Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bleeding Edge

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I paid for and preordered this book back in March? April?, which was months before I knew I'd be writing for CCLaP.)
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon
Read: 16 September to 5 October 2013 
4 / 5 stars  

It is all too easy to dismiss Thomas Pynchon's most recent novel as another one for the "Pynchon Lite" pile, which is by no means fair to a book that can't help counting the likes of such heavyweights (both in the literary and literal senses) as Against the Day, Mason & Dixon and the undeservedly Pulitzer-snubbed Gravity's Rainbow among its older, beefier brothers. Bleeding Edge takes place in a world immediately surrounding September 11, meaning that it is finally a Pynchon book set in a time period with which all of its readers, especially its American audience, are familiar (this is, of course, assuming that there aren't any post-millennium-born kids out there surreptitiously paging through their parents' copies of a tantalizingly shiny-covered tome), thus minimizing the frantic research that usually punctuates a Pynchon novel's obscure cultural allusions and mathematical formulae rendered in high-minded gibberish, allowing for an appearance of simplicity and uninterrupted reading that may lull one into a false sense of knowing which way's up when Tommy P. is navigating the screaming that comes across the sky.

No, this is not a postmodern labyrinth housing a lunatic beast that is just itching to pummel the unsuspecting and unprepared with tricksy words and engineering metaphors. This is a love letter to New York City that knows all too well how the Big Apple can be a finicky--but ultimately rewarding--mistress. This is a September 11 story that does not cash in on a day burned into a nation's collective conscience. This is, quite possibly, the most from-the-heart novel Pynchon has written since Vineland--though it's still peppered with paranoid brilliance and an understanding of early-aught pop culture and tech savvy that most septuagenarians simply can't summon.

Bleeding Edge follows Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked fraud investigator and mostly divorced mother of two elementary-school-aged boys, on a madcap rush that scrambles atop NYC rooftops and dives to the depths of the as-of-yet unexplored nether regions of an internet the public was just beginning to embrace en masse. It is the standard Pynchonian detective fare in that it derives its own flavor from a cast of characters bearing Muppetesque monikers, a balance of humor and heartache that is nothing short of scientifically calibrated for maximum effect, a tangled web of paranoia surrounding a shady computer-security firm that only works itself into a tighter knot the more Maxine prods at it, and a healthy dose of parental concerns augmented by a Jewish mother's terminal worry.

While Pynchon's previous works had a tendency to spiral off into myriad directions, Bleeding Edge seemed more streamlined than its predecessors. An old acquaintance brings the questionable finances of an as-of-yet defunct dotcom to Maxine's investigatory attention before the pages even reach the double digits and the plot tirelessly tears ahead from there. Each question posed by our unflinching protagonist does, unsurprisingly, bring three more questions to the surface but there is a sense of overall connectedness and bigger-picture relevance threading its way through each new twist and turn that Maxine & Co. face.

Allowing the plot to remain unusually unfettered by carefully choreographed chaos and divergences, along with wrangling a comparatively small cast, allows Pynchon's writing to take center stage in Bleeding Edge. For all his ability to weave masterfully complex scenarios into a rich tapestry of life-imitating, intricately layered storytelling, Pynchon cannot ever get enough credit for simply being one hell of a writer. The man knows his way around the English language like few others do, deploying ten-dollar words just as easily as he plays casual comedy against understated devastation.

The events of September 11 occur more than halfway through the book, and the day itself is relegated to roughly three pages. It is tempting to submit to the urge that allows that day to dominate whatever it touches; however, Pynchon's deliberately tactful approach to encapsulating the day allows for its aftermath to come to the forefront, as its lasting effects and the inevitable changes it brought--especially to New York City and the areas close enough to both it and Washington, D.C. to feel the ripple effects for years to come--were the true test of a population's endurance. This is where so much of the book's heart comes into play, as September 11 and parenthood become inextricably linked: As we cannot protect our children from the unpleasant truths of life, we could not protect ourselves from one Tuesday in September that rocked everything we thought to be true more than a decade ago. For all of her professional acumen, Maxine is, at her very core, a loving Jewish mother who wants to give her boys the world and can't shake the guilt over such a world being a dangerous place that, like the parade of girlfriends they'll one day bring home to her, will never be good enough for them.

The point is, one has to adapt to and learn from life after trauma, as one can't become stronger without facing an event that demands personal growth and paradigm-shifting perspective tweaks to overcome it. Which is as close to a resolution as Bleeding Edge really has. Because sometimes things aren't neatly settled. People die but the world marches forward and will not stop as a courtesy to all the survivors who are left shaken and grieving. Unplanned growth is the universe's way of pushing us beyond our comfort zones to become the best version of ourselves. Admittedly, it is initially frustrating to come to an end of the book that leaves a trail of loose threads in its wake but the questions that this novel asks still don't have answers. And the questions aren't nearly as important as the discoveries made while searching for a solution, anyway.

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