Making a drama out of a crisis: Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge”

With eight novels over fifty years (plus other non-fiction and serious critical articles) Thomas Pynchon (one of Harold Bloom’s four-strong Pantheon of American majors; the others being Don DeLillo, Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy) has not crowded our bookshelves but each of his books has involved a rich text and a complex plot structure. With a background in engineering and technical writing, Pynchon is something of a polymath but he is also blessed with a rich and complex imagination, and, thank goodness, Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchona wicked sense of humour.  All of this comes together in his latest novel, Bleeding Edge (New York: Penguin Press, 2013).  As with his earlier Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon generates dramatic tension by having his protagonist operating entirely within the actual time frame of her story so that seemingly innocent observations made at the time have a much greater impact for today’s readers who know what actually went on to happen.  This time, Pynchon sets his story in New York City and covers around one year before and after the destruction of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001, not in itself a lot of laughs but as with all good humour the wit develops out of the situation and the temperament of the characters. Pynchon has the ability to get inside the characters and live out their stories, although he is open to the criticism that they can be two-dimensional and too similar.  With a cast of ‘thousands’ it can make following a multi-strand plot quite difficult.

The central character in Bleeding Edge is Maxine Tarnow, Jewish mother of two bright young boys and a pistol-packing, certified fraud investigator who has lost her official licence thanks to taking too many unapproved short cuts with too many investigations.  Rather than cramping her style, this has led to her being offered more work by clients who appreciate getting results and don’t have any beef about her methods.  However, this takes her into enquiries that involve more personal and even family risk.  And, more important for the reader, it allows Pynchon to explore conspiracy theories surrounding the 9/11 event, which he keeps referring to as 11 September, and the conspiratorial theorists who then as now blog about it relentlessly.

Being a 21st century novel about events at the start of this millennium, the story involves computing, the internet and a so-called Deep Web that is only accessible to geeks, code-writers and hackers who escape through the meshes of the world-wide web into regions where rules and conventions, never mind regulations, seem not apply.  Indeed, where, as a recent issue of Time magazine says, “[S]ome prosecutors and government agencies think [it is] just the thin edge of the wedge and that the Deep Web is a potential nightmare, an electronic haven for thieves, child pornographers, human traffickers, forgers, assassins and peddlers of state secrets and loose nukes.”  This is the bleeding-edge technology from which the book’s title derives and which one character labels as having “no proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with.”

Pynchon manages to combine both passages of lyrical literary language that evoke the spirit of that far-off time, half a generation ago already, and dialogue to captures the idiom of those pre- and early post-9/11 days as this passage from the opening page reveals.

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.  Yes maybe they’re past the age where they need an escort, maybe Maxine doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple of blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?

This morning, all up and down the streets, what looks like every Callery Pear tree on the Upper West side has popped overnight into clusters of white pear blossoms. As Maxine watches, sunlight finds its way past rooflines and water tanks to the end of the block and into one particular tree, which all at once is filled with light.

“Mom?” Ziggy in the usual hurry.  “Yo.”

“Guys, check it out, that tree?”

Otis takes a minute to look.  “Awesome, Mom.”

“Doesn’t suck,” Zig agrees.

Read on and enjoy. This is a book for serious readers with a sense of humour and repays the time invested in it.  I give it 8 out of 10.

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