Bonfire of the Inanities
By Thomas Pynchon
The Penguin Press, 2013
At one point early on in Thomas Pynchon’s new novel Bleeding Edge, two little girls buy binoculars and spend hours spying on an ornate old Upper West Side apartment building with “helical fire escapes at each corner, turrets, balconies, gargoyles, scales and serpentine and fanged creatures in cast iron over the entrances and coiled around the windows.” The girls sometimes stay up until the early morning, “staring over at the lighted windows across the way, waiting for something to happen.”
The readers Pynchon didn’t manage to alienate with his quick and maladroit 2009 novella Inherent Vice (in which the author, through his bleary-eyed main protagonist, pines for the 1960s until you want to kick him) will know exactly how those two girls feel. Bleeding Edge is much longer than Inherent Vice, and it’s a return to the hyper-detailed and broad-swatch historical setting that has always marked Pynchon’s major work, from his 1973 masterpiece Gravity’s Rainbow to his rollicking 1997 anti-romance Mason & Dixon to the fierce, impenetrably abstruse genius of 2006’s Against the Day; it’s clearly geared to be considered a serious novel, not a left-handed genre romp. It’s compelled full-scale reviews in every print journal in the world, and it threatens to win its famously counter-culture author a Pulitzer Prize. And the experience of reading it is perfectly parallel to the experience of watching shadows pass by the windows of a big, complicated-looking building, sitting cramped and eager for page after page, waiting for something to happen. It takes a hundred pages or two for you to clearly identify what that ‘something’ is: you’re waiting for Thomas Pynchon’s magic to show up.
It never does. What shows up instead, on page after interminable page, is yet more tired riffing. Only where such riffing in Inherent Vice, with its neon California-noir setting, was merely irritating, in Bleeding Edge it’s deeply offensive, because the book’s setting is our own immediate past and centers on the terrorist bombings of September 11, 2001 – a national trauma about which only crackpots and lunatics have the bad grace to riff.
The surrounding story is set in New York City in 2001, when those two hotel-watching girls – and many a poppet besides, one assumes – have grown into stretched and air-brushed Upper West Side wives and mothers, constantly fretting about the latest trends, constantly air-kissing on their way to one over-committed schedule-booking after another. One such woman, Maxine Tarnow, is the book’s central character, a gun-toting mother of two who has the perfect ersatz Pynchonian job: she’s an off-license fraud investigator, an essentially kind-hearted realist who’s “up to her ears in tax dodges, greedy little hotshots dreaming about some big score, spreadsheets she can’t make sense of.”
Maxine is raising her boys basically alone, ever since her separation from her on-again/off-again husband Horst, a good-natured Iowan Wall Street trader with a sixth sense for fluctuations in the market – and a philanderer, who had an affair with a woman named Muriel, which prompts one of earliest of Bleeding Edge‘s throwaway stand-up comedy bits, as Maxine momentarily contemplates the name Muriel:
By which point – part of the Certified Fraud Examiner skill set being a tendency to look for hidden patterns – Maxine began to wonder … might Horst actually have a preference for women named after inexpensive cigars, was there perhaps a Philippa “Philly” Blunt stashed in London he’s playing FTSE with, some alluring Asian arbitrix named Roi-Tan in a cheongsam and one of those little haircuts …
Maxine takes a job investigating a computer-security firm in the tech-world of the newly-burgeoning Internet; the firm has somehow miraculously survived the recent dot-com ‘bubble’ bursting. Financial success in Pynchon’s fiction can come to all kinds of people, but luck is always evil and never truly random, so Maxine finds herself delving into the “Deep Web,” a lawless infra-net that Pynchon predictably populates with every Boojum in the paranoid’s bestiary. As Maxine’s friend Heidi muses while contemplating her:
“Maxi, earnest Maxi, forensic as always. These urban myths can be attractors, they pick up little fragments of strangeness from everywhere, after a while nobody can look at the whole thing and believe it all, it’s too unstructured. But somehow we’ll still cherry-pick for the intriguing pieces, God forbid we should be taken in of course, we’re too hip for that, and yet there’s no final proof that some of it isn’t true. Pros and cons, and it all degenerates into arguments on the Internet, flaming, trolling, threads that only lead deeper into the labyrinth.”
Maxine enters that labyrinth and is soon dealing with nerdy hackers, insane computer code-specialists, Russian mobsters, loathsome tech-tycoons, and, hiding somewhere in this crowd, an old-fashioned murderer, or maybe two. Since Pynchon is a sexist, Maxine is perpetually out of her depth; since he’s a misogynist, she’s often put in demeaning positions (pole-dancing and other embarrassing authorial wish-fulfillments); since he’s a bit of a sadist, she often derives a shiver of enjoyment out of her own debasement (including the standard-issue Pynchon device of otherwise semi-strong female characters going weak in the knees for losers). Critics have compared her to Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, but Vic would have clocked dear, earnest Maxi in about five minutes.
Instead of such divine intervention, the first half of Bleeding Edge is full of shtick. Almost every character is a jokester ready with several grade-A zingers (you’ll never meet busboys and bike messengers this funny in real life). Characters talk in blocks of exposition, with one of the main culprits being social gadfly March Kelleher, whose gray hair, we’re told, was “not just coming in but putting its feet up and making itself at home,” and whose self-described “old-lefty tirade mode” makes her the perfect Pynchon mouthpiece on whatever hot-button New York topic happens to be uppermost on his mind – the two most frequent candidates being real estate and a hatred of The New York Times:
“Central Park itself isn’t safe, these men of vision, they dream about CPW to Fight Avenue solid with gracious residences. Meantime the Newspaper of Record goes around in a little pleated skirt shaking pompoms, leaping in the air with an idiot grin if so much as a cement mixer passes by. The only way to live here is not to get attached.”
