It has been exactly 50 years since Thomas Pynchons first novel, V., introduced him to the world as a co-conspirator with the darkest collusional fantasies in contemporary American culture.
By STEVEN G. KELLMAN
San Francisco Chronicle
Specked with the dots that obsessive, shady figures insist on connecting, Pynchons fiction is generated from the premise that, as a character in his latest work, Bleeding Edge, puts it, paranoias the garlic in lifes kitchen, right, you can never have too much.
So it is only natural that Pynchon, whose works reek with aioli, would take on the event that has generated more paranoid theories than anything since the assassination of John F. Kennedy: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But before the twin towers collapse, intrepid readers must make their way through 300 pages of dense and occasionally dazzling prose.
Beginning with its prankish title, Bleeding Edge revels in puns. Pokemon, what do I know? quips one Pynchon wit, some West Indian proctologist, right? Rather than smart, some of the preening word play seems just smart-ass.
Many of the figures of speech that Pynchon employs are inspired (Police hovering at the edges of no-parking zones are compared to cheetahs at the fringes of antelope herds, and a prenuptial agreement is described as having more riders on it than the subway.).
But others are not. When we are told that two characters are brought to a standoff, ethnicity of your choice, Pynchon is advertising his superiority to a Mexican stereotype, while also exploiting it.
Preposterous names are another Pynchon trademark, and the new novel burdens characters with such ludicrous labels as Conkling Speedwell, Eric Outfield, Rocky Slagiatt, Nicholas Windust and Vyrva McElmo.
Maxine Tarnow, the protagonist, is what the novel calls a certified fraud examiner. Though her license has been revoked due to malpractice, she continues to operate Tail Em and Nail Em, a private agency in Manhattan that investigates scammers and embezzlers.
She carries a Beretta even while delivering her two young sons each morning to the Otto Kugelblitz School, which, based on a Freudian heretics balmy theories of personality development, is described as A loony bin with homework, basically.
Estranged from Horst Loeffler, a goyish commodities investor who works in the World Trade Center, Maxine is a Jewish mother with Raymond Chandler mannerisms, a paid-up member of the Yentas With Attitude local, as Pynchon clownishly puts it. He signals her Jewishness by scattering Yiddishisms (kvetch, kvell zhlub, schmatte) throughout the novel.
And he nods to Chandler with tough-guy dialogue, often employing the quaint word sez. You know what Susan Sontag always sez, says one character, employing orthography that the sophisticated Sontag herself would have rejected as faux film noir.
The story begins in spring 2001, after the dot-com bust and before the terrorist attacks. When the corpse of Lester Traipse, who has been skimming funds from the Web empire of tech mogul Gabriel Ice, is found in the Deseret, a baroque old residence near where Maxine lives, she starts to snoop.
Most of the action takes place in that neighborhood, referred to repeatedly and tiresomely as the Yupper West Side, but Maxines curiosity also leads her to the alien Upper East Side, the Flatiron District, Soho and as far afield as Brooklyn, the Bronx, a Jersey landfill and even distant Montauk, the tip of Long Island.
She ventures as well into the deepest reaches of encrypted virtual space. Maxine uncovers plots within plots within plots that may or may not implicate the CIA, DEA, Mossad, al-Qaida, Spetsnaz, a Guatemalan drug cartel and a greedy American corporate CEO. Yet anyone who reads Pynchon for the plot(s) likely also comes to Casablanca for the waters.
We are told that, after 9/11, blogging erupted into a Mardi Gras for paranoids and trolls, a pandemonium of commentary there may not be time in the projected age of the universe to read all the way through. That might be a fair description of this exasperating novel itself.
In an essay published in 2000, James Wood used the term hysterical realism to describe Pynchons hyperbolic prose. However, realism is an attempt to represent, in recognizable fashion, the characters and events we accept as real. Bleeding Edge is stocked with panicky cartoon figures trying to claw their way through labyrinths. Its primary impulse is not realistic but verbal.
Pynchons true confederates are not Emile Zola and Theodore Dreiser as much as Algernon Charles Swinburne and Ronald Firbank writers more intent on kneading words than noting the world. Pynchon is like a balloon man in the park who twists inflated plastic into the grotesque shapes of familiar animals. But this dog doesnt bark.