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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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


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 hash­slin­, 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

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