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Book Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

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(Photo: courtesy, the publisher)

(Photo: courtesy, the publisher)

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By Eric Thomas
@ETFlint

Thomas Pynchon’s novels are a notoriously steep climb. His widely accepted magnum opus is 1973’s Gravity’s Rainbow, a 900 page door-stopper that’s as hard to penetrate as it is to carry. Proponents hail Rainbow as a post-modern masterpiece (whatever that means) despite the fact that the narrative collapses several different times over its considerable length. For me, I prefer Pynchon’s latest books. His writing is more focused—or as much as it can be and still resemble Pynchon—the jokes are funnier, and the angry man found in Rainbow has been replaced by a hilarious polymath whose limitless abilities are utilized to tell a story rather than to test the edges of written English.

Bleeding Edge, released last year and available in paperback on August 26, is an example of Pynchon the elder. All Pynchon novels are essentially historical fiction, with Rainbow focused on World War II, Mason & Dixon around the beginning of America, and Inherent Vice focused on the sixties. While Bleeding Edge doesn’t display the jaw-dropping commitment of Mason & Dixon, it certainly shines in its own right, as Pynchon proves he can cover recent history with equal aplomb.

The story focuses on the days immediately following the late nineties dot com boom and leading up to September 11th. Money is scarce among the tech industry; bars and businesses who set up to cater to the dot com employees are scrambling for new answers; former dot com employees and CEOs search for drugs to treat their bruised egos; the tech companies who survived may have turned to illegal means in an effort to stay afloat. The story centers on Maxine Tarnow, who runs a fraud investigation business on the Upper West side called “Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em.” Her life is adrift between marriage and divorce so she buries herself in her work and her two sons, Otis and Ziggy. Maxine’s friend Reg Despard, a documentary filmmaker who made his money bootlegging movies with a hand held camcorder until an NYU film professor thought his shaky camera movements revealed hidden artistic talent, mentions to her that his latest client is acting suspiciously and Maxine begins digging deeper.

I found myself laughing harder at this book than any of his others. It might be because I get more of the references, or maybe because the author finds more room for ridicule in New York City. Foot fetishes, video games, online communities and detectives with exceptional olfactory talents (“professional noses”) are all used as fertile ground for comedy here. The author, now 77, is at the height of his ability and he’s having a blast.

Don’t worry about the narrative. Pynchon entertains, as he always does, on whatever page you’re looking at. His novels always collapse under his increasingly complex paranoid imagination. “[P]aranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much,” says a character early in the novel, in a quote that seems from the author himself. Readers often reach the end of Pynchon’s novels unsatisfied, closing the book and blinking for a while before wondering aloud, “What?!” Lit-nerds often start online forums seconds after finishing the book and try to discern what it all meant, piecing together the characters’ every word and stray mentions in the narrative. If you want to obsess over every word, feel free. If that’s the kind of thing that makes you retch, you don’t have to.

Bleeding Edge is shockingly deep. If you were alive and aware in 2001, you shouldn’t miss this novel. The throw-away references often had me wide eyed in disbelief. You’re not expecting to see a pixel perfect reference to the popular arcade game Time Crisis 2 in the middle of a 600 page literary novel. You can almost hear the Jamiroquai songs in the falling down bars; he manages to name check Russian rock group DDT and Semisonic in the same novel and it works.

Pynchon’s tomes intimidate many, but you don’t have to be literary major to appreciate them (I’m not). Bleeding Edge is funny, scary in parts and affecting in others. Maxine uncovers a vast conspiracy between government and private business that shadows our current Snowden landscape, all while wrestling with familiar questions faced by people who’ve reluctantly tested the options of divorce.

Some of the hype leading up to Bleeding Edge’s release positioned the novel as “Pynchon’s take on September 11th.” If you pick up the book expecting to see the 9/11 attacks described in lurid Pynchon-ian prose, you’re going to be disappointed. The terrorist attacks are barely described, the author aiming his focus in a different way. It’s pitch perfect when you get there, proof of Pynchon’s towering talent late in his career as a novelist.

Every page of Bleeding Edge is enjoyable, not a single paragraph is boring. While reading it, I was filled with appreciation. We’re lucky to have Pynchon, who some think is one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. It’s hard to argue against them.

Let the lit majors sort out who is the master of postmodernism. The rest of us can find a comfy chair and watch a master at his craft.

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