Thomas Pynchon has written a love letter to Manhattan in his latest opus, Bleeding Edge. Set in 2001, in the months approaching September 11, the book follows the adventures of Maxine Tarnow, a decertified free-lance fraud investigator, as she navigates the labyrinthine financial shenanigans of a certain Gabriel Ice, billionaire CEO of hashslingrz.com, one of the very few survivors of the Silicon Alley dot-com bust of April, 2000. Maxine lives on the Upper West Side, has two precocious sons in a private elementary school, and an ice-cream obsessed corn-fed midwestern gentile ex-husband slipping back into her life. She packs a Beretta and is a certified member of Yentas With Attitude. The book is partially a celebration of the classic secular New York Jew. Maxine’s circle of friends and associates is as diverse as any other New Yorker’s, but Pynchon is really celebrating the Upper West Side Jew, here, and in a very big way.
The book’s title derives from contemporary tech jargon: “bleeding edge” software is defined as high-risk software with no apparent practical application. A lot of the action revolves around an environment hidden in the Deep Web called “DeepArcher”, which certainly fits the definition. DeepArcher is not a game. No one seems to know exactly what it is, and it’s big.
“…DeepArcher’s roots reach back to an anonymous remailer, developed from Finnish technology from the penet.fi days and looking forward to various onion-type forwarding procedures nascent at the time… What remailers do is pass packets on from one node to the next with only enough information to tell each link in the chain where the next one is, no more. DeepArcher goes a step further and forgets where it’s been, immediately, forever…”
This is unquestionably Pynchon’s most sober novel. Anyone who was in Manhattan at the time will recognize the characters, and the landscape is perfectly drawn. Aside from DeepArcher (which may be haunted) and a truly disturbing subplot referencing Preston Nichols’ outrageous assertions of time travel experiments at the Air Force base in Montauk, Long Island, there is barely a whiff of surrealism here. Pynchon’s depiction of Long Island is appropriately perverse in a David Lynch sort of way, and his easygoing contempt for the Upper East Side (embodied by no less than Bernie Madoff) provides a rare glimpse into the deeper parochialism of the New Yorker mindset. A healthy detestation of the Upper East Side is as much a hallmark of the true New Yorker as hating the Red Sox.
When Pynchon announced back in January that he was writing a novel set in New York in the months approaching 911, two things immediately stood out: he has never “announced” that he was writing anything before, and HOLY SHIT THOMAS PYNCHON IS DOING A 911 NOVEL! The undisputed King of conspiracy literature is taking on the greatest and most fecund conspiratorial event since the JFK assassination. He doesn’t disappoint, either. The financial transactions being conducted by Gabriel Ice and his intermediaries (some of whom are pursuing agendas quite entirely their own) dovetail and intersect with elements associated with the event, the highly suspicious volume of put options on the airlines involved the week before the event are revealed in an offhand way, and there is a veritable logjam of Mossad activity in the days leading up to the event, only to disappear like snow on a river in the wake of the attack.
Coming up on the attack itself, Pynchon delivers what may be the most elegant and poignant run-on sentence ever written. No one else could possibly do this:
“Faces already under silent assault, as if by something ahead, some Y2K of the workweek that no one is quite imagining, the crowds drifting slowly out into the little legendary streets, the highs beginning to dissipate, out before the casting off of veils before the luminosities of dawn, a sea of T-shirts nobody’s reading, a clamor of messages nobody’s getting, as if it’s the true text history of nights in the Alley, outcries to be attended to and not be lost, the 3:00 AM kozmo deliveries to code sessions and all-night shredding parties, the bedfellows who came and went, the bands in the clubs, the songs whose hooks still wait to ambush an idle hour, the day jobs with meetings about meetings and bosses without clue, the unreal strings of zeros, the business models changing one minute to the next, the start-up parties every night of the week and more on Thursdays than you could keep track of, which of these faces so claimed by the time, the epoch whose end they’ve been celebrating all night — which of them can see ahead, among the microclimates of binary, tracking earthwide through dark fiber and twisted pairs and nowadays wirelessly through spaces private and public, anywhere among cybersweatshop needles flashing and never still, in that unquiet vastly stitched and unstitched tapestry they have all at some time sat growing crippled in the service of — to the shape of the day imminent, a procedure waiting execution, about to be revealed, a search result with no instructions on how to look for it?”
His description of the City in the wake of the attack is wholly accurate, the way it folded in on itself and pulled together for consolation. The book resolves itself with a number of deft twists, by no means are all questions answered, and it closes gently and on a wistful note, as Maxine experiences a major life passage.
If you were there, this book will get to you. If you weren’t, it’ll give you as good a taste as you are ever likely to get.
ALAN CABAL lives in Mountain View, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org