Review: Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon

Bleeding Edge, Thomas PynchonThere’s never been a Pynchon novel that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the first time through. Inherent Vice, his previous book, probably came closest though. There any disappointment that I may have had was due to a high level of bafflement that remained by the novel’s conclusion. It’s my own fault for not anticipating that; Pynchon traffics in bafflement. It’s one of his favorite tools and one of the things he handles most effectively.

But Inherent Vice tricked me. It tricked me because, moreso than any of his books previously, it felt like a pretty straight-forward yarn. It was funny, it was intermittently brilliant, and it was always interesting…but it was still a story. There was a clear beginning. There was a clear middle. There was, however, a literally foggy end.

None of this was the fault of the book. If anything, it’s to his credit that such a simple novel — unquestionably his simplest up to that point — still managed to play games with its reader. And win them.

Bleeding Edge has a lot in common with Inherent Vice, right down to its detective figure at the fore and its mystery that ends up only partially solved. It’s the only time he’s released two novels in succession that were much like each other, and I think Bleeding Edge suffers for that.

This time I expected the foggy ending. This time I expected that the central mystery wouldn’t actually be the central story. This time I expected a lot, and then Bleeding Edge did exactly what I expected it to do, and that’s a little sad. Reading Pynchon has always been an exercise in — to borrow a phrase from Gravity’s Rainbow — exquisite torture. That it wasn’t here leaves me feeling a little empty.

Pynchon’s at his best when he’s behaving like a magician. He has you look over here, and invests you in whatever it is you’re seeing, and then reveals that the real action happened over there, and you missed it. The first time it’s frustrating. On your second (and third, and fourth…) passes through the books, though, it’s satisfying. You know the nature of the tricks being pulled, and you’re in a better position to admire the artistry required to perform them.

With Bleeding Edge I felt like I could see a lot more of the hand-movements. It was by no means a bad novel, but it felt to me like what I would imagine the first drafts of his better books to be. It reads like a dense, chunky outline. Notes for a future masterpiece. There’s enough connective tissue here that it qualifies as a novel, but I’m not entirely convinced that it qualifies as Pynchon.

Of course, the fact that I could write almost 500 words without mentioning any of the characters or the plot of the book says a lot about how much it got me thinking. It wasn’t just disappointment that I felt; it was a very specific kind of disappointment…the kind upon which you can meditate, and think, and consider for years. Even Pynchon’s misfires earn a lifetime of contemplation.

The story itself follows Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator and single mom. This is the first time we’ve had a true female lead since Oedipa Maas in The Crying of Lot 49, which is a fine precedent. Pynchon’s had a few major female characters since that served as highlights of the novels in which they appeared (Prairie Wheeler and Dally Rideout spring to mind), but this is the first time since his second novel that we’ve had a squarely feminine point of view through which he filters all of the action.

Sadly, it doesn’t feel much different than having no focal character. Pynchon doesn’t manage to establish Maxine as a strong presence. In Inherent Vice Doc Sportello often seemed to blend into the background, becoming the least fascinating aspect of his own scenes, but his presence was always felt. His viewpoint always, at least, seemed like it was there. Maxine could snap her fingers and vanish from almost any given passage in Bleeding Edge and the prose wouldn’t read any differently for her absence. On its own I’m willing to admit that that’s not a problem, but the prose here really needs some spice…some flavor…some warped perspective through which he can feed it. Maxine doesn’t quite provide that.

Throughout the course of the book, she encounters the requisite cast of colorful characters, many of whom seem to tie directly into the post-dotcom-bubble success of “entreprenerd” Gabriel Ice. There are also deeper, scarier conspiracies hinted at, and her investigations lead her right up and through the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Pynchon’s readers are used to reading major historical events presented with a deliberately artificial, playfully tragic slant, but unlike The Revolutionary War, The Great War and World War II, there isn’t quite enough distance between readers today and The War on Terror. This is problematic for two reasons: firstly, Pynchon has to overwrite the specific emotional responses that those in his audience already have tied to the event…but more importantly it’s an issue because there isn’t enough distance for Pynchon to come up with much to say.

The historical documentation isn’t there. There’s propaganda and there’s heresay and there’s that terrible footage…but that’s it. There’s so little for him to work with as an author that it never really gets anywhere. It takes center stage for a few chapters (something that the wars listed previously never quite got to do), and then it’s over. That’s okay…”9/11 Changed Everything” would have been a pretty lousy moral for a writer of Pynchon’s caliber…but there’s nothing that happens in its place. It’s just something there, and then it’s just something that was there. It doesn’t take much thought to see the thematic relevance if that’s indeed what he was after, but for Pynchon to finally write a book that takes place in “modern” times, it’s disappointing to see what a disadvantage it is for him as an author.

There’s still a lot of fun to be had, though. While I gave Maxine some guff earlier, her relationship with her ex-husband Horst is probably the healthiest heterosexual relationship we’ve ever seen from this author. Their marriage may not have worked, but their relationship sure did.

Her two sons, Otis and Ziggy, make for good comic relief, and they serve effectively as the corruptible stakes for the danger unfolding all around them.

There are also brilliant scenes taking place “in” the Deep Web, which Pynchon portrays as equal parts seductive and horrifying. His presentation of the Deep Web is as deliberately artificial as anything else, but what’s important is the mood, the atmosphere, the passive but invasive horror underlying what should be a free and liberating sanctuary.

It’s also fun to see global scholar Thomas Pynchon making reference to Metal Gear Solid, Beanie Babies and Britney Spears — as well as adding an original rap song to his repertoire — but ultimately these are just parts. Components. Debris.

The unifying kernel is absent. There’s a lot to take in, but little to see.

Typically I’m disappointed at the end of a Pynchon novel because I didn’t learn what I needed to learn until it was too late to learn it. Second passes were always better. Third passes were life-changing.

At the end of Bleeding Edge, though, I was disappointed because I felt like I could see the seams. He didn’t trick me; he just left the stitching exposed.

I’ll read it again.

And I’ll like it more.

But I think it’s destined to remain toward the bottom when I rank his works. Does that matter? Probably not; but it’s not particularly pleasant to report.

It’s still worth a read, but do yourself a favor and make it through all of his others first. It’ll give you a better sense of why he’s so passionately loved by a certain type of reader. Save Bleeding Edge for when you’re on vacation from more important things. It feels like that’s when Pynchon wrote it anyway.

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