No screaming comes across the sky, as it did in “Gravity’s Rainbow,” yet Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel begins just as ominously: “It’s the first day of spring 2001.” What could be more ordinary, sound more peaceful? But “Bleeding Edge” is set in New York City, and the looming shadow of 9/11 touches every page. Nonetheless, many of those pages are outrageously funny, others are sexy, touchingly domestic, satirical or deeply mysterious. All are brilliantly written in Pynchon’s characteristically revved-up, even slightly over-revved style — a joy to read, though the techno-babble of various computer geeks can take SOME getting used to. Still, as spring passes into summer and summer approaches fall, our anxiety grows and intensifies.
On nice mornings in 2001, Maxine Tarnow, recently separated from her husband, Horst, walks her two young sons to school. Maxine is an independent fraud investigator, 30-something and good-looking, at ease with all kinds of people, and as quick with a comeback or wisecrack as any true New Yorker. At one point, she grows friendly with a WASPy shopaholic named Cornelia:
“ ‘You . . . you are Jewish?’
“ ‘Oh, sure.’
“ ‘Nah. I know how to do it pretty good by now.’
“ ‘I suppose I meant a certain . . . gift for finding . . . bargains?’
“ ‘Should be written into my DNA, I know. But somehow I still forget to fondle material or study the tags, and sometimes,’ lowering her voice and pretending to look around for disapproval, ‘I have even . . . paid retail?’ ”
More than anything else, though, Maxine is fearless, and in “Bleeding Edge,” this super-accountant with a Beretta will soon find herself exploring the dark “scumscapes” where “petty fraud becomes grave and often deadly sin.”
The first of those dark places is a sinister dot.com called hashslingrz. While other computer businesses tank, hashlingrz seems to be flourishing and, it would appear, secretly siphoning off funds to a dummy organization in the Mideast. What’s more, nobody seems to know who provided the original seed money to the company’s founder, a computer whiz named, like some James Bond villain, Gabriel Ice. It goes without saying that Ice is cold, intensely secretive and vengeful, but he could also be something more. Why, for instance, is he building a Gatsby-like mansion next door to the former site of the government’s notorious Montauk Project?
The Montauk Project, according to hushed gossip, was — or is — “every horrible suspicion you’ve ever had since World War II, all the paranoid production values, a vast underground facility, exotic weapons, space aliens, time travel, other dimensions.” Just a nutty urban legend, right? But what about the small shambling creature in fatigues that a trespassing Maxine glimpses deep inside a prohibited tunnel?
Then there’s the highly encrypted computer realm DeepArcher, intended to be “a virtual sanctuary to escape to from the many varieties of real-world discomfort.” It’s nothing but an agglomeration of pixels, of course — though some Russian hackers turned bodyguards insist that it’s a “real place.” The original designers are two geeky code-monkeys who go in for T-shirts sporting the letters “UTSL,” which Maxine takes to be an anagram for lust or slut, but later learns is Unix for “Use the Source, Luke.” DeepArcher, however, seems to be escaping these entreprenerds’ control, starting to evolve and morph into something else, something that interests Gabriel Ice.
Like other Pynchon novels — from the classic “V.” a half-century ago to “Inherent Vice” (2009), that hilarious paean to California slackerdom — “Bleeding Edge” swarms with amazing characters, many of them verging on caricature, although convincing enough on the page. Maxine spends memorable evenings with both a foot fetishist and a Hitler-obsessed master of “Nasal Forensics” who can identify any scent, regularly sees a therapist who is half-Zen Buddhist, half-surfer dude, is charmed by a courtly Russian crimelord named Igor and somehow finds herself attracted to a stone-cold CIA agent named Windust, who claims her brother-in-law is a Mossad spy. By far the most admirable, though, is the old-school political radical March Kelleher, who runs a Web site called “Tabloid of the Damned” and is given to saying things like “I don’t do lunch. Corrupt artifact of late capitalism. Breakfast maybe?”
Throughout “Bleeding Edge,” Maxine careers around Manhattan, from Central Park West to Tribeca, from a bug-infested apartment for an illicit rendezvous to the glitzy corporate headquarters of white-shoe lawyers, to Jewish delis, neighborhood coffee shops and pizza joints. Yet, more and more, Maxine recognizes that the city she has loved all her life is disappearing. In Times Square, for instance, “Giuliani and his developer friends have swept the place Disneyfied and sterile — the melancholy bars, the cholesterol and fat dispensaries and porno theaters have been torn down or renovated, the unkempt and unhoused and unspoken-for have been pushed out, no more dope dealers, no more pimps or three-card monte artists, not even kids playing hooky at the old pinball arcades — all gone.”
As usual, Pynchon’s novel drops in scores of late-20th-century cultural signifiers, ranging from the cartoon wizard Gargamel on “The Smurfs” to a guy named Bernie Madoff, who just might be up to something. But is there a BBC Interview Anniversary Edition of the Princess Diana Beanie Baby? Could there have been a biopic called “The Fatty Arbuckle Story,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio? Did Washington’s 9:30 Club ever sell its own cologne? Surely the names Typhphani and Djennyphrr can’t be made up. Ditto for that chart-busting disco anthem “In the Toilet” and a particularly tearful ballad sung by Slade May Goodnight:
. . . And don’t, tell, me,
To eat my heart out,
thanks, I, don’t
need no—knife and fork,
trains . . . whistle through
The night without you,
Down in Middletown, New York.
There are, in fact, jokes and puns and put-downs on nearly every page of “Bleeding Edge” — the conversations between Maxine and her lifelong friend Heidi are particularly catty, affectionate and vulgar. But laughter can’t stave off the book’s encroaching darkness. A former hashslingrz associate is found with a knife blade driven through his skull. Shortly thereafter a DVD arrives in Maxine’s mail. It shows two men shouldering a Stinger missile on the roof of the apartment building where the murder took place. The men appear to be watching a Boeing 767 flying overhead. Finally, having missed his family, the surprisingly likable Horst returns to New York — and rents an office in the World Trade Center.
Near the end of “Bleeding Edge,” Maxine’s father, Ernie, argues that the Internet isn’t really about empowerment, it’s about control. “Everybody connected together, impossible anybody should get lost, ever again. Take the next step, connect it to these cell phones, you’ve got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable.” It’s “what they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law.” Who, in the era of Edward Snowden, can say he’s wrong?
Full of verbal sass and pizzazz, as well as conspiracies within conspiracies, “Bleeding Edge” is totally gonzo, totally wonderful. It really is good to have Thomas Pynchon around, doing what he does best.
By Thomas Pynchon
477 pp. $28.95