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Pynchon’s latest: darkness on the ‘Bleeding Edge’ of town
In Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Bleeding Edge,” the reclusive author returns to the Upper West Side of 2001, as a fraud investigator looking into the bookkeeping of a sketchy software firm finds something much darker, dangerous and all-encompassing.
Seattle Times assistant features editor
by Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press, 475 pp.,$28.95
After 40 years of roaming to such places as Southern California of the 1960s, World War II London and pre-Revolutionary Pennsylvania, Thomas Pynchon has returned to the setting of his first novel, “V.” New York City’s Upper West Side just after the go-go years of the dot-com boom is where we find the heroine of “Bleeding Edge,” the latest from the elusive author. Maxine Tarnow — part Nora Ephron, part Philip Marlowe — is a fraud investigator who operates just on the far side of the proprieties of her profession.
Enlisted by a friend to look into the bookkeeping of a sketchy software firm, Maxine embarks on a detective’s errand full of glancing romantic entanglements, technocratic weirdness and encounters with various crypto-danger merchants. The chief of these baddies is Gabriel Ice, a computer geek turned cosmopolitan playboy.
Even as she takes the case, “she can hear from inside her purse the as-yet- undeposited check laughing at her, as if she has been the butt of a great practical joke.” And eventually, “She must believe that behind the dazzling saga of boy-billionaire excess we all find so entertaining, there lies a darker narrative.”
“Bleeding Edge” is vintage Pynchon, a louche yarn of rollicking doomism. Pynchon is the master of technology-as-metaphor. In previous books — particularly “V.” and “Gravity’s Rainbow” — there is a persistent, shadowy suggestion of an unseen system, mechanisms that underlie the perceived reality of events. And these mechanisms are often manifest in the vagaries of things like rocket science and radio broadcasting tools.
In those old books, however, the obscure schema was cast as an almost magical or mystical force, but as “Bleeding Edge” appears, we have the real thing. Matryoshka dolls of motivation and meaning, vast interconnectivity, hidden influencers, false identity and real threats — the Internet is an actual version of Pynchon’s fiction. Metaphor-as-technology.
Central to the narrative is Deep Web, a nebulous sub-realm of the Internet, populated by hackers and purists.
“It’s still unmessed-with country,” explains one user. “You like to think it goes on forever, but the colonizers are coming. The suits and tenderfeet. You can hear the blue-eyed soul music over the ridgeline. There’s already a half dozen well-funded projects for designing software to crawl the Deep Web ... once they get down here, everything’ll be suburbanized faster than you can say ‘late capitalism.’ ”
Humming alongside the moneyed dot-com machinations of turn-of-the-millennium New York are the dark vibrations of the developing geopolitical situation. Soon enough, Maxine starts running into aspects of Middle Eastern involvement and, in a very timely touch, vestiges of a government intelligence ethos of “no keystroke left behind.”
One character, who can smell the future, is picking up something foul, a scent “she says no one alive has smelled it before, this toxic accord she’s been picking up, bitter, indolic, caustic, ‘like breathing in needles,’ is how she puts it. Proprietary molecules, synthetics, alloys, all subjected to catastrophic oxidation.” In the Manhattan of 2001, it’s not hard to discern whence the malodorous premonition comes.
Amid Maxine’s misadventures, what Pynchon conjures is the evolution of the military-industrial complex. The great hope of the dot-com era was openness, democracy, innovation. But what has largely emerged is the military-industrial-capital-surveillance complex — a nearly hermetic system of power and wealth — with only a gimlet-eyed New Yorker to map its terrain.