Bleeding Edge

If there is a record for the number of dialects and vernaculars you can cram into a novel, Thomas Pynchon just broke it with Bleeding Edge. Techno-babble; internet lingo; New York street jabber, with ethnic twists; dot com jargon; film buff arcana; even foodie in-talk – they tumble over each other as the complex, paranoid plot entangles and unravels like wires in an exploded junction box. If you understand more than half of what is going on you are a lot cleverer than me – and probably a lot younger, too. But even half was enough for this reader to be gripped and set thinking by. Might there be something to those 9/11 conspiracy theories? Is New York a freak show or a template for the rest of us?  Must human experience, and therefore nature, become more virtual than real? Will English split or hybridise into separate languages? How much fast food can people eat before their stomachs give up – or evolve? The mind whirls with distractions and possibilities, even before it starts grappling with the plot.

Maxine Tarnow, a fraud investigator with a Beretta in her handbag and a taste in unsuitable men, happens upon some shady dealings at a hi-tech company run by the mysterious Gabriel Ice. In trying to discover the truth she comes into contact (sometimes intimate) with hackers, geeks, hitmen, Mossad agents and other life forms whose intentions are never obvious or trustworthy. Why is money being channelled to the Middle East? Might America be sponsoring jihadist terrorism? What exactly is going on in the Deep Web? How come the smart money has been ‘shorting’ the stock of certain airlines? Is Maxine’s ex- (and now maybe current) husband in his office when the Twin Towers are hit, and will their marriage (not to mention their children) survive? I am not sure that all – if any – of these questions are answered by the time the book staggers, exhausted to its final page. But that may be the point. In the world being depicted, ‘not enough’ is as much as we are ever going to know, and ‘for now’ is as long as bad stuff can be prevented from happening.

Lester Traipse. Nick Windust. Eric Outfield. Pynchon has a genius for improbable names, one of several features in common with his previous novel, Inherent Vice. The latter is where his ‘late style’ might be said to have started. But for all their word-play, in-jokes and cultural currency both stories have one foot planted in tradition. Doc Sportello, the hippy private eye of the earlier book, is really Sam Spade with beads: a loner, a hard-ass when necessary, but also a moralist, aghast at how badly people behave. The new opus reaches even further back, to the origins of the novel, with a concern for its characters that celebrates empathy. And Maxine’s protectiveness towards her sons, with which the action both starts and finishes, says something about the vulnerability of innocence and love in our frenetic, exploitative age. There are laughs aplenty in Bleeding Edge but its vision is dark.

Great minds are said to think alike, and some of the same ground has been covered by Peter Carey in Amnesia, whose plot involves hackers and political conspiracies, Australian-style. Carey’s book is a fine achievement and less effort to understand; but Pynchon has taken a similar vision of post-modernity to another level, producing a work that might just be predicting where fiction, not to mention humanity, is headed. It pulls no punches and demands stamina and concentration on the part of the reader. But I like writers who refuse to compromise. It means they have something serious to say.