Thomas Pynchon meets 9/11 in ‘Bleeding Edge’

(Jacob Thomas / For The Times)
<i>This post has a correction. See note at bottom of article for details.</i>

It has been 50 years since Thomas Pynchon’s first book, “V.,” was published. That he is still turning out works of dizzying complexity is, frankly, astounding. Few authors remain as ambitious and accomplished for so long.

Enter “Bleeding Edge,” a detective novel set in 2001 in Manhattan after the first dot-com boom-and-bust. Protagonist Maxine Tarnow is a defrocked fraud investigator, a rule-breaking accountant who is drawn into Internet business dealings and worse by a former lover-slash-documentarian, aided by mysterious deliveries from a bike messenger who still rides under the orange jersey of, the online store than went belly-up.

Thomas Pynchon: The review of Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Bleeding Edge,” on Page E25 of this edition erred in stating that, according to cognoscenti, the author walked his daughter to school. He walked his son to school. The error was detected after that section was printed.

That Maxine is the mother of two school-aged boys makes her no less eligible for dalliances with the men she meets — from a twentysomething hacker to a dangerous, near-retirement CIA-type. Almost divorced, she occasionally stays out all night, rides in limos with Russian mobsters and attends parties thrown by Gabriel Ice, the nasty head of a successful Silicon Alley computer security firm.


Each new Pynchon novel presents a different way to parse his bibliography, and “Bleeding Edge” makes a solid case for a divide between books set roughly in present moment and not, Now versus Then. Now includes “Bleeding Edge,” “Vineland,” “The Crying of Lot 49” and the frame of “V.” The Then books are “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1944-45 seen from the vantage of 1973), “Inherent Vice” (1970 seen from 2009), “Against the Day” (circa 1900 via 2006) and “Mason & Dixon” (the 1760s by way of 1997).

The Then books have a deliberateness to them, a deep dive into a specific set of ideas dappled with carefully chosen historic details. The Now books have the quality of an exploration, of digestion in progress. “Bleeding Edge,” in particular, seems to be a data dump that’s being processed on the page.

All of Pynchon’s works are crammed with cultural references; here they seem less mysterious and significant than in previous novels. In “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon seems like a kid playing in a ball pit, having an awful lot of fun tossing around whatever is brightly colored and within reach. He keeps a vast amount of ephemera — and ideas, characters, vectors and subtexts — at play simultaneously, like a Vegas gambler running multiple tables at once.

Because this is my first time reading a Pynchon novel in which I know the cultural details firsthand, they carry less narrative weight. “Razorfish alumni, still the smartest people in the room” makes sense to me, as it would to anyone who knew the early Internet company; and the T-shirt that declares “I Believe You Have My Stapler” requires no concordance — it’s a reference to the 1999 film “Office Space.” It all seems lighthearted to me, but future graduate students may deliberate over the importance of which kid collects Beanie Babies and which collects Pokémon.

It’s fitting that Pynchon is tackling the near-present, because the real world has all but overtaken his elaborate, far-out fictions. Paranoia, conspiracy, electronic connection, government surveillance — there’s nothing like reading a Pynchon novel while new revelations about the NSA are popping up on your cellphone.

The Internet started with the Cold Warriors, Maxine’s father tells her late one night. It “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. ... 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.”

A key focus of Maxine’s investigations is DeepArcher (pronounced “departure”), a hidden Internet world like Second Life with better production values. Following one embezzlement to another, she encounters hackers and computer-savvy Russian mobsters, Internet financiers, a leftist activist, a foot fetishist, visionary coders and women who aren’t what they seem. But through it all, whether she’s carrying a gun or bickering with her best friend, everything is rolling toward 9/11.

This is a challenge: Although Pynchon is unparalleled at creating complexity, this book, by putting 9/11 in its sights, has something universally known and obvious shining at its heart.

It seems almost destiny that Pynchon would tackle 9/11, a moment when our nation’s most impossible paranoid fantasies came true. But our narrative of that event hinges so heavily on tragedy and recovery that it’s also unsuited to Pynchon — he’s not inclined toward sentiment. So he grapples, doing his awkward best to acknowledge the heroics of firefighters. His treatment of the event is, thankfully, swift; he’s much better at the alternative theories, a questionable video of stinger missiles on a rooftop, engaging with pattern-watchers and crackpots.

Maxine’s life resumes post-9/11 as she investigates who is trying to profit from what diverted Internet funds and why; and how one of the men she met along the way ended up dead in a hidden recess of the book’s Deseret apartment building.

The Deseret, which makes several appearances in the novel, bears marked resemblance to the famous Apthorp building — which, according to a recent New York magazine piece, is across the street from the apartment where Pynchon lives.

Back in the heyday of New Criticism, a novel was supposed to be treated as its own universe, one with no external connections. Historical context was unnecessary. Biographical information about the author was irrelevant. By withdrawing from the public conversation about their work, Pynchon and J.D. Salinger enabled this kind of reading. Pynchon’s fictions are so dense they keep scholars scrambling without needing to look to his personal history for material.

But with “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon is drawing new attention to himself. Long a Manhattan resident who, according to the cognoscenti, walked his daughter to school and otherwise lived a quiet but not hermetic life there, Pynchon has set this novel in his own territory. It is full of lived-in details of pizza parlors and bars and delis and where to get a turkey for Thanksgiving that could serve almost as a road map to the author himself.

In this way, the book is an unexpected coming together: He has brought his fictions into the (almost) present day, into what appears to be very close to his own stamping grounds. It’s as if with “Bleeding Edge” Pynchon is ready to acknowledge that he lives in this world with the rest of us.

And while he’s here, he’s going to take silly joy in simple pop culture. The Internet may have a death wish at its heart, murderers lurk, the powerful are unseen and motives are selfish at best, but language is still a game, good for a last laugh. As he puns about the ending of an imaginary South American episode of “Scooby-Doo”: “And I would have gotten away with it too … if it hadn’t been for those Medellin kids!”

[For the record, 11:15 a.m. Sept. 12, 2013: The review of Thomas Pynchon’s “Bleeding Edge,” on Page E25 of Sunday Calendar, erred in stating that, according to cognoscenti, the author walked his daughter to school. He walked his son to school. The error was detected after that section was printed.]

“Bleeding Edge”

A novel

Thomas Pynchon

Penguin Press: 496 pp., $28.95