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book review

‘Bleeding Edge’ by Thomas Pynchon

Adam Simpson for The Boston Globe

“[P]aranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen,” says Maxine Tarnow, the defrocked fraud-investigator who guides us through “Bleeding Edge,” Thomas Pynchon’s wonderful new novel of New York City at the turn of the millennium. “[Y]ou can never have too much.”

It’s a motto that could be framed and hung on the kitchen door of any Pynchon book. Military conspiracies, mythical rockets, inventors who want to own the sky: Pynchon’s great novels, from “V” to the National Book Award winning “Gravity’s Rainbow” to “Against the Day,” are the literary equivalent of chicken with 40 cloves.

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Of course in the last decade, let alone the past few months — in which we’ve learned the government has been routinely tracking and checking out our e-mail — paranoia doesn’t really mean paranoia anymore. So many of our fears about our networked world and the sense that someone is watching us have proven well-founded.

In Pynchon novels, this moment, when the action rubs up against our wildest fears and touches truth, typically inspires a shudder of dread. As if the novel was breaking some invisible atmospheric barrier that had less to do with gravity, than the limits of knowability in a complex world.

In “Bleeding Edge,” however, the novel spends its entire arc bumping up against and through this barrier. and the effect of being served truth in such intense measures is not like a taste-numbing blast of garlic but instead cause to laugh.

Here is New York and its Silicon Alley in the self-righteous, hipster orgy of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the IPO parties had a decadent, end-of-days feel and were never, as Pynchon writes, without “PBRs, of course, in a washtub full of crushed ice, for those who cannot easily deal with the prospect of an irony-free evening.”

For anyone doubting that Pynchon has been spending his time in Gotham, here’s proof. Zima and Lennie Briscoe, ironic beat-boxing and dance-hall music, the handbag bacchanal of the 1990s, the Aniston haircut craze, it’s all here and then some.

“Bleeding Edge” is essentially a private-eye novel, masquerading as a technothriller. It is a futuristic novel disguised in elegy. Like Tom Wolfe writing about New York as if he actually cared about the place. The action unfolds between the waning days of 2000 and pushes through 2001, the attacks of 9/11, and the shaky aftermath.

In the opening page, Maxine, who spends her time ferreting out electronic fraud for private clients, gets a tip from an old source that the companies run by boy billionaire Gabriel Ice are hoarding Web pages in the Deep Web, the part of the Internet not readily accessible by search engines.

Maxine already has her hands full with low-lifes, professional and matrimonial. Her husband, Horst, has run off again, and she’s taking care of their two kids on the Upper West Side herself. Skepticism – toward men, or anyone — comes naturally to her.

A bit of scratching and Maxine discovers some big irregularities in Ice’s cash flow. Start-ups that became bought-ups appear to be acting as money-laundering outfits, with the moolah winding up parked at a holding company in the Gulf.

“Bleeding Edge” might be right up to date, but it has old-fashioned pleasures. Maxine starts off on the clock but quickly begins chasing threads on her own time. She carries a Beretta Tomcat in her purse and if the job requires a bit of high tech B&E to get to the truth she doesn’t flinch. She’s a classic private eye: not right by the law, but right in her heart.

Maxine’s search for the truth takes her all over New York City and its outer reaches. Few city novels cover this much ground so quickly, and beautifully, from shooting ranges in Westchester, Mcmansions on Montauk, smoke shops in the Fashion District, East Village music clubs, SoHo event spaces, midtown’s endless sprawl.

The characters she bangs up against are hilarious, Dickensian-sized, over-stuffed, well-named walk-ons, and there are dozens of them. A CIA-type keeps tabs on Maxine’s progress and nudges her along with CD-ROMs sent to her by a Trinidadian bike messenger named Marvin, who proclaims: “These days I’m all over the place, like Duane Reade.”

There are also Russian mobsters with a yen for Soviet-era ice creams; Québécois hackers specializing in zapper fraud (which allows retail chains to underreport income sales); hackers with foot fetishes; and West Coast yuppies ringing their hands about potentially cashing in.

And since this is a Pynchon novel, there are ’60s-era radicals, including one named March who rants to Maxine about the dotcom-era gurus’ desire to perfect life by making a mirror life online. “Their idealism . . . I haven’t seen anything like it since the sixties.”

March’s daughter is married to none other than Ice himself, and the gap in their values means they are estranged. “They cut us out,” March cries. “It was like they actively went seeking it, this life they have now, this faraway, virtual life, leaving the rest of us stuck back here in meatspace, blinking at the images on a screen.”

“Bleeding Edge” shows how this corruption has changed New York City itself, as the merged values of the Internet and late capitalism — namely, endless upward growth — have been funneled into real estate. “Someday very soon this will all be midtown,” Maxine thinks as she wanders the Upper West Side in search of another source. “[A]s one by one the sorrowful dark brickwork, the Section 8 housing, the old miniature apartment buildings with fancy Anglo names and classical columns flanking their narrow stoops, and arch-shaped window openings and elaborate wrought-iron fire escapes rapidly going to rust, are demolished and bulldozed into the landfill of failing memory.”

Beyond its mysteries and dark, sharp wit, though, “Bleeding Edge” is also, oddly, a kind of love story. Maxine is a mother, after all, and part of the tale finds her arcing back toward caring about her own — the lesson being that this part of the real world is what makes our “meatspace’’ lives meaningful.

In the pantheon of Pynchon books, which are either skybound – “V,’’ “Gravity’s Rainbow,’’ “Against the Day’’ — or earthly — “Vineland,’’ “Inherent Vice’’ — this one is decidedly of the latter sort. It’s a book that fights mightily against the landfill by taking all the random pieces of that wastrel-conman era and putting them into a plot that is both ridiculous and far too close to reality to laugh at without a back-draft of dread.

As the novel careens toward 9/11 and straight through it, “Bleeding Edge” reassures us that everything really is connected, even if it won’t say exactly how. Were 9/11, the dot-com bubble, and the Bush administration’s manifesto of preemptive war related? That’s absurd, March tells Maxine at one point, but “[t]here’s still always the other thing. Our yearning. Our deep need for it to be true.”

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