BLEEDING EDGE. By Thomas Pynchon. Penguin. 477 pages. $28.95.
Thomas Pynchon is truly a special voice in American literature, his place already assured in the pantheon of great writers of his generation. The publication of a new novel by this reclusive author is always an event.
Pynchon, who burst on the American literary scene 50 years ago with his fantastic novel "V.," has published his third novel in seven years after producing only five in 35 years. "Bleeding Edge," his eighth novel, is a worthy addition to his oeuvre.
The novel, set primarily in New York City and its environs, begins in the spring of 2001 after the fall of the dotcom bubble in Silicon Alley. The protagonist is Maxine Tarnow, a defrocked certified fraud examiner, separated, the mother of two boys. Her fraud investigation firm is named Tail 'Em and Nail 'Em. This marks the first time that Pynchon's lead character is a female.
Maxine is approached by her friend, Reg Despard, a former movie pirate turned documentary filmmaker, to investigate a downtown computer security firm named hashslingrz and its billionaire CEO Gabriel Ice.
As in any Pynchon novel, there is a cornucopia of characters that rarely are fully fleshed out; instead, they generally are quirky caricatures, often with just as quirky names. Eric Outfield is a hacker with a foot fetish; Conkling Speedwell is a professional freelance nose with an amazingly acute sense of smell; Horst Loeffler is Maxine's still-friendly estranged husband who has taken an office on an upper floor of the World Trade Center; and there are many others. Throughout, the dialogue is typically Pynchonesque in its disjointed rapid-fire way that lends a chaotic energy.
Fitting his worldview of entropy descending into chaos and paranoia before a 9/11 backdrop, the darkness, conspiracies, and subversive anarchy in cyberspace inevitably percolate out, culminating in catastrophic disaster in "meatspeace." It is brilliant to actually suspend the actual event until two-thirds of the way through the book as it hangs like the sword of Damocles over the novel.
Pynchon seems to have become more enamored with the noirish detective genre, which he incorporates into his blend of pop-culture references, science, social criticism and satire. Here, as in the standard detective genre novel, there's an "investigation" following numerous clues, dead ends, shady characters, and, of course, cons and crimes. The plot is complex, as in any Pynchon novel, with twists at many levels that involve money laundering with Arab connections, Madoff Securities and a "Deep Web" space created by two talented and idealistic hackers, Lucas and Justin, which they named DeepArcher (i.e. "departure"). And there are more 2001-era and other pop-culture references than you can shake a stick at, from Crazy Eddie and Eliot Spitzer to the Sony VX2000 camcorder, Monica Lewinsky on SNL and Krispy Kreme.
Never an easy read, Pynchon's fiction, with intricate plots, post-modern themes, pop-cultural allusions and broadly sketched characters, is not to everyone's taste. And although "Bleeding Edge" may not attain the exalted stature of earlier works such as "Gravity's Rainbow" or "V.," it is the product of one of the most important and influential authors of our time, and therefore worth the time and effort of any reader who cares about American literature.
Reviewer Michael Nelson is a writer and editor in Charleston.