Happiness

Book of the week : Bleeding Edge - Thomas Pynchon

“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” says Maxine Tarnow, the defrocked fraud-investigator who guides us through Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s wonderful new novel of New York City at the turn of the millennium. “You can never have too much”

It’s a motto that could be framed and hung on the kitchen door of any Pynchon book. Military conspiracies, mythical rockets, inventors who want to own the sky: Pynchon’s great novels, from V to the National Book Award winning Gravity’s Rainbow to Against the Day, are the literary equivalent of chicken with 40 cloves

Of course in the last decade, let alone the past few months - in which we’ve learned the US government has been routinely tracking and checking citizens’e-mail - paranoia doesn’t really mean paranoia anymore. So many of our fears about our networked world and the sense that someone is watching us have proven well-founded

In Pynchon novels, this moment, when the action rubs up against our wildest fears and touches truth, typically inspires a shudder of dread. As if the novel was breaking some invisible atmospheric barrier that had less to do with gravity, than the limits of knowability in a complex world

In Bleeding Edge, the novel spends its entire arc bumping up against and through this barrier. and the effect of being served truth in such intense measures is not like a taste-numbing blast of garlic, but instead cause to laugh

Maxine Tarnow is, on the face of it, just another working mother in the city, but in reality, after she has packed her kids’ lunches and delivered them at school, she’s ferreting around with data cowboys and code monkeys, looking into various sorts of electronic fraud. Her estranged husband, apparently a decent enough sort, “to this day has enjoyed a nearly error-free history of knowing how certain commodities around the world will behave,” but Maxine has a keen sense of how data flows and from whom to whom

One track she follows leads to a genius billionaire and electronic concoctions that can scarcely be believed - but also, in a customarily loopy way, to organised crime, terrorism, big data and the U.S. government, with the implication that all are bound up in the collapse of the Twin Towers: “Remember the week before this happened, all those put options on United and American Airlines? Which turned out to be exactly the two airlines that got hijacked?”

Bleeding Edge might be right up to date, but it has old-fashioned pleasures. Maxine starts off on the clock but quickly begins chasing threads on her own time. She carries a Beretta Tomcat in her purse and if the job requires a bit of high tech breaking and entering to get to the truth she doesn’t flinch. She’s a classic private eye: not right by the law, but right in her heart

The real subject of the novel, however, is New York. This is Pynchon’s love letter to his adopted home, as well as an elegy, written with a poison pen. Maxine’s search for the truth takes her all over the city and its outer reaches. Few city novels cover this much ground so quickly, and beautifully, from shooting ranges in Westchester, mansions on Montauk, smoke shops in the Fashion District, East Village music clubs, SoHo event spaces, midtown’s endless sprawl

The characters she bangs up against are hilarious, Dickensian-sized, over-stuffed, well-named walk-ons, and there are dozens of them. A CIA-type keeps tabs on Maxine’s progress and nudges her along with CD-ROMs sent to her by a Trinidadian bike messenger named Marvin, who proclaims: “These days I’m all over the place, like Duane Reade”

There are also Russian mobsters with a yen for Soviet-era ice creams; Québécois hackers specializing in zapper fraud (which allows retail chains to underreport income sales); hackers with foot fetishes; and West Coast yuppies wringing their hands about potentially cashing in

And since this is a Pynchon novel, there are ’60s-era radicals, including one named March who rants to Maxine about the dotcom-era gurus’ desire to perfect life by making a mirror life online. “Their idealism . . . I haven’t seen anything like it since the sixties”

March’s daughter is married to none other than Ice himself, and the gap in their values means they are estranged. “They cut us out,” March cries. “It was like they actively went seeking it, this life they have now, this faraway, virtual life, leaving the rest of us stuck back here in meatspace, blinking at the images on a screen”

Beyond its mysteries and dark, sharp wit, though, Bleeding Edge is also, oddly, a kind of love story. Maxine is a mother, after all, and part of the tale finds her arcing back toward caring about her own - the lesson being that this part of the real world is what makes our lives meaningful.

As the novel careens toward 9/11 and straight through it, Bleeding Edge reassures us that everything really is connected, even if it won’t say exactly how. Were 9/11, the dot-com bubble, and the Bush administration’s manifesto of preemptive war related? That’s absurd, March tells Maxine at one point, but “there’s still always the other thing. Our yearning. Our deep need for it to be true”

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