Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge (Penguin 2013)
I came to Bleeding Edge prepared to be baffled and intimidated, as I had been by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 more than three decades ago. W S Gilbert pretty much nailed my response to those books: ‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, / Why, what a very singularly deep young man / this deep young man must be!’
Well, neither Thomas Pynchon nor I are young any more, and if there’s any bafflement in Bleeding Edge, it’s less of the intimidating too-deep-for-me variety than the mildly irritating I’ve-never-heard-of-yet-another-US–brand-name/alcoholic-beverage / pop-culture-figure kind, with quite a bit of Who-was-that-character-again? thrown in.
It’s a New York novel whose action begins in spring 2001 and ends soon after Christmas that year. That is to say, it’s set in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble burst and includes the destruction of the World Trade Center in September 2001. The main character, Maxine Tarnow, a wisecracking fraud investigator, Jewish mother of two, is drawn into a network of elaborate intrigues involving denizens of the Deep Web, Silicon Alley mavens, characters who may or may not be part of the Russian Mafia, a super-secret CIA-type agents who may have foreknowledge of the events of 11 September, ruthless neo-liberal working for (or against?) the government funnelling money to the Middle East, to help either terrorists or anti-terrorists, and more. There are murders, gritty-comedic sex scenes, and a lot of New York.
The writing is tough-guy witty. The marshalling of period detail – often in list form – is awesome. The invented period details (such as a running list of improbable movies, including a version of Don Giovanni featuring the Marx Brothers) offer bursts of delight. It doesn’t matter that it’s all a little familiar, that I felt I could stop reading at any point without more than a twinge of regret. Think of a Stephanie Plum adventure in a Neal Stephenson universe, with product placement by post–Pattern Recognition William Gibson, an occasional touch of magic realism to save inventing plausible plot devices, and one or two science-fictional gestures that don’t lead to anything much. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that any of the plot amounts to anything much. One person dies, or does he? A plot is revealed, but exactly what was it? There’s clear filmed evidence of another plot, but again (spoiler alert) we never find out what the evidence means. Revenge is taken on the main villain, but does he even notice?
Maybe I should add Seinfeld to the list of people who make this book feel familiar: for all its vast piling up of incident, its huge cast of characters, and its frequent insights into the times we live in, it wouldn’t be completely inaccurate to describe it as a novel where nothing happens. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.