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By Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press HC. 496 pages. $28.95
Thursday, September 19, 2013
Be prepared for another round of Thomas Pynchon frenzy.
His new novel, “Bleeding Edge,” more than confirms his standing as the most important postmodern American novelist. The film version of his last novel, “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and staring Joaquin Phoenix, is in post-production and due for release in 2014. An important biographical essay, “On the Pynchon Trail” by Boris Kachka and just published in New York Magazine, clarifies aspects of the Pynchon mystery. He has often, perhaps incorrectly, been referred to as most reclusive author since J.D. Salinger. The name, as Kachka observes, should be pronounced “Pynch-ON.”
“V” (1963) received the William Faulkner Foundation award for best debut novel. “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973), by many critics considered his most important novel, won the National Book Award. In 1988 Pynchon was awarded the MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship.
Now at age 76, married to his literary agent Melanie Jackson since 1990, and living in New York City, Pynchon sets “Bleeding Edge” with anthropological precision in the pop-cultural cluttered city’s post dot-com boom. He depicts the city as a pseudo gold rush ghost town.
When the novel opens, the protagonist, Maxine Loeffler-Tarnow, drops her kids, Ziggy and Otis, at school on a beautiful first day of spring 2001. Her husband does not seem to be around. The timeframe and location evoke the calm before the storm, for the narrative carries us through the 9/11 terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center and the new “abnormal” to follow.
Maxine runs a small fraud-investigating agency called, in typical Pynchon fashion, “Tail’Em and Nail’Em.” What better job for someone living in the temple of finance? The attack on the twin towers proves to be an attack on the religion of commerce. Maxine’s character is based on an amalgam of stereotypes, part Jewish mother overly protective of her kids, a sort of investigative accountant and a wise-cracking and Berretta-carrying private detective in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s rogue Philip Marlowe.
Maxine immediately becomes entangled in an investigation of one of the high-tech firms that seems to have weathered the crash. Reg Despard, a filmmaker, has been hired by Gabriel Ice, the CEO of a computer-security firm, “Hashslingrz,” to shoot a documentary about the company. Reg has become concerned, however, that there may be something more sinister at work.
As a result of this initial meeting, Maxine explores plots and counterplots, national and international intrigue involving hints about the attack on the World Trade Center, unauthorized surveillance, special government projects and more. The Edward Snowden case seems almost predicted by Pynchon’s world. Reg asks, “Too paranoid for you?” Maxine responds that “paranoia is the garlic in life’s kitchen.”
Dropping clues all along
Throughout the novel, we experience Pynchon’s perfectly controlled prose with its mix of outrageous puns, catalogs of people and places in an almost epic manner, and allusions to high and low culture both real and invented. Thus the long-established Pynchon themes quickly accumulate: paranoia, dismay over the greed and fraud that characterize late American capitalism, technology and its misuse, human manipulation, to name a few.
The novel’s title hints at other themes. Although “bleeding edge” refers to technology so new and unstable that it presents great risk to investors and users, in the novel it also refers to the border between worlds, between what’s real and virtual or invented. Pynchon even refers to Bill Clinton’s famous statement: It depends on what the definition of “is” is. Exactly, and we notice that Pynchon often uses the sentence construction, “is, is”: “And what they’re able to see is, is the real person.”
Pynchon’s use of allusions, which lead readers from one idea to the next, has become one of his literary staples. He gives us clues and leads us to possible interpretations, perhaps all of which are mere constructions. The historical setting helps as well by toying with the reader’s knowledge of real events. The private detective has become his primary literary persona.
Perhaps the most amusing and revealing allusion here stems from the name he has chosen for his main character. A little research reveals that “Maxine” also is the name of a project initiated by the computer software giant Oracle, known as the Maxine Virtual Machine. Even further, the software debugger for the project is known as The Maxine Inspector. Yes, we see, Maxine serves as the debugger and the novel is the virtual machine.
Pynchon’s conclusion to “Bleeding Edge” seems uncharacteristically sentimental. He may have, as has been suggested, channeled his inner Jewish mother for this novel.
By the end, even after real and imagined horrors, Maxine’s estranged husband has returned and she now focuses in a renewed way on the safety of her children as she had when the novel began.
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