History repeats itself: I begin the New Year with a review of a Thomas Pynchon novel. I took a break from Pynchon after failing to finish the gargantuan Against the Day last April. The story there is that after 450 pages I just found the thing so impossible to follow, so deeply layered and labyrinthine, that continuing to trek through the thing was simply not worth the trouble. It is no Finnegan’s Wake, which is basically pages upon pages of a coded language, written by James Joyce but reading more like it was authored by Germany’s infamous Enigma machine. Nonetheless, Against the Day made me question the point of such writing, which seems at odds with itself. Pynchon is witty and lyrical, his humor pops off the page at times, he is quite quotable and his plots, while beside the point of any of his books, are interesting and unique. Thus it is interesting to me that at times his style is so obtuse it is nearly self-defeating. I do believe sincerely that a book should have some entertainment value, if it does not then what value does it hold over a brooding teenager’s diary in which they feel that the entire world is simply against them?
Even more interesting, in the timeline of Pynchon’s novels, a turn is made after the impermeable Against the Day. Starting with Inherent Vice, and now with Bleeding Edge, Pynchon takes an interesting turn into… how else is there to put it? Readability. He has been so attacked by his devoted readers for this move, dismissing these last two works as “Pynchon-Lite” and calling for a return to the real stuff. I was indifferent to this debate after reading Inherent Vice, it’s true that I found it a little lacking of substance in the end, basically ending up undecided on how Pynchon feels about the 60s; yet, I loved it completely. It’s a killer novel that begs to be read. I loved Doc and his adventures, the sheer zaniness that stretched cover to cover was endearing. It wasn’t bitter or cynical, it was just a story, and a damn good one at that. Now that I have read Bleeding Edge, however, I officially put myself into the debate among Pynchon’s avid readers concerning these last couple novels.
I. Love. Bleeding Edge. There. I said it and I am not ashamed of it. Bleeding Edge is the best Pynchon I’ve read since Mason & Dixon and there’s a very real chance I like it more than Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49. It concerns a fraud investigator in New York City named Maxine Tarnow and her investigation into numerous Wall Street book cookings and shady usages of the internet boom, all of this leading up to September 11th, 2001. This is a book about late-stage Capitalism, as Pynchon is guilty of telling us by beating us over the head with said phrase, family relations in the wake of tragedy, who is to blame for the attacks, and the blurred distinction that has developed between reality as can be touched and its virtual counterpart.
The novel begins slowly on all fronts: characters, plot, jokes, use of puns, etc. Yet very quickly it settles down and stops seeming like a man that was trying too hard to tell his readers something, or make some truly awful jokes. The novel settles in as the writing does and suddenly it’s Pynchon at his best. That being said, I felt the entire time that something about this book makes it impossible to tell if it is Pynchon’s best work ever or it is the biggest piece of garbage in the world of literature. I cannot say what makes me lean towards the former, I simply think it is a matter of preference. Were I to defend my belief I would say this: Bleeding Edge reads like nothing else Pynchon has ever written. It does this because it contains something within it that is not expressed in any other novel of his, and that, my friends, is concern.
Bleeding Edge is like a letter written to those he loves the most. Coming out of the mouths of each unique character is a piece of Pynchon, all of it feels more real than anything he has ever put to paper. Some of it is the same anger that can be found in Gravity’s Rainbow, some the cynicism of V., the paranoia never quite reaches the level of The Crying of Lot 49, but the friendship and amity that is expressed in Mason & Dixon is found once again, not only between characters, but actually moreso between Pynchon and his perceived readers. Pynchon straddles a difficult line: namely using September 11th as more than simply a cheap plot point. What becomes surprising in all of this is that Pynchon doesn’t try to follow something serious with a joke, or something to lighten the mood, something to hint that none of this really matters. There is no playful nihilism. What is instead found is a confrontation of just how in the world we got here. That we can blame Bush, we can blame Islam, we can blame Wall Street, we can blame whomever we would like to all day long. That’s the distraction we all love so much and we do it to ourselves to avoid this: That we are all responsible.
I began to ask myself what the point was of Maxine’s kids being in this novel, and Pynchon, in a very non-Pynchon like manner, gives an answer, but only indirectly. Both expressed in the last sentence of the book and in the conversation had between Maxine and Ernie on the couch (a random, almost throwaway section), is the pure love for this place we call earth and the people we call family. In the end, what Pynchon lets us know is that he won’t tell this future generation that it all doesn’t matter, that the world isn’t as good as they think it is or want it to be. If there was any way to do it he would, but he simply won’t. This sentiment, never before expressed in a Pynchon novel (though I haven’t read Vineland) is the most endearing trait of any book I’ve read since starting this blog. It feels like a father seeing his child angry at injustice and realizing that teaching that child gross cynicism and cold indifference as a defense mechanism is the wrong answer.
Bleeding Edge is spectacular and is simply a must read. I think to get the full effect of why I love it so much you would have to read a majority of his other novels first, though. I wouldn’t choose any other way to start out the new year, let me tell you that.
Recommended to: Previous readers of Pynchon, maybe especially those who have become disillusioned with him.
Avoid as if it’s Aaron Rodgers at Lambeau field with a full assortment of wide receivers: Those who maybe don’t see the deep anger in Gravity’s Rainbow, those who prize Pynchon for being obtuse and obstructionist, and those who devalue a book for being a genuine page-turner.