Thomas Pynchon is a pesky, devilish genius. Since the early ’60s, he’s created a myriad of conspiracies, both within his work and in his persona. Never content to simply tell a story, Pynchon is the master of red herrings, unexplained motives, and technical jargon that may or may not be real. Bleeding Edge, his latest outing, is no exception. It’s a thrilling, puzzling book that would be annoyingly smart if it weren’t also a masterwork.
In typical Pynchon fashion, Bleeding Edge is about a woman in the middle of a conspiracy so nebulous its creators may not even understand it. After a tip from an old friend, unaccredited fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow starts digging through the various tech companies who managed to survive the dotcom bubble of the early ’00s. Beginning just months before 9/11, the book hurls Maxi through a series of encounters with neoliberal operatives, ex-KGB middlemen, virtual-reality hackers, and aging hippies. The plethora of characters can be a bit overwhelming at times, but Pynchon gives each a different stake in the game as Wall Street, Silicon Valley, the Pentagon, and the Middle East converge on an attack on American soil that looks like an inside job.
Pynchon is not a Truther, but he is savvy enough to realize that the U.S.’ economic and political climate is more culpable than not for 9/11, and beyond. Like several Pynchon books, the heart of the conspiracy isn’t really uncovered, but that’s fitting in days like these. Maxi is a ballsy everywoman, buffeted about by forces she only slightly understands. And by placing the story before the NSA surveillance state became commonplace, Pynchon shows its genesis, which amounts to a bunch of very smart people making very stupid decisions. Bleeding Edge argues that everyone is culpable in these eventualities, but it also acknowledges that they may not have been preventable.
That acknowledgement is an example of the empathy that runs through the novel (and is sometimes missing from Pynchon’s other work). Maxine is a lot of fun to be around, even when she’s making the wrong decision, and her affection for her sons punctuates some of the most poignant parts of the book. Even, or maybe especially, in this world of confusing allegiances and hidden powers, Pynchon points out how important family can be. Bleeding Edge is too cynical to be a champion of domestic life, but it underscores that a parent’s love, no matter how qualified, can make all the difference.