It’s difficult sometimes to know exactly what is happening in a Thomas Pynchon novel. It’s not that his prose is difficult or obtuse. It’s clear enough, but indirect, inferential. It’s elusively allusive. The Bleeding Edge (Penguin, 2013), like his other novels, is deeply embedded in American popular culture and history. The action takes place in 2001, the year following away from the dot-com bust, and moving fatalistically towards the events of September 11. It’s also an early year in the development of the Internet. All of Pynchon’s novels to me feel like they’re taking place in the 1960s, even if the actual time of action is the 1940s or 18th century. There’s a deliberately subversive playfulness in the tone of his writing, his depiction of characters, his evocations of themes and paranoiac conspiracies.
Conspiracy is definitely at the heart of The Bleeding Edge. It is rooted in secret government operations, Internet entrepreneurs, terrorist networks. Money is passed back and forth. Mysterious avatars are encountered in Internet chat rooms or alternative reality hangouts. We never quite know what is going on, nor does anyone else, though they and we have inklings. We expect some sort of explanation, some revelation, but in the end, we never get there.
The main characters, especially the private fraud investigator Maxine Tornow, are always under scrutiny by higher authorities. She raises her children in a small New York apartment and puts herself increasingly at risk as she becomes more deeply involved in trying to discover the conspiracy she believes she’s detected. People she knows are killed. She is shot at. You expect something to happen to her or her children or her ex-husband, who drifts back into her life in the course of the novel.
This is a detective novel, but a strange one that honors some conventions of the genre and completely manhandles or ignores others. The identities of most of the evildoers never come clear, the nature of their crimes remains murky, the intentions of the developing conspiracy are uncertain. There is no resolution or denouement or climactic ending that uncovers the culprits and explains all the mysteries. It’s the network of intrigue that makes this novel compelling, interwoven with Maxine’s private life. The narrative seems to be working towards some kind of heinous event: September 11. Once it occurs, a kind of post traumatic numbness sets in for the characters and the city of New York as a whole. No one really comes to terms with the conspiracy, whatever it might be, whether it is at all. It’s simply a hinted at possibility. Life continues, but different from before, in an altered state, an altered consciousness.
The constant movement and energy, the array of characters, especially Maxine, the burgeoning intrigue, the underlying irony that distinguishes the reader’s knowledge (that 9/11 will happen) from the knowledge of the characters, Pynchon’s persevering love for corny song lyrics (his own) and for the American language in general—I will reread this book.