“Help, too byzantine, make it stop!” So says Maxine Tarnow, the central protagonist. The cri de coeur may strike a chord with even Pynchon’s most rabid fans: a self-referential health warning about a body of work that recreates the tribulations of crazy golf in narrative fiction.
Bleeding Edge has been trailed as Pynchon’s 11 September novel, his attempt to narrate the internet, a postmodern game of join the dots (or dotcoms) linking venture capitalism, virtual reality and terrorism. The plot itself is a baggy detective story that elevates the conspiracy theory to high art.
Maxine, aptly enough, is a fraud investigator with a skill set that is eerily Pynchonian: “a tendency to look for hidden patterns”. She has been hired to investigate a computer security firm called hashslingrz. Exactly what the case is, changes from sentence to sentence: Maxine pursues hashslingrz from its charismatic CEO, Gabriel Ice, to a shady internet start-up to a visionary website, “DeepArcher”. The problem is simple. How can you solve an assignment when even the most ineluctable clues shimmer under the 21st century’s paranoid attraction to instant replay, ambiguous representation and continual re-evaluation?
Oddly, given this précis, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more conventional, accessible and, I use the term advisedly, realistic novels to date. The parenthetical plot may dash down blind allies on wild goose chases after red herrings, but is no more eye-straining than Chandler’s The Big Sleep.
Pynchon strives to lock down those hoary old orthodoxies like time and place. New York is lovingly described. Every single movie reference is accompanied by a date – except for The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Yet no matter his rigour, Pynchon’s characters find that their faith in material reality is under constant threat – not just from filtration through cyberspace, but from dreams, boozy, dope-filled late nights, and the plot’s fragile links between cause and effect. Here, 21st-century morality is fluid and unstable: today’s computer hackers are tomorrow’s defenders of a nation. Characters routinely conceive of their relationships in cinematic terms. Avatars rule.
For all its dizzying meta-critiques, Bleeding Edge is enormous fun. Pynchon’s prose froths and floats like richly scented bubble bath. Horst, Maxine’s erratic ex-husband, is “a fourth generation product of the US Midwest, emotional as a grain elevator …” There are silly hip-hop parodies, and a glorious throwaway riff about “F****** IKEA”: “blood already streaming from several fingers … mysterious metal and plastic fasteners littering the floor … Screaming.”
Whether Bleeding Edge proves a trial or a delight depends on what you find amid the chaos. “Maybe you want to believe there is a connection,” Maxine is told. She means the investigation (and by extension the novel), but as the story progresses, it suggests more optimistic alternatives. Pynchon writes with considerable compassion about 9/11’s impact on New York: how a city of “mutually disconnected lives going on in parallel” is united, briefly, in grief and communal sympathy. Nowhere is this more warmly so than in Maxine’s touching, understated interactions with her children, friends and errant husband. In the darkest of times, believing in connections radiates with deeply felt human significance. Bleeding Edge deserves a place alongside Pynchon’s finest works. Just don’t get lost in Byzantium.