In the 50 years since the publication of his first novel, V, in 1963, Thomas Pynchon has established himself as the foremost paranoiac of American fiction, balancing absurdist slapstick with the obsessive conviction of the most sincere (or deranged) conspiracy theorist. Though their settings have varied wildly, from colonial America to 1970s Los Angeles, Mr. Pynchon’s basic themes have remained remarkably consistent: the dark underside of technological progress, the hidden networks of power that bind corporate interests and government control, the inability of a single narrative to neatly contain the messy complexities of a given event. In this sense, the New York of late 2001 was a Pynchon novel waiting to happen, in which the failures of “late capitalist” speculation, in the form of the recently deflated tech bubble, meet 9/11 to form the 21st century’s Year Zero.
Bleeding Edge opens in spring of that year, with Maxine Tarnow, the proprietor of the “Nail ’Em and Tail ’Em” fraud investigation agency, walking her sons to their “Yupper West Side” private school. The tension between Maxine’s two seemingly irreconcilable shticks—as a card-carrying member of “Yentas with Attitude” coordinating playdates and packed lunches (she’s recently separated from her husband), and a Beretta-toting “Certified Fraud Examiner gone rogue”—is often marshaled to comic effect: At one point, she employs pole-dancing skills, originally honed at a faddish exercise class, at a seedy outer-borough strip club with the characteristically Pynchonian name “Joie de Beavre,” masquerading as a “MILF night” stripper in pursuit of a source.
Within the first 10 pages, Maxine is introduced to computer-security firm hashslingerz, headed by the obviously nefarious Gabriel Ice. Her investigation of its accounting irregularities predictably spirals out into an unruly web of murder mysteries, Mideast money laundering, and mergers and acquisitions that never quite resolves itself. Like most of Mr. Pynchon’s novels, plot is something of a secondary consideration, a loose scaffolding that serves as little more than a pretext to reconstruct, in exacting detail, the particular milieu of New York at the dawn of the new millennium, replete with recent Silicon Valley transplants still idealistic about the utopian potential of the open Web, Russian mobsters, old-school Upper West Side Trotskyites, dizzyingly wealthy venture capitalists and Rudy Giuliani.
The counterpoint to the arch-capitalist enterprise of hashslingerz is DeepArcher, the Internet underworld that lies beneath the surface web of indexed, searchable pages. The closest analog for Mr. Pynchon’s treatment of the Deep Web is less Gravity’s Rainbow, which renders the military-industrial complex of World War II with a specialist’s knowledge of engineering and physics, than Mason & Dixon: For Mr. Pynchon, the hopes embodied by the untouched frontier, whether terrestrial or virtual, are dashed the moment it is explored. In spite of the DeepArcher creators’ West Coast hippie-hacker ethos of a free space beyond the reaches of corporations or surveillance, Mr. Pynchon makes clear that its promise was always illusory. As Maxine’s father later points out, the Internet itself is a Cold War relic, the descendent of DARPAnet, developed by the United States military for its own geopolitical aims. When she returns to DeepArcher after it has been “discovered” by others, a fellow traveler notes that “the colonizers are coming. … Everything’ll be suburbanized faster than you can say ‘late capitalism.’ Then it’ll be just like up there in the shallows. Link by link, they’ll bring it all under control, safe and respectable. Churches on every corner. Licenses in all the saloons. Anybody still wants his freedom’ll have to saddle up and head elsewhere.”
Mr. Pynchon’s novels tend to be divided into two camps: sprawling, encyclopedic epics and what has been derisively described as Pynchon-lite, a label often reserved for the author’s novels that clock in at less than 500 pages. The latter seem—to their detractors, at least—nearly tossed off in comparison. Bleeding Edge falls somewhere between the two. It is, by Pynchon standards, a relatively straightforward read, similar in tone to 2009’s detective novel, Inherent Vice, which was alternately praised and denounced as his easiest, most accessible book. However, simplified plot and streamlined prose aside, Bleeding Edge’s subject matter aligns it more closely with the “historical” Pynchon of Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against the Day, in which he returns to the moments when the world as it had existed began to come apart—the World Wars, the years immediately preceding the American Revolution and now 9/11.
It takes more than 300 pages to get to the event itself, but, from the vantage of the present, it looms over the entire narrative. As Mr. Pynchon knows, in the aftermath of a crisis, every coincidental detail assumes outsized significance as a retrospective portent of what was to come. “It seems kind of flimsy up here,” Maxine’s son, Ziggy, remarks to Maxine’s off-and-on commodities trader husband after a tour of his new office on one of the World Trade Center’s upper floors. He is told the buildings are “built like a battleship.” Likewise, the link between the anticlimactic dystopian fantasy of Y2K, in which planes would suddenly fall out of the sky as the world’s computers imploded, and the apocalyptic scene of Lower Manhattan in flames—the doomsday that wasn’t and the one that was—is made explicit in the form of a nostalgic “1999”-themed “Geek’s Cotillion,” with ironic buckets of PBR and “vintage” Nasdaq tickers bearing precrash stock quotes, staged the weekend before the towers fall. Ostensibly, it’s a farewell to the now-lost glory days of the dot-com boom, “the Alley’s biggest pink-slip party,” but to both the novel’s readers and the party’s fictional attendees, it becomes almost premonitory: “Later those who were here will remember mostly how vertical it all was.”
Mr. Pynchon’s handling of “the atrocity,” as it is referred to more than once in Bleeding Edge, is relatively reserved, focusing less on the attack itself than its surreal aftermath. Maxine narrates 9/11 from the vantage of uptown: Once again, she drops off her sons at school, and, upon stopping at a newsstand to buy a paper, she “finds everybody freaking out and depressed at the same time. Something bad is going on downtown.” The televised images of the towers on CNN are as close as she, or we, actually get to Ground Zero. Instead, we see the characters wandering around the city in an anxious daze, attempting to go through the motions of everyday life, while recognizing that it has been irrevocably altered.
Perhaps what is most striking about Bleeding Edge is the way in which Mr. Pynchon’s signature paranoia no longer seems particularly contrived: In the face of WikiLeaks, PRISM, nonexistent weapons of mass destruction and corporate personhood, it is difficult to imagine a conspiracy theory that doesn’t bear some resemblance to contemporary reality. Faced with the speculations of a spooked hacker suggesting the possibility of time-traveling programmers—the “special time-ops folks”—interfering in world events, Maxine replies, “Sounds good to me. No harder to buy than what’s on the news channels.”