop or really hope to understand. Pynchon is not telling us a story, he's telling us stories, hundreds of them. Perhaps they're pixels, part of something larger that we'll see when we draw our focus back, or perhaps we're only paranoid minds finding patterns were none exist.
Pynchon's people dwell in doubt and he does interesting things with time in conversations. Phrases trigger recollection and we're taken from a coffee shop to a scene a thousand miles and five years away before we close the paragraph. It is disorienting and enlightening at the same time. And Pynchon packs his books with casual references to obscure facts (both real and fictitious) which he'll delightfully deploy with equal zeal in the making of a key plot points or terrible puns. Even the most nimble of minds is apt to find both delight and befuddlement in pages penned by Pynchon.
Pynchon opens his book with this quote from Donald Westlake:
"New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it."
Pynchon's heroine, Maxine Tarnow, is a decertified Certified Fraud Examiner, a sort-of-divorced mom with a couple of kids and just enough disconnection from the structures of power to be completely delightful and dangerous. Like the best private eyes, Maxine is less beholden to the law than she is to her own sense of justice. She investigates crimes, both commercial and karmic. Minor infractions are given as much, or often, greater weight, than major felonies.
In an early scene, Maxine's kids are playing with a prototype of a new computer game, a shooter where the targets are not criminals, but the criminally rude on the streets of New York:
“Come on,” sez Otis, “let’s just cruise around.”
Off they go on a tour of the inexhaustible galleries of New York annoyance, zapping loudmouths on cellular phones, morally self-elevated bicycle riders, moms wheeling twins old enough to walk lounging in twin strollers, “One behind the other, we let them off with a warning, but not this one, look, side by side so nobody can get past? forget it.”
Pow! Pow! The twins go flying, all smiles, above New York and into the Kiddy Bin. Passersby are largely oblivious to the sudden disappearances except for Christers, who think it’s the Rapture.
“Guys,” Maxine astonished, “I had no idea— Wait, what’s this?”
She has spotted a line jumper at a bus stop. Nobody paying attention. H&K woman to the rescue!
“All right, how do I do this?”
Otis is happy to instruct, and before you can say “Be more considerate,” the pushy bitch has been despatched and her children dragged to safety.
“Way to go Mom, that’s a thousand points.”
Bleeding Edge takes place in both the virtual and the real world, although the reality and virtuality of each comes into serious question as things progress. Maxine's investigations attract some attention, leading to a questionable conversation with a fellow named Windust. Some of the key questions Maxine has are "who is this guy?" and "who is he working for?" Even paranoids have enemies.
"Not to mention there’s a couple of Israeli chips, highly sophisticated, which Mossad have been known to install at the same time, without necessarily informing the client. What these chips do is scavenge information even while the computer’s turned off, hold it till the Ofeq satellite comes over, then transmit everything out to it in a single data burst.”
“Oh, devious, these Jews.”
“Israel doesn’t spy on us? Remember the Pollard case back in 1985? Even left-wing papers like the New York Times carried that story, Ms. Tarnow.”
How right-wing, Maxine wonders, does a person have to be to think of the New York Times as a left-wing newspaper?
Maxine also wonders how Windust knows what he knows:
“These are all public, the sites I use, nothing illegal, how do you know what I’m researching anyway?”
“Child’s play,” sez Windust, “we like to think of it as ‘No keystroke left behind.’”
In Pynchon's writing words and ideas snap into focus and his city teams with so many people that despite their odd names and odder proclivities that even the most careful reader will at some points be befuddled. Is Pynchon a genius or just nuts? And why are these folks having sex?
And then there is DeepArcher, a virtual reality that is not a game, but very gamelike, a private beta of something like a digital haven or heaven or something else. It's all very bleeding edge.
When 9/11 happens there is no grand revelation or even great turning of the wheels of the world.
Everybody is still walking around stunned, having spent the previous day sitting or standing in front of television screens, at home, in bars, at work, staring like zombies, unable in any case to process what they were seeing. A viewing population brought back to its default state, dumbstruck, undefended, scared shitless.
Like any good New Yorker, Maxine talks things over with her therapist, a laid back Californian whose mental pressure gauge Maxine suspects may be reading low by a few PSI.
Not when ‘everything changed.’ When everything was revealed. No grand Zen illumination, but a rush of blackness and death. Showing us exactly what we’ve become, what we’ve been all the time.”
