By definition critics turn criticism into a career, but they often raise disappointment to the level of art. We read some reviews and think, Oh, that one’s sharp, has good taste and a certain alacrity with the written word. Then a book comes along, and those same critics we found so illuminating completely miss the boat. They should have been sounding the clarion call for the novel of its time, for a novel that peels away the scabrous obfuscations and shallow preoccupations that litter the cultural dialogue, that cuts deep into the quick and teaches the lessons we’re most in need of. It’s frustrating enough when the new book comes from the pen of a relative unknown. When it’s coming from the inimitable Thomas Pynchon it’s unforgivable.
Pynchon has made an illustrious career of reanimating the past with madcap vibrancy and breathtaking wisdom, of translating it and revealing the secret roots of the present at its most confounding. In BLEEDING EDGE he hews closer to the present than he has at any point since V. Published in 1963 V was set partially at the height of Eisenhower conformity in 1956, just as The Sixties as we know it was coming of age. BLEEDING EDGE is set in the several months bookending September 11, and the seminal event of our time is the seminal event of its story.
Thomas Pynchon was the rock star gunslinger for years, the voice of his generation, but he’s in his seventies now. He’s an elder statesman looking back at opportunities squandered, but don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s aged into a bitchy old man hiding in the walled-off world of his own devising, selfishly lamenting how the young have wasted all the ground he and his gained. No. Pynchon gets it. He hasn’t curled up in a cave of glowing reputation. He has engaged the world, and its creature comforts and most poisonous vices are as obvious to him as they are to you and me. That’s where the genius of BLEEDING EDGE resides, in our distractions and ambitions and in particular our most debilitating weakness: fear.
Maxine Tarnow is a single mother and freelance fraud investigator who starts looking into the suspicious finances of a computer security firm and its ubergeek CEO, Gabriel Ice. As with every Pynchon novel the premise doesn’t matter nearly as much as the cavalcade of oddball characters and near-absurd episodes that course through the pages. And what could be more insane that September 11, an event that Pynchon posits has left our whole country in nothing less than a post-traumatic regression into infantilized self-absorption?
The pop culture nerds, the computer geeks, the hackers have all taken refuge in online simulacra, the architecture throbbing with a digital marrow coded for the instant gratification of their escapist dreams. Gabriel Ice, the villain, is the geek gone over to the Dark Side, trembling with the anticipation of flexing his unparalleled intelligence. Take away his fortune and he’s AwesomeSauce42 on the Ainitcool message boards. And the book’s older characters suffer the same plague of self-satisfied sturm-und-drang. Maxine’s lifelong friend, now in her forties, thinks she can still play the Upper West Side J.A.P., simultaneously fending off and entertaining the advances of the Wall Street up-and-comers. Maxine’s surrogate mother, formerly an anti-establishment flower child who railed against Vietnam and Kent State and screamed for Nixon’s head on a pike, has aged into a paranoid conspiracy-theorizing muckraker with a blog.
Only Maxine is aware of the turn her nation has taken. She understands the lure of anonymity. She feels the sensuous warmth of its liberating ephemera. She loves her children, loves being a mom, but the youthful vitality of chasing the bad guys is a narcotic. She could see herself back with her ex-husband. He has his flaws, but he’s a good father and a good man. But, oh, that corrupt CIA spook excites her like the boys she danced and shared bumps with at the clubs back when the future wasn’t worth considering. She’d love to dole out advice to her friends, set them on the right path, but how can she do that and avoid becoming that yenta of a mother she’s spent her whole life not being? Maxine is as scared as anyone, of the truth, of uncertainty, of death.
And that’s why she’s the hero of BLEEDING EDGE. When the unthinkable occurs, when the unimaginable goes down, when terror becomes an unavoidable reality, our culture is given a stark choice, and Maxine alone makes the right one. She doesn’t retreat into an imaginary garden of digital delights. She embraces a brick-and-mortar world, well aware that it sits always on the precipice of self-immolation.
I could go on and on about Pynchon’s dynamite prose, his character development, his sense of humor and dramaturgy, but all of that is something you as the reader either get or you don’t. But if you are plugged in at all, you would be deaf, dumb, and blind to deny the sage and quiet heroism at the heart of BLEEDING EDGE’s message. You have to face the world no matter the terror. Your only other option is to inhabit a fraudulent existence, a world that is not real. And if your world is not real, what makes you think you’re real?