Waxing Press

Book Review: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

book reviewsIan WissmanComment

Like with any of Thomas Pynchon’s novels, stick-to-itivness pays off in the end, rewarding a careful and conscientious reader with a bounty of literary delights. With Bleeding Edge, there was just something not "clicking" right with me as I went along. From the outset, I was anticipating what’s colloquially referred to as "Pynchon-lite"—a kind of unfair, unfounded, and fairly critically limiting diminutive given to Pynchon’s perhaps “easier” books, such as The Crying of Lot 49, Inherent Vice, or Vineland—but I was a big fan of IV. So why did this one take so long for me to finally come around on?

Contemplating my experience, it really seems like BE may be treading trodden ground for Mr. Paranoid, and in that vein, the book didn't really come to many new insights, or revelatory moments abound in previous entries from Pynchon. I found myself constantly wondering, "What are the stakes?" I eventually settled into the idea that there were none, and this was just a quick detour through Pynchonland.

What’s unique about this one (at least specifically to me), is it’s the first Pynchon set within my lifetime, which made the setting (Midtown Manhattan where I once lived, and the early 2000s when I became an adult) one that I'm eerily connected to and familiar with—and perhaps the first time I didn’t have to chase down many of the cultural references on Google. As a fun romp, it was decent. The hallmarks of Pynchon's fun-house ride are all here: goofy names, so-bad-they're-good puns, weird sex, ad infinitum. But it was missing an edge. Until the end.

Late in the game, though, something deeper emerges from the ether of BE’s pages, which may or may not be connected to the perfunctorily illustrated 9/11 attacks that nod toward conspiracists’ rejection of the mainstream narrative on what happened that day. Or maybe it had really been right there from the start. So what is it? A new manifestation of the Paranoid: Paranoia of the Real and the Virtual. Simulacrum and Simulation. After the attack on the towers, there's a deep thread relating to our protagonist Maxine's trips into DeepArcher—a Deep Web VR "game" that includes a lot of "dowsing." Is Maxine just a meta-character standing in for the lonely reader of BE, searching for the invisible? Something hiding within but is not really there? Is BE a meta-comment on our (Pynchonites) need to "find" something behind the right click of a piece of text? Maybe Maxine never left DeepArcher after her first trip down and the whole rest of the book was part of The Virtual? Tough questions that I don’t have answers to, but food for that eventual a second trip.

While there is little pressure or demand on the reader in this book (at least by Pynchonian standards), Pynchon has slipped in some distilled versions of his vision of the Human Project with deep(ish) contemplations on death, and even a particularly interesting scene in which Maxine likens faces in a passing subway train to tarot cards.

I was ready to write this off, but the last 100-150 pages gave me the Pynchon fix I thought BE was missing. Perhaps, oddly, as Pynchon's most accessible book it’s only accessible to the hardcore Pynchonites.