“And what we’ve always been is . . . ?”
“Is living on borrowed time. Getting away cheap. Never caring about who’s paying for it, who’s starving somewhere else all jammed together so we can have cheap food, a house, a yard in the burbs... planetwide, more every day, the payback keeps gathering. And meantime the only help we get from the media is boo hoo the innocent dead. Boo fuckin hoo. You know what? All the dead are innocent. There’s no uninnocent dead.”
After a while, “You’re not going to explain that, or . . .”
“Course not, it’s a koan.”
Pynchon's description of a post 9/11 New York is both insightful and funny as Maxine's trip to get a Thanksgiving turkey illustrates:
AS THANKSGIVING APPROACHES, the neighborhood, terrorist atrocities or whatever, reverts to its usual insufferable self, reaching a peak the night before Thanksgiving, when the streets and sidewalks are jammed solid with people who have come in to town to view The Blowing Up Of The Balloons for the Macy’s parade. Cops are everywhere, security is heavy. In front of every eatery, there are lines out the door. Places you can usually step inside, order a pizza to go, and wait no more than the time it takes to bake it are running at least an hour behind. Everybody out on the sidewalk is a pedestrian Mercedes, wallowing in entitlement—colliding, snarling, shoving ahead without even the hollow-to-begin-with local euphemism “Excuse me.”
A serial line jumper has been making his way forward along the turkey line, a large white alpha male whose social skills, if any, are still in beta, intimidating people one by one out of his way.
“Excuse me?” Shoving ahead of an elderly lady waiting in line just behind Maxine.
“Line jumper here,” the lady yells, unslinging her shoulder bag and preparing to deploy it.
“You must be from out of town,” Maxine addressing the offender, “here in New York, see, the way you’re acting? It’s considered a felony.”
“I’m in a hurry, bitch, so back off, unless you want to settle this outside?”
“Aw. After all your hard work getting this far? Tell you what, you go out and wait for me, OK? I won’t be too long, promise.”
Shifting to indignation, “I have a houseful of children to feed—” but he’s interrupted by a voice someplace over by the loading dock hollering, “Hey asshole!” and here cannonballing over the heads of the crowd comes a frozen turkey, hits the bothersome yup square in the head, knocking him flat and bouncing off his head into the hands of Maxine, who stands blinking at it like Bette Davis at some baby with whom she must unexpectedly share the frame. She hands the object to the lady behind her.
“This is yours, I guess.”
“What, after it touched him? thanks anyway.”
“I’ll take it,” sez the guy behind her.
As the line creeps forward, everybody makes sure to step on, not over, the fallen line jumper.
“Nice to see the ol’ town gettin back to normal, ain’t it.”
There is much more to this novel than a single review (or even a single reading) can adequately consider, but that is the appeal of Pynchon. He jokes and plays with ideas and one is never sure if he's serious or kidding. If asked, one suspects his answer would be "yes."
For all the technology and intrigue, this novel revolves around family and friendship. Maxine seeks a bit of guidance from her father:
Here in the capital of insomnia, it is hours yet from dawn, and this is what innocent father-daughter conversations can drift into. Beneath these windows they can hear the lawless soundscape of the midnight street, breakage, screaming, vehicle exhaust, New York laughter, too loud, too trivial, brakes applied too late before some gut-wrenching thud. When Maxine was little, she thought of this nightly uproar as trouble too far away to matter, like sirens. Now it’s always too close, part of the deal.
“Yep, and your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives, the shopping, the housework, the homework, the taxes, absorbing our energy, eating up our precious time. And there’s no innocence. Anywhere. Never was. It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet, and don’t think anything has changed, kid.”
“Call it freedom, it’s based on control. Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable. You remember the comics in the Daily News? Dick Tracy’s wrist radio? it’ll be everywhere, the rubes’ll all be begging to wear one, handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.”
“So this is where I get my paranoia from.”
Pynchon's normal world is paranoid, wise-cracking and wise. It moves fast and we're not sure what is real and what is virtual, what is coincidence and what is conspiracy. It's funny and frightening and ultimately comforting in an odd way, like an all night diner in the first light of dawn. Pynchon's brewed up something fine here. There may be more than just coffee in that cup. It might be just what you need.