Thirty chapters into Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge (Penguin $28.95 ), the familiar voice that has been riffing on “ghost stops on abandoned subway lines” and girls “whose fashion sense included undead signifiers such as custom fangs installed out in the outer boroughs by cut rate Lithuanian orthodontists” suddenly starts talking straight. No more sweet Pynchonian nothings playfully whispered in the reader’s ear. Doing a reversal of Dorothy’s “We’re not in Kansas any more” moment, the author’s funny, scary, gaudy Manhattan movie briefly becomes a real-life newsreel featuring people like you and me, people who were living in the real world on a brilliant Tuesday morning in September 2001.
The tone of the first three pages of Chapter 30 is set with a reference to the city and the nation “united in sorrow and shock.” What immediately follows is reminiscent of the elegaic reportage that dominated the media at the time. It’s as if the magnitude of the event overwhelms Pynchon the way the white whale does Melville’s Ahab: it heaps him. He can write circles around it, and in effect does just that, but rather than directly confront it in his own style, he puts his antic muse briefly on hold in deference to “that terrible morning” and writes about home-cooked meals at firehouses, flowers, child choirs, American flags in apartment building lobbies. The writing is only marginally distinguishable from the summary on the dust jacket (“It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11th”), which effectively casts the shadow of the event on the narrative before you even open the book, although it’s not until page 315 that the towers actually come down.
What’s in a Name?
Forty years ago, Gravity’s Rainbow’s first words were “A screaming comes across the sky.” Bleeding Edge begins with a mother “walking her boys to school.” Maxine Tarnow knows her kids are “past the age where they need an escort,” but she “doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple of blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?” If you’re wondering where Thomas Pynchon is, and in case that snappy little “so?” doesn’t reassure you, the issue is settled as soon as you learn that the school in question is named for Otto Kugelblitz, “an early psychoanalyst” who emigrated to the U.S. after being “expelled from Freud’s inner circle.” It also helps to know that this is a school where graduation ceremonies feature the Kugelblitz bebop ensemble performing that old Charlie Parker favorite, “Billie’s Bounce.” Still, since when has the creator of Tyrone Slothrop and Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas and Rachel Owlglass, ever settled for so uncommonly common a name as Maxine Tarnow? Google “Tarnow” and out of the multitudes you come up with an insurance agent, a “casual furniture store” in Chicopee, Mass., and a dentist “in the forefront of dental implant research,” which may be of interest to scholars preparing a paper on Pynchon’s famous overbite.
The Real Story
What about the plot? Do we really have to go there? I could spend a paragraph talking about an internet startup called hashslingrz or celebrating the fascinating depths of DeepArcher, but I’d rather leave that to readers who have gone to bed with Pynchon’s work. The novel’s most passionate priorities are implicit in the epigraph from Donald E. Westlake that says as “a character in a mystery” New York is neither the detective nor the murderer but “the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” Bleeding Edge contains a wealth of false leads that are fun to follow, at least until you learn there’s no pay-off, nothing to equal the Manhattan rhapsodies, Pynchonesque allusions to pop culture, and comic audacity (the dead chicken facial, for instance). The references to Madoff, the CIA, and conspiracy teasers about the Trade Center attack can’t compare with the pleasure of reading Pynchon when he has the wind in his sails.
Given the human cost of 9/11, it’s also important that Maxine, mother and homemaker, is at the center of the action, adding domestic credibility (even her estranged husband has returned to the nest), while her professional identity as a hip, well-armed, conveniently disbarred, sexually willing investigator of online fraud leads us into a maze of bizarre encounters with individuals who for the most part qualify as characters in name only, since Maxine’s conversations with various doormen, maids, shopping or drinking buddies, suspects, shop keepers, clerks, spies, geniuses, and killers tend to blur into one another. It helps to think of certain characters as routes to follow through Pynchon’s New York, human taxis, subways, and busses, the most compelling of which is the Windust Line, after Nicholas Windust, an anti-hero right out of 24 and the Bournes, think rogue CIA, the Homeland Brody to Maxine’s Carrie, phallic villain as victim. And I should mention that the Moriarty to Tarnow’s Holmes is an internet mogul named Gabriel Ice.
With the game playing, culture vulture gleanings, and elliptical offhand dialogue (typically sez for says or said), you’re on Planet Pynchon, love it or leave it. But if you leave it, you miss what must be the best writing about New York City since Henry James’s American Scene (1907).
