Thomas Pynchon’s new novel prompts a question relevant to him and to all contemporary artists, from writers to directors to choreographers: If the present day is atomized, paranoid, infantile, obsessive, can a work of art capture this without taking on these attributes itself?
“Bleeding Edge” is a multicharacter detective(-ish) story, set in 2001 in a New York thrumming with ventures linked to Silicon Alley, the home of Manhattan’s tech companies. Its concerns are momentous: 9/11 — which takes place just over halfway through — the Internet, and the price of capitalism.
Add to this thematic weight the fact that Pynchon invokes the tones of multiple genres — chick lit, teen-lit, sci-fi, Tom Wolfean social satire — and the fact that it takes almost 500 pages, most of them frantic with pop-culture references, to unfold, and a sense emerges of the scale of investment Pynchon demands from his reader. Like a major bank, like a marriage, “Bleeding Edge” is an idea too big to fail — at least, not without grand-scale disillusionment.
As if this had burdened Pynchon with the task of keeping the investors sweet, he supplies regular perks external to the story, mainly in the form of intellectual flattery. “All night long, not a shadow in the neighborhood. Talk about nessun dorma” is a typical invocation: it requires no understanding of the allusion but invites the reader to bask in a sense of shared refinement. But, like the pop-culture jokes in “Bleeding Edge” — there’s an emphasis on the sitcom “Friends” in particular — the intellectual flattery soon starts to feel insulting.
There is much shrewd humor aimed at a certain type of American Jewish reader, for whom “Bleeding Edge” is meant to be rich pickings throughout. But most of these jokes are cliches offered up with the wily confidence of a standup comic who knows he’ll get a whoop just by naming the town he’s performing in. When one character says, “I gotta warn you, though, I’m not much into shopping for recreation,” another gasps, “But you … you are Jewish?”
Within the tangle of gags there is a complex plot. When the heroine Maxine Tarnow is hired as a private fraud investigator to check out Gabriel Ice, CEO of the computer security outfit, hashslingrz, the action takes place in cyberspace and “meatspace” — the real world. There are encounters between avatars online, there are guns, there are postmodern jokes gussied up as characters — and when, as it often does, the writing gleams with intuition and real wisdom, the madcappery seems all the more baffling and cheap.
Pynchon has a gift for catching the rhythms of American speech. “A boat, how about a boat, they own a boat?”; or “Lemme at least buy yiz lunch”; or, when Maxine’s therapist learns from Maxine that her ex-husband is “back,” “Is that, like, air quotes, ‘back’ or just back?” — are three among numerous examples. And in a novel so uninterested in characters, Horst Loeffler — Maxine’s ex husband — is a joyful little hub of life. A trader with an office in the World Trade Center, Horst is a man who eats his ice cream from the tub with two spoons, who gives his ex-wife multiple orgasms, a man who — in an eloquent quip at the expense of the American mind — thinks Insh’allah is “Arabic for whatever.”
No doubt a good genre book is worth more than a bad literary one any day, but when a writer with real genius squanders so much of his energy on clowning — and for an audience it’s not at all clear he respects — it’s worth asking what’s going on. The idea that jokes are a defense against intimacy is a cliche — perhaps they can also be a defense against close reading.