The Bleeding Edge of Mystery Fiction
Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s most recent book has been called a work of postmodern detective, cyberpunk and science fiction. If I would add one, I would call it historical fiction, as it centers around the events just prior to 9/11.
In the first couple pages, you are introduced to Maxine Tarnow, as she is dropping her kids off at school, typical rushed morning. It doesn’t take long for you to realize that after this humble starting point, things are going to get weird fast. You will be introduced to a shady online company with potential terrorist financial ties and a mish-mash of neer-do-wells with guns, a guy with a magical schnoze and another with a serious foot fetish. It’s typical Pynchon. If you’ve read his other works, you will feel in good company with Against the Day, Gravity’s Rainbow and others and not just in the number of pages.
You can tell that Pynchon is having fun with this book, and imitates the style of contemporary cyberpunk authors like William Gibson, Neil Stephenson and others. It’s an homage to their forward–looking moral tales of advanced technology. Maxine is a fraud examiner, which don’t often take her to the dangerous places but this time they do. As the plot manages to extend in scope to more than just one shady dark web internet company, following the money, Maxine continues to find connections with groups that would prefer that she didn’t. You will learn about projectile knives, so deadly and silent that they are banned for being unsportsmanlike in the undercover operative game and of course you have the hinting of the supernatural in people Maxine meets that claim to have foreknowledge of New York being covered in smoke and dust. It seems more accessible than a work like Gravity’s Rainbow, with much less by way of debauchery. It comes across as a more subdued work, a work of digging, meticulousness and cautiousness that would befit a real-life fraud detective that got caught in a conspiracy that could come back to threaten her family and those that she holds most dear. Maxine is no lightweight, and she gets the job done, getting further than many of the hardened stoics she meets along the way. As in Against the Day, Pynchon holds the looming threat of the twin towers collapse in front of you, as a kind of reference point that grounds you in the increasing tension as you move inexorably closer to 9/11.
I would recommend this book for fans of Pynchon’s books, and those curious to see what the author might do with a female protagonist and in a contemporary setting like the early 2000’s New York, New York. It has the sense of falling through conspiracy theories and still getting at the truth of the matter, while retaining a sense of cynical sarcasm that is particularly infectious.
“It would take a mind hopelessly diseased with paranoia, indeed a screamingly anti-American nutcase, even to allow to cross her mind the possibility that that terrible day could have deliberately been engineered as a pretext to impose some endless Orwellian ‘war’ and the emergency decrees we will soon be living under. Nah, nah, perish that thought.” (Page 321)
In closing, there may have been more that Pynchon could have done to skewer specific people and ideas that were so prescient at the time and magnified today, but there is something in the book that really resonates with the time period, the exiting of the alternative plaid-wearing lay-about 90’s and speaks to the paranoia and back-room dealings that brought us into the post-9/11 era and infinite war.