The three Goodreads friends who have rated Bleeding Edge all gave it 5 stars, so that’s impressive. Thomas Pynchon, of course, is a literary juggernaut. This is his first book I’ve read. Coincidentally, I watched the adaptation of Inherent Vice just after I started reading this. Obviously I don’t know if the movie is much like the book, but it has a similar stylistic feeling to Bleeding Edge: an overwhelming cast of characters connected in bizarre and coincidental ways stumbling in a stupour through a miasmic plot that sputters and jolts towards its conclusion.
Pynchon here reminds me a little of William Gibson. Whereas Gibson writes books in “alternative near-futures,” Pynchon seems to be writing about alternative near-pasts. I say alternative because while this isn’t really alternative history, the lens through which Pynchon examines events in New York surrounding September 11, 2001 is an esoteric one. He draws up a constellation of conspirators who seem to have involvement in September 11, which might have been a government plot, or a Middle Eastern plot, or both. In what I can only describe as pretentious satire Pynchon channels that Gibson flavour of social commentary on technology while populating this New York with strange, if not memorable, people.
It would be an understatement to call the cast of Bleeding Edge numerous. A cast list or dramatis personae at the front (or even the back) might have helped; throughout the nearly-500 pages of this book I kept finding myself going “Uh, did we meet this character before? The dialogue and narration seem to imply we have, but I have no memory of this person.” The revolving door and seemingly random comings-and-goings of characters is a problem for this book, or at least for me and the level of attention I was willing to pay it.
In terms of dialogue, Pynchon does a few interesting (but not necessarily good) things. He employs a lot of uptalk, especially with the women. And although dialogue tags are largely absent, when they appear, they are invariably in the form of sez, as if Pynchon has been reading too much BoingBoing. The uptalk is a nice observation on modern speech patterns; the absurd dialogue tag is just an affectation that serves little purpose.
So the characters come and go, mostly forgotten as I hike through the landscape of Pynchon’s self-aware and smug narration. (I can picture him sitting at a typewriter, plugging away at the manuscript one sentence at a time, rubbing his hands together with each convoluted simile or metaphor that transforms a simple description of a plate of food or a glance across the street into a paragraph’s worth of reflection on turn-of-the-millennium culture. Pynchon might have been a hipster before being a hipster was cool, yo.) Really the only character of note is the main character, Maxine. And despite my criticism of the rest of the cast, I genuinely liked Maxine. She is a round and dynamic character, possessing both the toughness one might expect from a de-certified fraud examiner and the vulnerability of a single mother wanting to protect her children from the vagaries such a job sometimes brings home.
Alas, any agency that Pynchon gives Maxine seems negated by the way Bleeding Edge’s plot just happens. I had the exact same sensation trying to watch Inherent Vice. Yes, the characters did things … but those things did not always seem directly connected to the outcomes, as if what happened was always going to happen. This faint scent of predestination tarnishes the story for me. Combine it with the flirtation with the conspiracy theories behind September 11, and I’m starting to check out.
Not even Pynchon’s treatment of our relationship with technology, particularly the nascent Web, manages to salvage the book for me. I’m starting to find it hard to remember the Web before social media—I started using the Internet in 2004, so I predate Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube (barely) and only just jumped on the AOL train as it was rolling into its final station (where it even now sits, its steam engine rumbling gently, as its last and most devoted attendants keep its fires stoked at the most minimal levels). But of course in 2001, the whole idea of social networking was in its infancy. The Web was not yet 10 years old, and the hyperlink still reigned supreme. As Maxine navigates some primitive virtual reality (again harkening to Gibsonian cyberspace), we get treated to this idea that the Web is this yet-to-be mapped frontier, and that beyond the edge is an unknowable void labelled (probably in Comic Sans) “Here Be Dragons.”
If I’m coming across as somewhat ambivalent about Bleeding Edge and Pynchon, that’s only because I am. On one hand, I can see a horizon line, one that if I could only cross would allow me to submerge myself as deeply into this work as so many others have before me. I get why some people feel this is a masterpiece. On the other hand, there was never a point where I felt like I was enjoying myself. I was never intrigued by the mysteries, never electrified by my confusion, never motivated to read faster except by my desire to be done with the book. As with many clever books that reach high but don’t make their mark on me, Bleeding Edge has some heart to it, but it’s just spread way too thinly.