Books Geordie Williamson on the new Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon’s new novel confirms him as not just a great writer but also as a prophet for our times, writes Geordie Williamson
SIf Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel teaches us anything, it is that America dreamed of apocalypse for years before September 11, 2001. Before reality broke in with a ferocity the world is still trying to absorb, films, television, video games, all the banal and dazzling paraphernalia of contemporary culture, were fantasising about destruction of the kind visited on Washington, DC, and Manhattan one autumn morning.
Bleeding Edge comes more than a decade after those events. And though it is mainly set UMMER, 2001: a father drops his two sons off at an old-school video arcade somewhere in Iowa, wanting them to know something of his midwestern childhood, its predigital pleasures. When he returns moments later they are playing a game, ‘‘ screaming with . . . unaccustomed abandon, blasting soupedup power boats through a post-apocalyptic New York half underwater . . . suffocating in mist, underlit, familiar landscapes picturesquely distressed’’:
The Statue of Liberty wearing a crown of seaweed. The World Trade Center leaning at a dangerous angle. The lights of Times Square gone dark in irregular patches, perhaps from recent urban warfare in the neighborhood. Intact buildings are draped with black scaffold netting all the way to the waterline.
in and around New York during the months preceding the attack on the twin towers, describing a society still innocent and unknowing, more concerned with the burst dotcom bubble and Y2K than with Islamic terrorism, it nonetheless is filled with premonitory shivers.
If the most salient criticism of Pynchon’s long and miraculous literary career has been his fondness for paranoia, a swivel-eyed sense that malign forces were at work both within and without the US, his eighth novel might be subtitled: I told you I was right.
Yet if the ‘‘ ominous logic’’ of events the author outlined in his debut fiction V (published 40 years ago) and endlessly elaborated throughout his subsequent career has been borne out in real-world terms, Pynchon has chosen to treat this outcome with characteristic jauntiness and not the sepulchral tones more appropriate to such tragic material.
His contribution to the burgeoning genre of 9/11 novels proceeds in the noirish, hardboiled vein of its most recent predecessor, Inherent Vice. The schtick in this case is eastcoast Jewish rather than the hippified west coast milieu of that 2009 work, yet the same freewheeling, highbrow-lowbrow, encyclopedically digressive tone is brought to bear. In Bleeding Edge, Pynchon’s incorrigible punning
AS ALWAYS, PYNCHON’S WILDLY ELABORATE PLOT BARELY FLIRTS WITH COHERENCE
and historical catastrophe coexist uneasily.
Indeed the novel’s set-up is brazenly formulaic, even if its execution is baroque. Native Manhattanite Maxine Tarnow runs a boutique fraud investigation agency called Tail ’ Em and Nail ’ Em, most recently devoted to mid-level book-cooking by dotcom firms whose fall from economic grace has been the most spectacular news so far of the noughties. She’s a caring single mother of two, though her ex-husband Horst is still partly on the scene. Outside school drop-off hours, however, she is a tough-minded, unillusioned, wisecracking professional. That she is also a self-confessed yenta — a busybody — explains why she keeps investigating the activities of a collapsed startup called hashslingrz.com, owned by a Jewish billionaire named Gabriel Ice, despite the mounting creepiness of what she learns.
As always, Pynchon’s wildly elaborate plot barely flirts with coherence. Russian mobsters, deep web hackers, sociopathic government agents with foot fetishes, Californian Zen Buddhist therapists, olfactory detectives with supersensitive noses, petrified 1960s activists, Jennifer Aniston clones and a complete typology of Silicon Alley geeks and hipsters weave in and out of Maxi’s orbit as she pursues her investigations. But if this freneticism of