Like his 1973 magnum opus, “Gravity’s Rainbow,” Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Bleeding Edge” (Penguin Press, 477 pages, $28.95), a finalist for a National Book Award, takes place over approximately nine crucial months of world history and offers a complex alternative to the typical “us and them” narrative that many have adopted as the official story. Focusing on the New York of 2001 and early 2002, “Bleeding Edge” is a new kind of historical novel, delving into the radical shifts in human consciousness brought about by the Internet, video games, quake films, digital espionage, cyber exploration and other “bleeding-edge” technologies that just 12 years later now actually seem generations old. Hilarious references to Netscape and “Final Fantasy” abound, but 9/11 looms large and the stakes here are real.
Maxine Tarnow is a fraud investigator in New York who’s lost her license and is working rogue, and when a colleague asks her to look into some cooked accounting in the books of Gabriel Ice and his giant Microsoft/Halliburton-style megafirm, her researches lead her into the Deep Web and back up again to a world where paranoia is the norm and where reality is often merely an avatar for the cyber systems that lie just a few clicks away. While the premise may be something of a rehash of Pynchon’s second novel, “The Crying of Lot 49,” the real-world consequences are much more pressing, and the swirl of elusive meanings have an urgency that the earlier novel’s symbol-based conspiracies only play at.
Maxine and her family, friends and colleagues are also surprisingly rich and well developed as individual characters who stand for something much more human than some of the cardboard cutouts of Pynchon’s early works. This new earnestness comes at an artistic cost, though, making this novel almost entirely conventional in terms of how it works and what it offers the reader. Pynchon’s world is always complexly plotted, but the threads in this novel all make perfect sense and find relatively harmonious resolution in the end, and while the book offers us an alternate view of who we are in the new millennium, its answers to the problems it explores seem simpler than they should be. Perhaps 9/11 has made Pynchon grow up, for better or worse.
That’s not to say that Pynchon has become dull at all. His prose is uproariously vibrant and compelling and is filled with relentless poetry and play, spouting outlandish neologisms and novel imagery at every turn. While the state of Pynchon’s art may not be pushing the bleeding edge in the ways that “Gravity’s Rainbow” did, his comic vision is nearly as absurd as ever and is never satisfied unless it outdoes itself, and as a result “Bleeding Edge” is a seriously funny book that’s also deadly serious.
David Wiley is a writer and freelance editor living in Minneapolis. Contact him at davidmichelangelowiley@ yahoo.com