by Thomas Pynchon
477 pp. The Penguin Press. $28.95
Are you ready for Thomas (Screaming Comes Across the Sky) Pynchon on the subject of Sept. 11, 2001? On the one hand, his poetry of paranoia and his grasp of history’s surrealist passages make a perfect fit. Yet his slippery insouciance, his relentless japery, risk being tonally at odds with the subject. Either way, and despite his sensibility’s entrenchment in ’60s Californian hippiedom, Pynchon is a New Yorker, with an intimate license to depict the sulfurous gray plumes and tragic tableaus of that irreconcilable moment: “On the way home she passes the neighborhood firehouse. They’re in working on one of the trucks. She threads among the daily bunches of flowers on the sidewalk, which will be cleared in a while. The list of firefighters here who were lost on 11 September is kept back someplace more intimate, out of the public face, anybody wants to see it they can ask, but sometimes it shows more respect not to put such things out on a billboard. What makes these guys choose to go in, work 24-hour shifts and then keep working, keep throwing themselves into those shaky ruins, torching through steel, bringing people to safety, recovering parts of others, ending up sick, beat up by nightmares, disrespected, dead?”
Thomas Pynchon, meet Pete Hamill? Not so fast. For it is the audacity or recklessness of “Bleeding Edge,” Pynchon’s new novel, also to sound like this: “Maxine notices this one party out on a remote curve of the bar, drinking you’d say relentlessly what will prove to be Jägermeister and 151, through a Day-Glo straw out of a 20-ounce convenience-store cup. . . . Sure enough it’s him, Eric Jeffrey Outfield, übergeek, looking, except for the bare upper lip and a newly acquired soul patch, just like his ID photo. He is wearing cargo pants in a camo print whose color scheme is intended for some combat zone very remote, if not off-planet, and a T-shirt announcing, in Helvetica,
REAL GEEKS USE COMMAND PROMPTS
, accessorized with a Batbelt clanking like a charm bracelet with remotes for TV, stereo and air conditioner, plus laser pointer, pager, bottle opener, wire stripper, voltmeter, magnifier, all so tiny that one legitimately wonders how functional they can be.”
In fact, the awful day is delayed for more than 300 pages, by which time the two airliners crash not only into the twin towers but into an exemplary Pynchon shaggy-dog novel in full effect. This one, featuring earth notes of Bret Easton Ellis and William Gibson, concerns the diversion of funds, by the shambolic white-collar outlaw Lester Traipse, from a hot Internet start-up called hashslingrz to a fiber brokerage called Darklinear Solutions, under the knowing eye of the corrupt dot-com entrepreneur Gabriel Ice. These figures move among dozens, in a conspiracy typically dazzling and ludicrous, as well as impossible (and maybe unimportant) to confidently trace.
We join a good companion in failing to trace it: Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator and mother of two, who among Pynchon’s protagonists is rivaled for tangibility and homely charm only by the doper private eye Doc Sportello, from 2009’s “Inherent Vice.” Though this book’s about as long as “V.,” categorists will mark it as Comparatively Stable, with “The Crying of Lot 49” and “Vineland,” as opposed to the Utterly Centrifugal: “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “Against the Day.” Maxine pinballs between workplace and family, and among the men in her life: her ex-husband, the commodities trader Horst Loeffler; her infuriating fake-Zen shrink, Shawn; and the neoliberal death-squad spook Nicholas Windust, Pynchon’s latest update of his prototypical cop-heavy. Like Philip Marlowe, Maxine plunges into dive bars armed with nothing but her wits — except Marlowe never stripped for a pole dance to surveil customers from the vantage of the stage. She also visits DeepArcher, a realm of the “deep Web” providing sanctuary for the avatars of fugitive gamers, cyber-anarchists and possibly the 9/11 dead. Pynchon has consistently invoked these sorts of quasi-mystical vales of yearning: spaces outside space, and times outside time. DeepArcher is his latest bardo.
But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by. Try Bette Davis, who often played good/bad twins or sisters: she resonates — uh, maybe? — with Pynchon’s Poe-like attraction to characters split into sinister mirrored doubles. Or try basketball, which in Pynchon’s scheme appears to connect disparate persecuted tribes like Mayans, Jews and African-Americans — yet why then does Horst (“a fourth-generation product of the U.S. Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator”) twice hold his head in both hands “as if about to attempt a foul shot with it”?
Well, basketball’s Midwestern too. As Hitchcock said, admiring his own “Strangers on a Train”: “Isn’t it a fascinating design? One could study it forever.” This down-the-rabbit-hole invitation, accepted by generations of fans and scholars, confronts those wishing to join the party with a lost sensation: at which secret mailbox do you send away for a decoder ring?
