Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon
The singular American author punches below his weight again in this misguided take on 9/11 and the dotcom bubble
No one does slapstick paranoia quite as Thomas Pynchon does. No one does anything quite as Pynchon does, and, considering the way he endlessly repeats himself, parodies himself or both – the same gags, the same offbeat names and the stock demented characters, with, admittedly, such buoyant aplomb – that lack of imitators might not be such a bad thing.
A little Pynchon goes a very long way. He has his critics, yet even they, including the great and generous John Updike, would have to concede that Pynchonopolis, although irritating, is a likeable hall of distorted mirrors in which to be trapped. There is a relentlessly improvisatory revue quality about his work that tends to sustain the reader in an optimistic mood that gradually weakens, as a lone candle flickers bravely for a while before dying.
So, yes, Pynchon, author of a crystal miniature, The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), his wonderful second (and shortest) work, which is routinely mentioned before a reviewer attacks the latest offering, is less an enigma than a literary presence given to gimmicks. He is yet to be forgiven for Against the Day (2006), a joke too far.
Bleeding Edge is presented as Pynchon’s 9/11 book, but, for all its popular-culture references, such as Rachel’s hairstyle in Friends, movie stars, sitcoms and fashionable toys, all intended to re-create 2001, the novel, by rehashing the rumour and gossip, fails to capture the chaos and bewilderment, never mind the anger, of the terrorist attack.
Pynchon has seriously misread his setting. For a native New Yorker to lose the city is surprising, but to make such a mess of evoking the mood that both traumatised and consolidated New York at its darkest moment is a breathtaking error of judgment – and judgment hangs over this novel. No one would like it to be Pynchon’s final work, particularly as Inherent Vice (2009), slight though it is, is superior.
Bleeding Edge, longlisted for the National Book Award, has problems that exceed its scrambled plot, clinging as it does to the dotcom collapse, internet surveillance, the destruction of the twin towers and the folly of George Bush’s Pynchonesque – or should that be Pythonesque? – presidency.
It is heavy-handedly driven by dialogue spoken by characters, each an aspiring comedian, who all favour the same unfunny, smart-alec retorts. These thinly drawn creations share very human difficulties, such as failed relationships and financial concerns, but none is real, with the possible exception of the heroine, Maxine Tarnow, a small-time fraud investigator, who has lost her licence by being too nice. She is presented as an Everywoman, a heroic mom with two sons, Zig and Otis, and an ex-husband on the fringes.
The most effective way of reading this novel is to cling to Maxine as if she were flotsam, which she is, as she is about the only cohesive element in a 500-page roller coaster with faulty steering and no structure. She has her share of nightmares.
“Sometime during the night Maxine dreams she’s a mouse who’s been running at large inside the walls of a vast apartment building she understands is the US, venturing out into the kitchen and pantries to scavenge for food, scuffling but free, and in these small hours she has been attracted by what she recognises as a sort of humane mousetrap yet cannot resist the bait, not traditional peanut butter or cheese but something more from the gourmet section, pate or truffles maybe, and the moment she steps into the enticing little structure, her simple body weight is enough to unlatch a spring-loaded door that closes, not that loudly, behind her, and is impossible to open again . . .”