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A Tangle of Underworlds Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

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A Tangle of Underworlds: Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, has a tight timeline and begins at a specific moment. Manhattan, spring of 2001. The dotcom bubble has burst, but the Beanie Babies bubble has not. Amid the Flatiron district flotsam of laid-off geeks is the dingy office of Maxine Loeffler, née Tarnow, fraud investigator. We all know how the noir-detective narrative goes: The rumpled-yet-handsome middle-aged private eye is sitting behind his desk, minding his own business when the tragically paranoid femme fatale enters, beseeching his help. Except here, the middle-aged private eye is Maxine, an Upper West Side mom with a Beretta in her Kate Spade purse and the femme fatale is Reg Despard, accidental documentary filmmaker. Reg has noticed some odd goings-on at his current employer, hashslingerz, an Internet security firm helmed by a creepy tech billionaire, Gabriel Ice, unscathed by the recent crash. Reg wants Maxine to get to the bottom of it, and also fears for his own safety. Pynchon is clearly having some fun with genre, but of course the author’s bread-and-butter genre is Pynchon himself: zany odysseys, gags, coincidences, and subplots that spin out in numerous directions and sometimes back over each other. Take Reg’s backstory, for instance. One day, while shilling homemade camcorder bootleg videos in Washington Square Park…

…Reg happened to sell one of his cassettes to a professor at NYU who taught film, who next day came running down the street after Reg to ask, out of breath, if Reg knew how far ahead of the leading edge of this post-postmodern art form he was working, “with your neo-Brechtian subversion of the digesis.

Maxine’s quest, which includes a good-natured MILF cameo at a strip club called Joie de Beavre, a manic shopping trip to Loehmann’s, an unfortunate excursion to Nutley, NJ, and endless other hijinks, unspools merrily, until September 11. Maxine tallies up all of the Ice shadiness: money funneled to the Emirates, a secret room full of Arab coders at hashslingerz, even a former bagpiping college roommate who stood to make a vast profit from a funeral boom. Could the geek-villain Ice be that evil? Ice’s potential culpability is swirled together with all the other conspiracy theories and paranoid speculations that mushroomed after the attack: it was the Jews, it was an inside job, were the Arab food cart vendors forewarned, etc. Pynchon gives us the first clue about how things are going to pan out in the novel’s epigram, a quote from the writer Donald Westlake: “New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” The various plots and subplots do not so much resolve as simply calm down and fall away.

Pynchon puts nearly as much effort into portraying New York City exactly as it was in 2001 as he does into constructing his sprawling plot with its endless cul-de-sacs. Historical detail is granular and hyper-precise. Zima’s almost extinct, but there’s still one bar that has it on tap; Bernie Madoff is king, but an imperceptible few are quietly divesting. The period goofiness of dotcom names is precise: hashslingerz, for one, and a front business called Hey, We’ve Got Awesome And Hip Web Graphix Here (a.k.a. hwgaahwgh). Like the plot(s), descriptions take on a life of their own, spiraling into Rococo Pynchonian curlicues:

Park Avenue, despite someone’s attempts at beautification, has remained, for all but the chronically clue-free, the most boring street in the city. Built originally as a kind of genteel lid to cover up the train tracks running into Grand Central, what should it be, the Champs Elysées? Sped through, at night, by stretch limo, let’s say, on the way to Harlem, it might register as just bearable. In broad daylight, however, at an average speed of one block per hour, jammed with loud and toxic-smelling traffic, all in advanced states of disrepair, whose drivers suffer (or enjoy) a hostility comparable to Maxine’s [taxi] driver here—not to mention barricades, Form Single Lane signs, jackhammer crews, backhoes and front-end loaders, cement mixers, asphalt spreaders, and battered dump trucks unmarked by any contractor’s name let alone phone number—it becomes an occasion for a spiritual exercise…

But Manhattan’s teeming grid is but surface above a tangle of underworlds to which Maxine and the other characters frequently descend. The subway, for instance, is the only place Reg’s even more paranoid partner, Eric Outfield, will rendezvous. Maxine and crew also regularly descend into DeepArcher (pronounced departure), a virtual world where individual actions are immediately rendered untraceable. There, Maxine interacts with the avatars of many of her real-world acquaintances, and occasionally, the lingering avatars of folks who have disappeared or died.

Even further below are legendary, malevolent netherworlds. In DeepArcher, Maxine learns of a secret government program that kidnaps children, starves and tortures them, then sends them on brutal missions back and forth in time. Maxine is certain that Nicholas Windust, a neoliberal henchman whose CV probably includes “turning Central America into a slaughterhouse” in the name of anti-Communism during the Reagan years, was one of these children. Later, Maxine meets Xiomara, Windust’s Guatamalan first wife, who tells her about Xibalba, a subterranean city-state ruled by Death Lords with zombie armies which occasionally surface and unleash atrocities on the living. Xiomara tells Maxine:

Windust began hearing Xibalba stories as soon as his unit arrived in country. At first he thought it was another case of having fun with the gringo, but after a while…I think he began to believe, more than I ever did, at least to believe in a parallel world, somewhere far beneath his feet where another Windust was doing things he was pretending not to up here.

Despite world-hopping and dizzying complexity, Bleeding Edge is a book about simple good and evil, corruption and innocence. Maxine, cynical as she is, is concerned with bringing corruption to light and saving the vulnerable from scumbags. Pynchon, too, is on side of innocence. Like every New York City parent, Maxine is anxious about how her school-age sons, Ziggy and Otis, are coping with the attack. The boys put forth a decent show of really-ma-I’m-okay kid stoicism, but during an excursion into DeepArcher, Maxine discovers that they have created their own city there: a pre-September 11 version of New York City called Zigotisopolis, “a more merciful city.” In contrast to the antics that consume most of the novel, the beginning and end of the book are quiet, spare mises-en-scène more reminiscent of Ozu than Pynchon. The story opens with Maxine basking in her boys’ company as she walks them to school, even though “they’re past the age where they need an escort…it’s only a couple of blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?” It closes one year later with Maxine, no longer walking with them but still waiting in the doorway and watching them as far as the elevator. Her boys, beginning and end, alpha and omega.

Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge is now available from Penguin Press; to purchase it, click here.