A common thread connecting the works of Thomas Pynchon might be this: life, no matter when or where it is lived, is a romp, a party, an adventure, and the peculiar nature of human agency is such that there are surreal, conspiratorial depths to any enterprise or endeavor one cares to probe too insistently. Pynchon's tendency has been to peel back the onion of a specific era or eon bygone enough that a psychotropic inquiry feels fresh: Vineland skewering Ronald Reagan's 1984; Gravity's Rainbow making a bewildering gloss on the traditional World War II novel; pulpy, bleary-eyed Inherent Vice straddling the divide between the hippie 1960s and the wary, fearmongering 1970s. And since by now a cavalcade of borderline freaks, kinky sex, idiosyncratic phrasing, and wholesale ridiculousness are downright inevitable in a Pynchon tableau, the peripheral particulars of Bleeding Edge (Penguin) will arrive as a shock to no one.
A flurry of deals, double-crosses, collusions, landmarks, illicit drugs, and quirk-hemorhaging characters? Check. There is a delivery guy who mysteriously turns up with unexpected clues. There is a forensics expert whose most important tool is his nose. There is a government spook who might be the result of an incomprehensible time-travel experiment. There is a dot-com zillionaire who's gobbling up tech startups in order to launder cash and who has ties to shadowy terrorist organizations. These figures revolve around a heat-packing fraud investigator and self-described "Yenta with Attitude" named Maxine Tarnow. A divorced mother of two, she isn't above posing as a stripper in pursuit of a promising lead. A documentarian friend approaches Tarnow with concerns about the connections of a computer company he's freelancing for; she starts digging into its finances, and a barbed web of conflicts and coincidences emerge. In the meantime, there are California transplants who have created an online, open-source simulcrum of reality called DeepArcher, and Russian mobsters have taken a questionable interest in our heroine. There are invented people in this book with names like Nicholas Windust and Vyrva McElmo, and, arguably, more overt period references per page-inch than Bret Easton Ellis' Glamorama. Rudy Giuliani's gentrified vision of NYC is gratuitously ridiculed. Downsized programmers sip on-tap Zima without irony. Various characters contemplate the Twin Towers and let loose with eerily prophetic utterances. Somebody purchases and dons a Jennifer Aniston wig for the express purpose of resembling Jennifer Aniston.
Yes, indeed: Bleeding Edge isn't just a post-9/11 NYC novel, it's maybe the consummate post-9/11 NYC novel, less a satisfying narrative than a relentless flood of data points on the hunt for a signal that may or may not be there to be found. Pynchon batters us so unsparingly with references that fit the book's declared timeframe of spring 2001 to spring 2002 that a sort of mass-media nausea sets in early, never to let up, with the fabric of period pop culture becoming more meaningful in its way than the various plot strands and whatever becomes of them-or doesn't. Someone anticipates YouTube, someone else anticipates Bernie Madoff's a fraud, someone predicts our present-day aerial-drone vogue.
Tarnow's investigations lead her into an abandoned military base, underneath an indoor swimming pool, to the very edges of the deep web-the "bleeding edge" of the title-where the line between reality and madness seems to blur. People die real deaths that never feel wholly consequential, and male and female secondary characters are so thinly drawn that they're just short of cartoons; even when an unknown assailant opens fire on Tarnow and Windust on a city street in broad daylight, the episode is pure anticlimax. An unyielding, alpha-female protagonist, Tarnow-who inevitably will inspire generations of Jewish and non-Jewish po-mo-addicted women to buck the patriarchy-deserves a cast of equals she doesn't get.
Bleeding Edge sometimes seems to be daring the reader to abandon it, flipping the audience the bird while peeling off $50 adverbs and erudite pontification about particular stretches of Manhattan and capsule histories that lead nowhere, leaving us boggling over the amount of painstaking research its septuagenarian author must have had to perform. Yet a profundity lurks in its perceived and perhaps pronounced failure to engage, because Bleeding Edge essentially imitates the distracted, aimless nature of web-browsing, where one hyperlink leads to another hyperlink to another hyperlink, with the end result not being enlightenment but rather exhaustion and the disappearance of hours of life you can never recover.
Gabriel Ice, the youngish tech mogul who is ostensibly this novel's antagonist, is dangled as a heavy in thrall to darker, shadowier forces, but there are hints that above and outside of the frame of this book, a game larger than 9/11 or related profit-minded conspiracy bingo is being played, that everyone is a pawn. Early in the novel, Tarnow is provided with a physical dossier on Windust, whose own history is so mottled and varied that we wind up wanting more of him; after she copies it onto her hard drive, "she's been sneaking moments away to look at it, not, lately, without twinges of colorectal fear, because each time she consults it now, there's been new material added." At one point, she examines three boys who are always loitering along the route that she walks to take her children to school and sees "three middle-aged men, gray-haired, less youthfully turned out, and yet she knew, shivering a little, that these were the same kids, the same faces." A superior cuts in on an exchange with a CIA functionary and pointedly refers to Tarnow's personal safety. Airline-stock levels go wonky in the immediate days leading up to 9/11. DeepArcher is constantly evolving and morphing under the command of new pioneers, commercial entities, and phantasms, and as the book winds down, Tarnow spends more and more time there. What is supposed to be a source of answers becomes almost a dalliance-the point of the book seems to become Tarnow's gradual reconnection with her Wall Street trader husband and the city's return to frazzled normalcy after 9/11. The mystery recedes, weirdly, to the fringes, with the advance of seasons and traditions and, yes, information elbowing the specter of manipulation out of the frame.
To be sure, there are less subtextural pleasures to be found here. During an interlude where Tarnow consults a Dr. Evil-like financial-world Brahmin, Pynchon shakes up his tradition of topical rock- and folk-lyrics injections with an inscrutable stretch of clunkily endearing hip-hop. And in amusing play on the eventual rise of misogynist, blood-spattering first-person shooter video games that are all but ubiquitous today, Maxine, her children, and her children's friends become enraptured by a video game that allows the player to substitute acts of erasure for acts of violence:
Adult male in a suit, carrying a briefcase, standing in the middle of the sidewalk, screaming at his kid, who looks to be about four or five. The volume level grows abusive, "and if you don't-' the grown-up raising his hand ominously, 'there'll be a consequence."
Out comes the full auto option again, and presently the screamer is no more, the kid is looking around bewildered, tears still on his little face. The point total in the corner of the screen increments by 500.
"So now he's all alone in the street, big favor you did him."
"All we have to do-" Fiona clicking on the kid and dragging him to a window labeled Safe Pickup Zone. 'Trustworthy family members,' she explains, 'come and pick them up and buy them pizza and bring them home, and their lives from then on are worry-free."
It's an unsettling setpiece in an uneasy novel that may have arrived too soon to hold a mirror to just how far gone our overstimulated civilization is. If nothing else, Bleeding Edge will leave you wondering.