The fact that virtually all the book’s mouthpiece characters seem to hate “the Newspaper of Record” in equal measure is just one of the many ways in which Bleeding Edge is a much sloppier book than Pynchon has ever written before; the belabored egging of the cliche about gray hair ‘coming in’ is joined by many other such tired gambits, as well as quite a few simple grammatical errors, as in: “Shawn’s devotion to reruns of the well-known seventies sitcom have drawn comment all up and down his client list” – of all the things readers over the decades may have thought Thomas Pynchon badly needed, a watchful editor was never one of them – until now.
The book’s first half – while the thin sketch of a plot is still holding our author’s attention – also possesses scattered little reminders of why we started reading Pynchon in the first place, especially a short set-piece in which Maxine is taken to New York City’s main dump in its incongruous natural setting:
… toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself, and here unexpectedly at the heart of it is this 100 acres of completely untouched marshland, directly underneath the North Atlantic flyway, sequestered by law from development and dumping, marsh birds sleeping in safety. Which, given the real-estate imperatives running this town, is really, if you want to know, fucking depressing, because how long can it last? How long can any of these innocent critters depend on finding safety around here? It’s exactly the sort of patch that makes a developer’s heart sing – typically, “This Land is My Land, This Land Also is My Land.”
The passage has faint echoes of the kind of grubby lyricism (“marsh birds sleeping in safety”) that once filled Pynchon’s novels from start to finish and made them so involuntarily, indelibly heartbreaking. Here, those echoes are drowned out by Pynchon himself (that “if you want to know” isn’t in the voice of any character – it’s simply Pynchon talking over his own narrative), who’s a little too quick with the floozy jokes, a little too quick (not Tom Wolfe-quick, but in that neighborhood) with the nigger-jokes, a little too quick with the plastic yiddish and the Jewish punchlines:
Every Fairway back gull of potato peels, coffee grounds, uneaten Chinese food, used tissues and tampons and paper napkins and disposable diapers, fruit gone bad, yogurt past its sell-by date that Maxine has ever thrown away is in there someplace, multiplied by everybody in the city she knows, multiplied by everybody she doesn’t know, since 1948, before she was even born, and what she thought was lost and out of her life has only entered a collective history, which is like being Jewish and finding out that death is not the end of everything – suddenly denied the comfort of absolute zero.
But there’s at least a happy straightforwardness to a tangled murder mystery (the epigraph for Bleeding Edge is from Donald Westlake, who was a master of just such happy tangles), and if this whole mess were set in 2010, we could all root for Maxine to find the killer and solve the case, and then we could all repair to the Scope and trade stories over our beers about the days when Thomas Pynchon was the greatest American author. But Bleeding Edge has no such restraint: 9-11 happens right in the middle of it, and Pynchon’s riffing continues unabated, and suddenly we’re all caught inside it, forced to listen as every character interchangeably starts spouting lunatic fringe gibberish. “No matter how the official narrative of this turns out,” previously sane Heidi says, “these are the places we should be looking, not in newspapers or television but at the margins: graffiti, uncontrolled utterances, bad dreamers who sleep in public and scream in their sleep.”
It’s one thing to read along as, for example, George Washington cracks coon jokes on his porch in Mason & Dixon; the insulation of history makes the secular sacrilege all the funnier. It’s quite another thing to read along as character after character is turned into a ventriloquist’s dummy in order to spew the kind of conspiracy-theory mutterings that are usually confined to the lowest, dampest shrubbery of Reddit. Characters like Horst – whose bona fides as a prognosticating pattern-savant have already been established – are abruptly, sickeningly, in on the act:
Horst meantime is still puzzled about something else. “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? Well, it seems on that Thursday and Friday there were also lopsided put-to-call ratios for Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, couple others like them, all tenants of the Trade Center. As a fraud investigator, what does that suggest to you?”
Maxine’s immediate answer? Not “Kindly fact-check your stupid urban legends,” but rather “Foreknowledge of a decline in their stock prices.”
And when no characters happen to be within reaching distance, Pynchon again simply starts addressing us himself, in exactly the same diction and tone as any of his paper-mache characters:
The atrocity site, which one would have expected to become sacred or at least inspire a little respect, swiftly becomes occasion instead for open-ended sagas of wheeling and dealing, bickering and badmouthing over its future as real estate, all dutifully celebrated as “news” in the Newspaper of Record. Some notice a strange underground rumbling from the direction of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, which is eventually identified as Robert Moses spinning in his grave.
Robert Moses spinning in his grave – hi-larious. Makes the set-up so totally worth it.
Faced with this desecration of a very recent American tragedy, only a couple of mainstream book critics have had the wherewithal to call Bleeding Edge even so much as a failure, let alone anything worse, and Pynchon, our foremost pattern-savant, knows he can count on just the kind of preposterous fawning he got from Michael Chabon in The New York Review of Books, who assured readers, “If some of the numerous characters in Bleeding Edge fail to distinguish themselves in the readerly eye (and some do) or to rise above the level of deft caricature, this is a fault of the book itself and not (as those who first go after Pynchon’s plots are often pleased to continue) of his art.”
But his art has failed him this time, daunted by the immense pain and chaos of 9-11 (there’s more fiery honesty about that pain in the ten pages of Martin Amis’ “The Last Days of Muhammed Atta” than in all of Bleeding Edge‘s second half), flattened into pastiche by the need to be sharper and more brilliant than it’s ever been before. Instead of that brilliance, we get somebody telling fart jokes in Chartres. No Pynchon fan could possibly have wanted this long demonstration of the limits of his magic, but here it is just the same.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.