¶ Motifs bleed off the edge of one Pynchon canvas onto the next. Partisans of Pig Bodine, from 1963’s “V.” — he of the “remarkably acute nose,” who is “never known . . . to guess wrong” about a brand of beer — will thrill at meeting, 50 years later, Conkling Speedwell, “a freelance professional Nose . . . born with a sense of smell far more calibrated than the rest of us normals enjoy.” New readers may groan, not least at that reference to “normals” — are Pynchonites merely flashing hipster credentials? Sure, nobody wants to be the P.C. in the commercial, but who’d want to hang out with that smug Mac?
¶ What this misses, though, is the sheer vitality and fascination, the plummets into beauty and horror, the unique flashes of galactic epiphany, in Pynchon’s method. Our reward for surrendering expectations that a novel should gather in clarity, rather than disperse into molecules, isn’t anomie but delight. Pynchon himself’s a good companion, full of real affection for his people and places, even as he lampoons them for suffering the postmodern condition of being only partly real. He spoils us with descriptive flights. Here’s uptown Manhattan in the rain: “What might only be a simple point on the workday cycle . . . becomes a million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow. Everything changes. There’s that clean, rained-on smell. The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume. Average pushy Manhattan schmucks crowding the sidewalks also pick up some depth, some purpose — they smile, they slow down, even with a cellular phone stuck in their ear they are more apt to be singing to somebody than yakking. Some are observed taking houseplants for walks in the rain. Even the lightest umbrella-to-umbrella contact can be erotic.”
¶ This time out, Pynchon may be pursuing a small clarification in his historical pageant of conspiracy. “Bleeding Edge” unnervingly plays footsie with 9/11 trutherism, but I think the discomfort this arouses is intentional. Like DeLillo in “Libra,” Pynchon is interested in the mystery of wide and abiding complicity, not some abruptly punctured innocence: “Somewhere, down at some shameful dark recess of the national soul, we need to feel betrayed, even guilty. As if it was us who created Bush and his gang, Cheney and Rove and Rumsfeld and Feith.” Horst, who possesses an idiot-savant gift for profitable investment predictions — Tyrone Slothrop on Wall Street! — observes a dip in certain airline shares the week before 9/11, and wonders: “How could predicting market behavior be the same as predicting a terrible disaster?” Maxine supplies the answer: “If the two were different forms of the same thing.”
While everyday paranoiacs believe the worst questions have monstrously simple answers, paranoid art knows the more terrifying (and inevitable) discoveries are further questions. Paranoid art traffics in interpretation, and beckons interpretation from its audience; it distrusts even itself, and so becomes the urgent opposite of complacent art. In Pynchon’s view, modernity’s systems of liberation and enlightenment — railway and post, the Internet, etc. — perpetually collapse into capitalism’s Black Iron Prison of enclosure, monopoly and surveillance. The rolling frontier (or bleeding edge) of this collapse is where we persistently and helplessly live. His characters take sustenance on what scraps of freedom fall from the conveyor belt of this ruthless conversion machine, like the house cat at home in the butcher’s shop. In Joyce’s formulation, history is a nightmare from which we are trying to awake. For Pynchon, history is a nightmare within which we must become lucid dreamers.
Thomas Pynchon is 76, and his refusal to develop a late style is practically infuriating. The man’s wildly consistent: the only reason “Bleeding Edge” couldn’t have been published in 1973 is that the Internet, the Giuliani/Disney version of Times Square and the war on terror hadn’t come along yet. This book, and “Inherent Vice,” make jubilant pendants on his mammoth enterprise, neon signposts to themes he took no trouble to hide in the first place.
Pynchon depicts the world as he sees it, riddled by the depredations of greed, conspiracy and intolerance, of entropies both human-engineered and cosmically imposed. But his novels take the form of the world as he wishes it, hence their mighty powers of consolation. The freedoms and duties Pynchon assigns himself are those he desires on our behalf — lasciviousness, punning inanity, attention to the routinely sublime but also to the inevitability of suffering, love for the underdog and a home in our hearts for the dead. Also, license to attempt disappearance into some radical space adjacent to history, and to daily life — what the anarchist philosopher Hakim Bey has called “Temporary Autonomous Zones” — even if the costs of such jaunts are, in the end, punishingly high. There’s much talk of time travel in “Bleeding Edge,” but getting unmoored is hardly a free ride: “You don’t just climb into a machine, you have to do it from inside out, with your mind and body, and navigating Time is an unforgiving discipline. It requires years of pain, hard labor and loss, and there is no redemption — of, or from, anything.”
In summary: Despite the lack of personal information supplied about the author, it’s plain, from the sweep and chortle of his sentences, from the irascible outbreaks of horniness, from the pinpoint rage at popular hypocrisy and cant, that young Pynchon is a writer of boundless promise, sure to give us a long shelf of entrancing and charismatic novels. I believe he has a masterpiece or three in him. I look forward to seeing what he’ll do next.