‘90s and ‘00s references; Mafioso and hackers and dotcom billionaires; unscrupulous government agents of uncertain affiliation; terrorism; conspiracy theories; underground videotapes; the Deep Web; murder; karaoke nights. These are a few of the things you will find in Thomas Pynchon’s newest novel, Bleeding Edge. If that doesn’t sound so far off from Neuromancer or Ready Player One it’s because, in essence, it’s not. Bleeding Edge is both a literary and a genre masterpiece, a cyberpunk epic and a memorial to the pre-9/11 world.
Maxine Tarnow, our mostly-fearless protagonist, is a defrocked Certified Fraud Examiner who doesn’t mind life in the gray zone. Now that she’s no longer a card-carrying investigator, she can pack her Beretta in her bag, take advantage of her shadier connections, and carry on fighting the good fight against cheaters, liars, and schmucks. It’s early 2001 and while the dotcom bubble is busily bursting, there are still tech companies out there—some less scrupulous than others. After a tip sends her looking into the finances of a computer-security firm called hashslingerz, Maxine finds herself caught up in a whirlwind of dirty dealings and conflicting interests involving several different mob branches, operatives, and her own family members. And while she doesn’t know her <p>s from her <div>s, when the trail plunges into the Deep Web she follows it.
Like any good cyberpunk novel, Bleeding Edge plays with technology in ways that make you yearn to step inside the book. DeepArcher, a game created by two stoner programmers in direct opposition to the first-person shooters of the day (remember Halo? Duke Nukem? Counter-Strike? Pynchon does) reads like a combination of Myst and the data-visualization scenes from Hackers.
Add to that the secret military compound that is possibly breeding commando-children time travelers and the possible collapse of the boundaries between digital and physical, and you’ve got a whole lot of sci-fi swimming around.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Pynchon novel if it didn’t take liberties with language and structure. Maxine “sez” more things than she “says,” and more plot points are left hanging than resolved. Side characters loop in and out, often without warning, and what characters they are! A hacker with a foot fetish; a professional scent-man with a Hitler obsession; a government spook who is after Maxine in, ahem, more ways than one; a bike messenger who arrives unannounced with mysterious packages you wouldn’t even know you wanted until he delivered them; a yenta blogger with several axes to grind; a matched pair of rapping Russian thugs; and those are just my favorites. Pop culture references abound, both real and made-up, to the point where if you are of a certain age you’ll find yourself nostalgic for Zima. (For the record, if there was a biopic called The Anton Chekhov Story starring Edward Norton and Peter Sarsgaard, I would pay good money to watch it.) It’s sometimes nearly impossible to keep track of what’s happening and who knows what about whom, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t much matter—Pynchon is driving, and you’re along for the ride.
All these wacky fun and games help balance out the fact that Bleeding Edge is, at heart, a 9/11 novel—and some of those conspiracy theories I mentioned earlier are directly related. Pynchon holds up a mirror to our worst fears, as well as our best moments. CIA complicity, staging, stock market manipulation and insider trading, possible Mossad involvement, you name it, it’s in here. And while these are also some of the questions left unanswered, the novel suggests that these theories are as much a part of the grieving process as the memorials and newly-acquired American flags.
Just shy of 500 pages, Bleeding Edge is not to be taken on lightly. It’s guaranteed to show up on bestseller lists, and I’d take bets on its contender status for the National Book Award. Literary street-cred aside, it’s also an incredibly fun reading experience full of inside jokes, elbow-in-the-ribs asides, kvetching both gentle and overboard. Sex and drugs, also check, with technology filling in that third slot. So whether you’re a fan or a Pynchon-avoider, in it for the characters or in it for the hacks, or maybe you just can’t pass up a Zima reference, this one is worth the price of admission.
Bleeding Edge is available September 17th from Penguin.