Sunday, March 9, 2014

Thomas Pynchon Pushes Conspiracies To The Bleeding Edge!

The Good: Some incredible lines, Interesting characters, Some good conspiracy moments
The Bad: The main case, in pure Pynchon form, gets muddied very quickly and stays obscured, Some of the dialogue is not authentic
The Basics: In an engaging novel set in contemporary times, Thomas Pynchon creates a tech-based, economically-motivated conspiracy surrounding the September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attacks.

Before Thomas Pynchon becomes much more overexposed – P.T. Anderson’s next film is an adaptation of Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice - in the collective conscious in the United States, I am excited to have finished his latest novel, Bleeding Edge. For those who are not familiar with Thomas Pynchon’s writing style, Pynchon is a writer who has meandering narratives and stories that seldom have an actual point. While Bleeding Edge is one of his more coherent novels, it’s another Thomas Pynchon experience where the expected conventions of the genre in which he is writing are completely undermined. The concept of Bleeding Edge is a detective novel that starts as a corporate investigation and leads to a larger conspiracy story. But, in the fine tradition of Thomas Pynchon, Bleeding Edge’s conspiracy is not related to most of the details in the book.

As a result, when I finished reading Bleeding Edge and started to think about the novel, I had to actually go back to the beginning to see what the original point of the book was. It ruins nothing about Bleeding Edge to say that the original purpose of the investigation in the novel is only the start and that the guilty party is known in the book’s earliest pages. Bleeding Edge is not about a private investigator who is investigating billionaire software developer Gabriel Ice; it’s about the conspiracy that investigation leads to . . . and, more than that, the weird personal relationships of the investigator, Maxine Tarnow. Bleeding Edge is like a murder mystery where the first suspect is the murderer and it is revealed pretty early in the book, but the investigation leads to another, more significant crime.

Maxine Tarnow is a private investigator in New York City in 2001 who is estranged from her husband, Horst, and is taking care of their children, Ziggy and Otis. One day in the spring of 2001, documentary filmmaker Reg Despard brings her a case. He is making a documentary about an internet start-up, hashslingrz, which is hiring many workers at great wages after the tech bubble has burst. The suspicious activities make Despard suspicious about the company’s CEO, Gabriel Ice. Investigating Gabriel Ice and hashlingrz, Tarnow discovers that Gabriel Ice is a bad guy who is tied up in a number of shady financial dealings.

After learning about the Deep Web through a company called DeepArcher where she develops a psychological addiction to cyberspace, Maxine finds herself in the company of a shady government operative, Nick Windust. Windust is also investigating Ice and when a programmer is killed, he might be involved. When Despard brings Maxine footage of a dry run of trained killers preparing to shoot down a plane, the magnitude of the crimes Gabriel Ice and Windust are involved in deepens. As the year progresses, Maxine is drawn in deeper and deeper to the conspiracy surrounding the internet, the economy, and the inevitable attack on the World Trade Center that the reader knows is coming.

Bleeding Edge is the first Thomas Pynchon novel set in contemporary times, which is very cool and unfortunately disturbing. The cool aspect is that, for a change, younger readers of Thomas Pynchon are likely to be able to focus on the characters and plot as opposed to being washed up in the eccentricity of the settings Pynchon creates in his novels. There is nothing alien in the concept and world of Bleeding Edge; it’s a familiar, very real world for those who are alive now. The conspiracy that Pynchon uncovers through Maxine is an engaging one that reads as very real and plausible.

In fact, the conspiracy leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks is linked to economic and political motivations in such a way that those of us who lived through 2001 will be shocked at the elements left out of Bleeding Edge. For a guy who is creating an elaborate conspiracy surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks, the failure to mention the plane that hit the Pentagon and the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania is astonishing. Hell, that Pynchon fails to mention Donald Rumsfeld’s notorious slip where he admitted the U.S. shot down the plane over Pennsylvania is a troubling oversight.

The only other disturbing aspect of Bleeding Edge is how much the dialogue is inauthentic. Pynchon writes many lines with question marks in the middle of the sentences and making statements into questions and odd colloquialisms not authentic to the time and place. I’m not talking about Rocky Slagiatt’s over-the-top Italian mobster accent; Pynchon writes that fine. But a number of the bits of dialogue are written similar to the broken narrative voice, which is troubling and inorganic.

That said, Bleeding Edge is fleshed out with intriguing characters. Maxine Tarnow is an intriguing protagonist who is smart enough to be credible and has enough darkness in her past (her license was pulled) to be as badass as she becomes. The weird romantic obsession Maxine has with Windust is a cool one and the way it leads to a reconciliation of sorts between her and Horst fits in with the overall weirdness of Thomas Pynchon’s narrative style.

Like most Pynchon novels, the narrative in Bleeding Edge wanders. The concept of the book is focused on Gabriel Ice and hashlingerz, but soon the novel spirals around Ice’s wife, her conspiracy theorist mother, and software programmers who are building the framework of virtual online lives in DeepArcher. The roundabout path and all that it leads to gets farther away from a single, coherent conspiracy idea. Instead, Bleeding Edge fleshes out all of the corrupt individuals Gabriel Ice is associated with and how they are trying to manipulate the tech industry and world politics.

The religious and political aspects of characters in Bleeding Edge are flush with post-September 11 paranoia and that reads as very true (save the neglected elements of the time and place the novel is set in). Government surveillance of Jews and Arabs in Bleeding Edge is common and the motivations behind it is convoluted, but realistic. That makes Windust, who comes into the story fairly late, interesting and a credible foil for Maxine.

Like most Pynchon works, Bleeding Edge is more about the journey than the destination. Pynchon is not about spelling out all the details to a specific conspiracy; he’s about taking the reader on a roundabout journey filled with implications and loose ends. The initial investigation into Gabriel Ice rounds back to Reg and a video that leads into a very different direction. The refreshing aspect of Bleeding Edge, compared to most of Pynchon’s works, is that the novel stays focused on Maxine. That makes it less confusing or pointless than many of Pynchon’s other novels.

For those who want to get into Pynchon, especially for those who discover him through the film Inherent Vice, Bleeding Edge is one of his two most focused books with a single narrative perspective and protagonist, making it a more accessible work than some of his others.

For other works by Thomas Pynchon, please check out my reviews of:
The Crying Of Lot 49
Slow Learner
Gravity's Rainbow
Mason & Dixon
Against The Day
Inherent Vice


For other novel reviews, please visit my Novel Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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