It has been exactly 50 years since Thomas Pynchon’s first novel, V., introduced him to the world as a co-conspirator with the darkest collusional fantasies in contemporary American culture. Specked with the dots that obsessive, shady figures insist on connecting, Pynchon’s fiction is generated from the premise that, as a character in his latest work, Bleeding Edge, puts it, “paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much.”
So it is only natural that Pynchon would take on the event that has generated more paranoid theories than anything since the assassination of John F. Kennedy — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But before the twin towers collapse, intrepid readers must make their way through 300 pages of dense and occasionally dazzling prose.
Bleeding Edge revels in puns. “Pokémon, what do I know?” quips one wit, “some West Indian proctologist, right?” Rather than smart, some of the preening wordplay seems just smart-ass. Many of the figures of speech that Pynchon employs are inspired (police hovering at the edges of no-parking zones are compared to “cheetahs at the fringes of antelope herds,” and a prenuptial agreement has “more riders on it than the subway.”).
But others are not. When we are told that two characters are brought “to a standoff, ethnicity of your choice,” Pynchon is advertising his superiority to a Mexican stereotype, while also exploiting it. Preposterous names are another Pynchon trademark, and the new novel burdens characters with such ludicrous labels as Conkling Speedwell, Eric Outfield, Rocky Slagiatt, Nicholas Windust and Vyrva McElmo.
Maxine Tarnow, the protagonist, is what the novel calls a certified fraud examiner. Though her license has been revoked due to malpractice, she continues to operate Tail ’Em and Nail ’Em, a private agency in Manhattan that investigates scammers and embezzlers. She carries a Beretta even while delivering her two young sons to the Otto Kugelblitz School, which is described as “a loony bin with homework, basically.”
Estranged from Horst Loeffler, a commodities investor who works in the World Trade Center, Maxine is a Jewish mother with Raymond Chandler mannerisms, “a paid-up member of the Yentas With Attitude local,” as Pynchon clownishly puts it. He signals her Jewishness by scattering Yiddishisms (“kvetch,” “kvell,” “zhlub,” “schmatte”). And he nods to Chandler with tough-guy dialogue, often employing the quaint word “sez.”
The story begins in spring 2001, after the dot-com bust and before the terrorist attacks. When the corpse of Lester Traipse, who has been skimming funds from the empire of tech mogul Gabriel Ice, is found in a baroque old residence near where Maxine lives, she starts to snoop. Most of the action takes place in that neighborhood, referred to repeatedly and tiresomely as “the Yupper West Side,” but Maxine’s curiosity also leads her to the alien Upper East Side, the Flatiron District, Soho and as far afield as Brooklyn, the Bronx, a Jersey landfill and even distant Montauk.
She ventures as well into the deepest reaches of encrypted virtual space. Maxine uncovers plots within plots within plots that may or may not implicate the CIA, DEA, Mossad, al-Qaida, Spetsnaz, a Guatemalan drug cartel and a greedy American corporate CEO.
We are told that, after 9/11, blogging “erupted into a Mardi Gras for paranoids and trolls, a pandemonium of commentary there may not be time in the projected age of the universe to read all the way through.” That might be a fair description of this exasperating novel itself.
In an essay published in 2000, James Wood used the term “hysterical realism” to describe Pynchon’s hyperbolic prose. However, realism is an attempt to represent, in recognizable fashion, the characters and events we accept as “real.” Bleeding Edge is stocked with panicky cartoon figures trying to claw their way through labyrinths. Its primary impulse is not realistic but verbal.