Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

I went through an extended phase--mid-teens through mid-twenties or so--where my reading selections were painstakingly, self-consciously chosen from the canon--classic, modern, post-modern. I read voraciously (dozens and dozens of titles which I would have done better to wait and read as a more mature person) and almost exclusively chose titles I thought would, well, make me look smart. Ah, callow youth! I remember an instance when I was living at home and my dad came into my room
to say good-bye before he and my mom went out. I was waiting for a couple of friends to come over, and dad slyly noted the Ferlinghetti--Tyrannus Nix?, which I still own--I had carefully/casually tossed on the table next to my reading chair. I blushed in recognition of my own pretentiousness, but left the volume where it was. I also shopped for books in this manner--how else would I have books of literary merit to strew about if not for the Grove Press, Evergreen, and New Directions paperbacks I bought every time I walked into a used book store? 

Of the hundreds of books I read and mostly forgot during those
years a few did manage to leave their imprint. Of those few, the one that I kept going back to, reading and rereading, the one that I claimed as favorite, the one that inspired me to pursue the author's too-small body of work (and everything I could find about that body of work), was Gravity's Rainbow. I've long since abandoned any literary pretensions--I read what I want, regardless of genre, and other people's opinions be damned--but I still love this book and wait eagerly for each of Pynchon's infrequent new ones. I don't always manage to finish them (you know his oeuvre--I'll leave you to imagine which ones didn't do it for me), but when Pynchon has a hit with me, it's a smash.

All of which leads me to Bleeding Edge. It's set in the very early aughts, from just after the dot-com bubble bust till just after the events of 9/11. Maxine Tarnow--mother of two, more or less divorced, lifetime denizen of Manhattan--is a rogue fraud investigator (she investigates corporate fraud...but, since her license was yanked, in an unofficial sort of way). As the book opens she's drawn into an investigation of, a company--run by a charismatic if shady gazillionaire named Gabriel Ice--that survived the bust fairly spectacularly. Her investigation--conducted while juggling the ferrying of her two boys back and forth to school, hosting (and all that that implies) her ex who's back in town, nursing an unholy attraction to a black ops government guy who is probably an assassin, and playing video games--takes her to the Deep Web (it's a thing--I looked it up!--and it's vast and scary and truly Pynchonian in the immensity of its scope and the darkness of its depths), the interstitial areas of New York landmarks, and beyond.

Maxine's journey is much like that of her predecessor, Oedipa Maas. As she pursues her quest she's drawn into an underworld full of true believers--hackers and gamers and developers--and fanatics, paranoids and conspiracy theorists, scenes of crystalline, hallucinatory beauty, and of abject horror. The more she unravels the mystery the deeper it gets and the more she's drawn into it. 

And then 9/11 happens, and my ability to synopsize collapses in on itself.

Pynchon's eye and ear are keen, his descriptions hilarious and devastating, his prose breathtakingly beautiful. There are the striving yuppies of the 80s, who by Bleeding Edge's time have [d]evolved into "Yups." A visit to Ikea, which makes one shudder in recognition: "Exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to." And his take on post 9/11 New York, which is quietly, painfully scathing. "Child choirs from churches and schools around town are booked weeks in advance for solemn performances at 'Ground Zero,' with 'America the Beautiful' and 'Amazing Grace' being musical boilerplate at these events." 

Bleeding Edge is, like Vineland, like Inherent Vice, deceptive in its accessibility. You're reading along, enjoying the zaniness of the cast of characters and the wackiness of the assorted acronyms and movements and pop cultural phenomena that Pynchon creates, reveling in his language and how easy he makes it all seem, and then it hits you: this is some deep shit. Just because it's trite doesn't make it any less true: the post-internet, post-9/11 world is hell and gone from the world that came before, and Pynchon's the best guide yet to help to put it in perspective. And you get to have so much fun along the way. That's why I love Pynchon so much.

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