BOOK REVIEW: Pynchon’s ‘Bleeding Edge’ a call to arms

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINELSeptember 22, 2013 

  • ‘BLEEDING EDGE’ by Thomas Pynchon; Penguin ($28.95)

“Bleeding Edge,” Thomas Pynchon’s fabulously entertaining new novel, begins on New York’s Upper West Side during the first day of spring. Maxine Tarnow is walking her two boys to school. The sun shines through clusters of pear blossoms, filling the world with light.

This being Pynchon and the year being 2001, the good times don’t last. Long before the towers come tumbling down just past the novel’s midway point, we’ve descended into an underworld featuring Russian gangsters, an Italian mobster, a foot fetishist, an embezzler and Maxine herself, who is a decertified fraud examiner running an outfit called Tail ’Em and Nail ’Em.

And these are among the good guys.

Spinning a web of intrigue that would leave Michael Moore dazed and confused, Maxine’s sleuthing uncovers a money trail leading from high-tech start-ups in New York’s Silicon Alley to WTF — short for the Wahhabi Transreligious Friendship Fund, a shady Dubai-based organization that may have links to terrorists. Or the CIA. Or both.

Chief among the villains is Gabriel Ice, a onetime “amiable geek” who long ago morphed into the heartless leader of a tech monolith. Ice’s company pillages startups, taking source code with “no proven use” — designed by idealistic techno geeks who still believe in a communal Internet where ideas and dreams can be shared — and using it to further more sinister purposes.

Described this way, “Bleeding Edge” might sound like a cross between “The Crying of Lot 49” (1966) — with Maxine as a reincarnation of Oedipa Maas — and a rollicking, shaggy dog detective story like “Inherent Vice” (2009). But while “Bleeding Edge” may not have the scope of “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973), it would be wrong to dismiss it as Pynchon Lite.

Running parallel to the convoluted plot and a seemingly endless stream of typically underdeveloped Pynchon characters — colorful and fun two-dimensioned types — is a gimlet-eyed view of a world where “even nerds can be bought and sold, almost as if times of great idealism carry equal chances for great corruptibility.”

Everywhere one turns in “Bleeding Edge,” something good seems to be getting ruined, while someone good crosses to the dark side.

What’s spirited and untamed at the “bleeding edge” of the Internet gets corralled and regimented — at an accelerating pace, in the climate of fear engendered by 9/11 — linking us together in one big prison with “nothing but portals to websites for what the Management wants everyone addicted to, such as ‘shopping,’ ‘gaming’ and ‘streaming endless garbage.’”

But as has always been true in Pynchon’s novels, “Bleeding Edge” suggests that no matter how ruthless, every supposedly all-encompassing system has holes, allowing a motley crew of resisters — drop-outs, techno-anarchists and old-fashioned lefties — to strike a blow for freedom.

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