I approached this review with a little bit of dread. How do you write about the iconic novelist Thomas Pynchon, whose books are strange and difficult things, and whose die-hard readers gather online to wax poetic, and use words like Pynchonian, Pynchonalia and Pynchonesque? They are just so into him, and often so articulate about their love. If you read the thoughtful and detailed writing by Pynchon devotees, they make a very persuasive case.
But the truth is, the most persuasive case made for any writer is never made by his or her fans, but by the work itself. So I tried to ignore the reputation and the legions of devoted readers and the semi-reclusiveness of the writer, and just look at the work. Pynchon has a mind that offers up deep and compelling pleasures, and also requires a lot of patience, not to mention a resistance to skipping pages while a lot of random-seeming stuff is thrown at you. I had to tell myself: Thomas Pynchon is throwing this at me, and therefore, I’m just going to let it pile up and see what it is. Because is the point of a book that the thing be easy to understand and shapely and perfect? Or can it be peculiar and high IQ-ish and drenched in a singular sensibility that we know of as Pynchon’s Own? (Kind of like Newman’s Own, but with literature, not salad dressing.) Is that ever enough?
Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge, is about a spunky Upper West Side mom named Maxine Tarnow who runs a fraud-investigating agency called Tail ‘Em and Nail ‘Em, and who gets involved in all kinds of intrepid activities back in the era after the collapse of the dot-com boom, and leading up to and following Sept. 11. The novel builds up toward those frantic, surreal days in New York after the destruction of the towers, and that event provides it with an organizing principle — at least, sort of.
Pynchon may be taking on Sept. 11 and its attendant paranoia here — and he is very good with paranoia — but he’s also taking on the Internet; and his catalog of a mind is well-suited to it. In fact, much of the novel reminds me of what it feels like to sort of roam around the Internet all day. You know how the facts and opinions collect around you, but you can’t really look away? You can feel partly like you’re wasting your time, and partly like you’re getting a crash course in life. A lot of the nonstop references in this book are jokey fabrications, such as a Lifetime movie called Her Psychopathic Fiancé, and a TV show called Fraudbusters. “They had to cancel it,” Maxine says. “Gave too many people ideas. Rachel Weisz wasn’t bad, though.”
Pynchon even includes all the lyrics to several different made-up songs, among them a clever ballad from a fake off-Broadway musical called Amy and Joey, about Amy Fisher and Joey Buttafuoco, two lurid names from the past that are tailor-made for the Internet’s permanent amber. After a while, though, I felt a little exhausted by the sheer volume of references to things I never thought I’d have to think about again, or to made-up things that, if they existed, I would never want to think about again either.
Descriptions of Maxine’s New York, however, are gratifying for their sheer inventiveness and wit. And, of course, knowing what we know, the city has a particular fragility about it, invisible to the characters but not to us. Maxine’s sons attend The Otto Kugelblitz School, “named for an early psychoanalyst who was expelled from Freud’s inner circle … It seemed to him obvious that the human life span runs through the varieties of mental disorder as understood in his day.” Kugelblitz, we are told, emigrated to the U.S., built a practice, and some of his patients got together enough money to get the school off the ground. As for the curriculum, “each grade level would be regarded as a different kind of mental condition and managed accordingly. A loony bin with homework, basically.”
As Maxine chases down Gabriel Ice, the CEO of a tech company called hashslingrz, she becomes involved in a murder case, though because the characters proliferate and are hard to keep straight, following the story can be like watching a cartoon from really, really far away. I liked Maxine, though; it was somehow touching that in the middle of this often unfollowable story of corruption, conspiracies, nefarious figures and forces, and a shifting, unknowable landscape, there’s this mother and her kids, walking to school. And it reminded me that though the mysterious and unknowable Thomas Pynchon apparently doesn’t allow himself to be photographed, and rarely appears in public, he lives in New York City and has raised a family here. And, of course, was presumably living here in September of 2001. So this is not only Maxine’s New York, but his.
So: How do you talk about a book that itself doesn’t stop talking? Pynchon’s publisher thinks they’ve found a way, and have created a book trailer for Bleeding Edge that features a young guy in a T-shirt that reads, “Hi, I’m Tom Pynchon.” It ends with him sitting on a park bench slathering smoked salmon from Zabar’s all over his face, because it’s a “natural exfoliant.”
What are we to make of this trailer, and its relation to the book itself? Like the trailer, some of Pynchon’s choices in this novel made me feel like I was left out in the cold, not quite following what was going on, or even why — but having to be content with clues and hunches and the tone of manic anxiety that creeps in. I imagine the Pynchonians generally don’t share those feelings. They just want to be there for the Pynchon experience. And I wanted to join them in this opinion, to let myself be overcome by the newest novel’s insights and puns and anguish and beauty and intimations of the terrifying Big Picture. Too bad — for me, at least — that there were more than a couple of stretches where it was easy to get lost, or wander off, or feel irritated.
The book is alternately shticky and profound. Some of the time I wanted to live in its world, other times I found it unreadable. But much of the time I was satisfied to let the prose build and build around me.
Meg Wolitzer is the author of, most recently, The Interestings.