No Love, Deep Web: Pynchon’s Latest Novel Falls Flat

Thomas Pynchon was something of a Terrence Malick figure before Terrence Malick. Like the reclusive filmmaker, Pynchon likes to stay off the grid. A snaggle-toothed photo from his high school years floats around the web, Nabokov sort of remembers teaching him at Cornell, and he’s appeared twice on The Simpsons, his dialogue, of course, all puns: “These wings are ‘V’-licious! I’ll put this recipe in ‘The Gravity’s Rainbow Cookbook,’ right next to ‘The Frying of Latke 49’.” And that’s about the extent of his media presence. His sprawling, often (always) highly referential works are spread comfortably apart; his oeuvre includes “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a work some consider the postmodern “Ulysses,” and “Mason & Dixon,” a 900-page (very) fictionalized account of the famous astronomers’ transnational endeavour. Unfortunately, like Malick (famous for “Tree of Life” and, most recently, the French travelogue “To the Wonder”), Pynchon has become relatively prolific and not-relatively underwhelming. His last novel, “Inherent Vice,” was a half-baked stoner noir, and now (only four years later!) we have “Bleeding Edge,” wherein he tackles, or at least gestures in the direction of, Y2K, the Internet, and 9/11.

The novel opens on a sunny day in the Big Apple. Maxine Tarnow, the spiritual successor to “Lot 49’s” Oedipa Maas, walks her two boys to school through bustling, autumnal New York. A once-certified fraud examiner, Maxine now runs a business on the sly out of the Upper West End. Back at the office it’s business as usual when who but Reg Despard, a documentary filmmaker she met, of course, at AMBOPEDIA (American Borderline Personality Disorder Association) Frolix ‘98, should show up with a lead on something fishy going on with the bookkeeping at hashslingrz.com, a tech giant run by billionaire geek Gabriel Ice. And with that we are down the Pynchonian rabbit hole, braced for the full gamut of humor and deviance, puns and double-entendres, New-Age therapists and rapping Russians, not to mention the Asian “Gongsta” rapper (come to think of it, even Maxine’s kids perform rap set-pieces; Pynchon seems eager that we acknowledge his familiarity with Nas and the lyrics to “Ride wit’ Me.”)

For the entirety of the novel we follow Maxine as she tracks paper trails and red herrings. She proves herself a strong female protagonist; or at least, she talks jive and packs heat. She is also the object of Pynchon’s recurring riffs on Jewish motherhood and the Semitic penchant for “deal-hunting.” Nothing surprises her, and the only thing quicker than her wit is her ability to miraculously extract herself from dangerous situations. By the end, nothing about her surprises us; even halfway through, when she attends MILF Night at a strip club — as a stripper — in search of a perp and “forgets temporarily what she’s come for […] and succumbs to just dancing,” we’re unconcerned with questions of in- or out-of-character, for that would presuppose “character.” That at age 76 Pynchon should still have his protagonist jerking off nerds with her feet and offering herself to genocidal CIA assassins comes off as simply lecherous.

And as always, to offset the sexual deviance, we are given a slew of comic situations, mostly pun-related. Indeed sometimes entire scenarios seem to have their genesis in the desire to deliver a punchline: an investigator with a highly nuanced sense of smell appears so that he may be recognized as a “Private Nose,” and be advised not to stick his…you get the idea. Other Pynchonian devices make an appearance, like anthropomorphized objects, but even here Bleeding Edge fails to deliver: what was in “Mason & Dixon” a delightfully clever, and relevant, exchange between two colonial timepieces is here a limp gag about a traumatized elevator. An overwhelming selection of references pepper the work: Pokémon, Beanie Babies, Nelly, Metal Gear Solid, “Friends,” and strangely enough, a number of mid-twentieth century films. Some fall flat, others flatter: “All, as Ace Ventura sez, and even sings, righty then.”

But the novel’s main concern is the internet, which Pynchon depicts in a physically-navigable manner that reads a bit like “Neuromancer” without the luxury of coming before the fact: “Maxine locates a master directory of train schedules, and when she clicks on ‘Midnight Cannonball’ — bingo. On she is crossfaded, up and down stairways, through dark pedestrian tunnels, emerging into soaring meta-Victorian glass and iron-modulated light.” Pynchon tries to chart the colonization, and capitalization, of the web, but this ultimates in a self-negatingly Pynchonian magical realism where glitches from the web briefly (for two pages) bleed into the real world. There’s a brief mention that the internet was created as a military security tool by DARPA, but the implications are not pursued.

And then, a little over 300 pages in, a plane flies into the twin towers. Until then ribald and irreverent, the novel becomes for a spell incongruously sober. We are treated to a three-page portrait of a post-9/11 New York, which is some of the finest writing in the novel. But ultimately all the paranoia — the Russians supplying the Chechens with arms, American funds being shadily diverted to the Middle East, 9/11 an inside job? — becomes just that: paranoia, noise. Pynchon gets to sit, tin-foil hat cocked ironically, pointing fingers at everybody, and nobody in particular. He refuses to bring to bear a decade’s worth of perspective on the event; addressed contemporaneously, the events, and the general public’s response, seem just as confusing now as they did then. Soon enough, with none of the main characters particularly affected by it, the issue of 9/11 is dropped and we return to the shaggy dog detective story. Will Maxine get to the bottom of the Gabriel Ice affair? At this point, I can earnestly appreciate Pynchon’s most certainly ironic jacket blurb: “Hey. Who wants to know?”