Novel: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

For much of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013), I was convinced it was the incoherent, overlong indulgence of a writer spending all their street cred at once. Surely this novel, written by anyone with less literary clout, would never have seen the light of day? But I forced my way through it, and I have to admit, at times it forced me to continue, with its restless joy of language and capable re-creation of a tumultuous era.

Bleeding Edge situates us in 2001 New York City, in the lead-up to 9/11. Maxine Tarnow is an independent fraud inspector who undertakes an investigation of a sleazy tech company called hashlingerz. Maxine, a mother of two with a complicated relationship with her semi-absent husband, ricochets around Manhattan interacting with various seedy players and suspects—friends, family, bloggers, documentarians, hackers, Russian mobsters, and more—in search of the truth about hashlingerz’s notorious CEO, Gabriel Ice. In the process, she slides down darkweb rabbit holes, posits conspiracy theories, and uncovers hidden agendas, all against the backdrop of a city about to undergo a paradigm-shifting tragedy.

Structurally, Bleeding Edge can only be described as disjointed chaos. Maxine’s muddled investigation throws her into clever conversation with numerous interesting characters, but utterly lacks coherent plot rhythm. Aside from an ancient visit to The Crying of Lot 49 decades ago, I have no experience with Pynchon, but here his prose reads very much like an extraordinarily confident man determined to impress readers with his cleverness. Indeed, often he does, but it’s usually at the expense of discernible narrative progress. I mean, people keep talking and shit keeps happening, but nothing flows. What was interesting about the book was how thoroughly and immersively Pynchon delivers us to the turn of the millennium, and more specifically the haunting atmosphere of the George W. Bush era, September 11th, and all the financial and technological corruption that period marinated in. As a time capsule of a year that was memorable for all the wrong reasons, Bleeding Edge is a wildly successful memory-trigger for those of us who lived through it, and might even be illuminative for those who did not. But as a story? It fails, rather spectacularly, under the weight of its own hyper-detailed trivia.

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