Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Review published on June 23, 2015. Reviewed by Stephen Joyce

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

There are two problems when reviewing a Thomas Pynchon novel: first, it’s a Thomas Pynchon novel, so half the audience will automatically roll their eyes and mutter about unreadable unpunctuated postmodern claptrap; and second, it’s a Thomas Pynchon novel, which means the other half of the audience will gush enthusiastically about its vibrant experimental prose and mention at least eight philosophers in every paragraph.

So let me attempt to write about Bleeding Edge as if I didn’t know who the author was, in which case Bleeding Edge is a witty, entertaining mystery about dodgy dotcoms, the dark Net, and 9/11 that luxuriates in conspiracy theories and frustratingly (or enticingly, depending on your point of view) fails to resolve itself into a neat conclusion.

Our heroine is Maxine Tarnow, fraud investigator, separated mother of two boys, a sharp fast-talking woman on the lookout for conmen and scams and signs of classic Jewish mother syndrome creeping into her behaviour. Tarnow is a great character, funny, impulsive, street smart but often naïve. In the early months of 2001, in between coping with family problems Maxine starts investigating an Internet firm that somehow survived the dotcom crash and has strange links to the Middle East.

Much of the gravity in the book is caused by the fact that we, the reader, know what Maxine can’t, that every reference to strange Islamic figures is a sign of impending doom. Instead, she juggles a number of different but possibly interconnected cases without any particular sense of urgency and the reader often wants to shake the book and order Maxine not to put off investigating that mysterious payment to a Dubai bank account until after she tries to reunite with her estranged husband.

Most of the book is driven by fast-paced, hardboiled dialogue, at which Pynchon excels.

“… somebody’s going to way too much trouble to keep secrets, as if Ice or somebody in his shop ain’t just squirreling it away but bankrolling something, something big and invisible…”
“And… funnelling sums over to the Emirates in the Hefty Smurf range can’t be for some totally innocent reason, because…?”
“Because I keep trying to come up with innocent reasons and can’t. Can you?”
“I don’t do international intrigue, remember? Well, maybe Nigerian e-mails, but usually I’m down here with the bent baristas and the pigeon-drop artists.”

Lovers of mystery stories may find it frustrating that the mystery never actually resolves itself; there are simply so many strands, with CIA, former KGB, Islamic terrorists, dotcom kingpins, drug dealers, and so on that we are left with hints of a malevolent conspiracy and the fact of 9/11 without it ever cohering. This, I think, is not because Pynchon has joined a loony conspiracy group but because what connects things like the financial crisis and global terrorism is that for ordinary people the big picture is always out of sight. There’s no way to wrap up the mystery because there’s no way Maxine can ever be in a position to know how it all fits together, even if her life and the lives of those around her will forever be changed by all the things she cannot see.

Bleeding Edge is a surprisingly entertaining read for a writer with such a fearsome reputation for incomprehensibility. It’s fast-paced with a galaxy of great characters and a vibrant comic tone. Readers will have to decide for themselves how they feel about an open-ended mystery, but for those who don’t care so much about the destination, the journey is more than worth it.

Stephen Joyce

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon is published by Vintage

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