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Since his first novel, V, came out in 1963, when he was 26, Thomas Pynchon has written two kinds of book. There are the vast, sprawling, panoramic, elaborate, years-to-research-and-write, mind-blowing historical behemoths with casts of thousands – Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Mason & Dixon (1997), Against the Day (2006). Then there are the zippier novels, no less brilliant but more narrowly focused in geography and timescale; set, if not in the here and now, then in the somewhere nearby and within the author’s adult lifetime: The Crying of Lot 49 (1965), Vineland (1990), Inherent Vice (2009) and now the dazzling Bleeding Edge. Its narrative takes place in Manhattan, over the course of a year. It begins on “the first day of spring 2001” on the Upper West Side, where Maxine Tarnow, a divorced mother of two and freelance fraud investigator, is walking her sons to school on her way to work.
It’s a year since the dotcom bubble burst, and Maxine’s professional world is seething with refugees from Silicon Alley. But there’s one tech company, hashslingrz, that has not only survived the crash but appears to be thriving on it, hoovering up smaller businesses just as they’re about to go bust. Maxine is hearing mentions of hashslingrz and Gabriel Ice, its chief executive, all over the place, and before long she’s being hired to look into suspected irregularities at the company by a venture capitalist who invested in one of those it took over. She doesn’t have to dig very deep to turn up dirt: fake accounts; hefty sums being siphoned off to a slush fund in Dubai; a mysterious facility hidden beneath Ice’s house at the far end of Long Island, next to Montauk Air Force Station, long the focus of conspiracy theories about secret government experiments into UFOs and time travel.
Maxine’s investigation forms the basis of what passes for the main plot of the novel, though Pynchon’s plots are less like the kind you find in a police procedural, more like the kind imagined by paranoid conspiracy theorists; more about webs of connections, seeing patterns in the chaos, than going from A to B to C until the mystery’s solved. With Pynchon, the mysteries tend to stay mysterious. Maxine’s job makes her an ideal heroine, “part of the Certified Fraud Examiner skill set being a tendency to look for hidden patterns”. Her assistant solves one of their cases by taking her reading glasses off while looking at a spreadsheet “and suddenly, blurry but there it was, the pattern”.
There’s plenty of space within the pattern for Pynchon’s trademark digressions (flashbacks interrupt flashbacks like a cascade of pop-up windows from a dodgy website), songs, terrible puns (while Pynchon’s novels are frequently very funny, his characters’ jokes are not), and some magnificent set pieces, including a speedboat chase through New York’s harbour, “the World Trade Center leaning, looming brilliantly curtained in light gigantically off their port quarter”, on past the mountains of landfill on Staten Island, “toxicity central, the dark focus of Big Apple waste disposal, everything the city has rejected so it can keep on pretending to be itself”.
The speedboat belongs to Gabriel Ice’s drug-running father-in-law, one of the many zany and/or sinister characters that populate the novel. As well as Maxine’s children, clients, therapist, former husband and best friend, there are hordes of web designers, computer programmers and other nerds; Russian mobsters; a veteran political activist-turned-blogger who also happens to be Ice’s mother-in-law; a bike courier who drops round with helpful packages whenever the storyline needs shoving along; a sadistic, sentimental government agent whom Maxine can’t help being inexplicably smitten by; a man called Conkling Speedwell, who’s a “freelance professional Nose, having been born with a sense of smell far more calibrated than the rest of us normals enjoy”.
The novel’s title is explained by the developers of a piece of software that Ice is desperate to get his hands on. DeepArcher is a kind of virtual labyrinth, which “forgets where it’s been, immediately, forever”. It is “bleeding-edge technology”: “no proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with.”
The power of DeepArcher’s code to erase where it’s been instantly, obliterating memory and history, may be a holy grail online but there’s a similar phenomenon that’s all too pervasive back in meatspace, where it can sometimes seem as if no one has any sense of history at all. The planes that hit the World Trade Center did not, despite appearances, come from nowhere, out of a clear blue sky. And who could have imagined, watching the towers fall, how quickly that moment, too, would be written over: “The atrocity site, which one would have expected to become sacred or at least inspire a little respect, swiftly becomes occasion instead for open-ended sagas of wheeling and dealing, bickering and badmouthing over its future as real estate.”
There’s irony here, as well as anger, since the future of real estate, in the US at large, if not in downtown Manhattan, was to be financial collapse on a scale that would almost write the dotcom bubble out of the history books.