Pynchon staked a literary claim of sorts to New York 50 years ago in V with Benny Profane’s subway yo-yo-ing between Grand Central and Times Square and the alligators in the sewers. Now more than ever before, this is his town; he’s an Upper West Side New Yorker, and you can tell how he feels when Maxine goes for a rush-hour evening walk as the rain is just starting: “sometimes she can’t resist, she needs to be out on the street” and its “million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow. Everything changes. There’s that clean, rained-on smell. The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume.”
In passages like that one, the word-drunk virtuoso of Gravity’s Rainbow is writing on a more down-to-earth life-is-real level, again perhaps in recognition of the impending event. No such lyrical moments occur in Times Square (“Disneyfied and sterile”), on Park Avenue (“the most boring street in the city”), or on the Upper East Side (“Deep hairband country … like a planned midgets’ commmunity, everything scaled down … you expect any minute to be approached by a tiny official greeter going, ‘As mayor of the Munch-kin City …’”). There are some nice views of the state across the Hudson, however: “Out into one of those oppressive wintry afternoons, the sky over New Jersey a pale battle flag of the ancient nation of winter.”
Not to Be Missed
In Bleeding Edge, New York is both suspect and victim. The city Pynchon wrote about in V is under attack not just by terrorists and corporate greed but by the Giuliani administration. There’s a piece of charged writing planted in your path early in the narrative like a gem, a glowing signifier Pynchon doesn’t want you to miss. It comes when Maxine follows a lead involving hwgaahwgh.com (to pronounce it, just clear your throat or cough), which rents office space in one of the many doomed vestiges of old Manhattan in the embattled city, where “sinister and labyrinthine sewers of greed … run beneath all real estate dealings.” The intrepid Tarnow enters a “nice building with terra-cotta facing from a century ago” that is “strangely welcoming as if the architects had actually given some thought to the people who’d be working there every day.” The office she’s looking for is listed in the lobby directory. She knows “old-school fraud investigators who’ll admit to walking away at this point, only to regret it later.” In other words, reader, don’t walk away, don’t hurry, go forth and focus, “keep going no matter what” until you “can actually stand” with Maxine “in the haunted space and try to summon the ghost vendor out of its nimbus of crafted silence” [my italics].
All such intensely written codas in Bleeding Edge are not just one-offs, they have legs that lead to other ghosts and other silences. Compare the charged “ghost vendor” sentence to the more lyrical, less elaborate, but no less suggestive passage about the reflections in the bus window, and then compare that to the passage near the end where Maxine’s on the subway as her train passes or is passed by another “in the darkness of the tunnel” and “as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards … The Scholar. The Unhoused. The Warrior Thief. The Haunted Woman.” Maxine sees the faces as “the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World.” Which leads to the “darkly exotic” Third World Woman she sees gesturing at her from “one particular window of the other train.” It’s the late Nick Windust’s Guatamalan wife, the woman he smuggled safely out of the country. The convergence of Maxine and Xiomara is the sort of brazen coincidence only a fearless writer would dare and Pynchon pulls it off.
A few pages farther on, “Deep below, trains still move through tunnels in and out of Penn Station, horns chiming in B-major sixths, deep as dreams, while ghosts of tunnel-wall artists and squatters the civil authorities have no idea what to do about … go drifting past the traincar windows in the semidark, whispering messages of transcience.”
Passages like those I’ve been quoting (and I could quote a dozen others) transcend plot and character, so it’s no surprise that the most prodigious narrative flash points, all through, are of the Twin Towers, seen from various angles and actually inhabited when Maxine’s husband Horst takes the two boys to Windows on the World. In one of the novel’s most audacious passages, Maxine, along with a friend and a drug dealer, is fleeing the DEA in a motor boat (“a 28-foot runabout”) skimming down the Hudson past “the World Trade Center leaning, looming brilliantly curtained in light gigantically off their port quarter, and someplace farther out in the darkness a vast unforgiving ocean.” After a sharp right turn to elude their pursuers, they find themselves approaching “a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death, and decay.”
Where has Pynchon, the poet laureate of waste, taken his characters? To “the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central,” which some months later will be the last resting place of the wreckage of Trade Towers freighted with the remains of more than a thousand victims.
This is where literature sweeps everything before it and Bleeding Edge, love it or leave it, is literature.
By all rights, the Newspaper of Record, as Pynchon refers to the New York Times throughout, should make up for its violation of the publisher’s request (“Please do not review before September 17”) by putting together an online anthology of Pynchon’s New York arias.