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Thomas Pynchon Takes on September 11


For half a century, Thomas Pynchon has been America's preeminent novelist of paranoia, the writer who sees patterns and connections where others find only the random detritus of history. His emblem could be the spiral horn that Oedipa Maas, the heroine of The Crying of Lot 49, begins to notice emblazoned everywhere, on walls and in corners: The horn is the logo of the Tristero, an ancient, underground mail-delivery service that remains invisible precisely because it is so omnipresent. Secrets remain secret, Pynchon suggests, only because we refuse to notice them.

But even paranoids, as the saying goes, have real enemies. On September 11, 2001, for instance, the paranoid worldview was spectacularly vindicated: As it turned out, there really were dangerous people plotting in secret against the established order, and they really did manage to change history. Yet at the very moment that the paranoid imagination is proved correct, it is also, paradoxically, rendered impotent. Think of all the major writers who, in the wake of September 11, attempted to describe the world of Mohammed Atta and his co-conspirators, from the Hamburg cell to the cockpit of Flight 93. Don DeLillo, John Updike, and Martin Amis all had a try, and none of their work turned out to be equal to the subject, because in its plain factuality September 11 was already too much for our imaginations to handle.

Pynchon has already approached September 11 once before, obliquely, in his 2006 novel Against the Day. That book revolved around terrorists, of the early twentieth-century anarchist variety, and featured a dream-like passage that was unmistakably an allusion to that day's famous scenes of destruction. But now, in Bleeding Edge, Pynchon takes on the attacks quite directly, by setting his novel on and around the Upper West Side of Manhattan during the spring, summer, and fall of 2001. Showing a greater tact than Amis and company, Pynchon does not attempt the impossible task of fictionalizing the fall of the Twin Towers themselves. Instead, his characters experience September 11 the way almost all of us experienced it, on television: "Maxine goes home and pops on CNN. And there it all is. Bad turns to worse. All day long."

The actual conspiracy that brought down the Twin Towers remains deliberately undescribed, one might say, so that it will not contrast too starkly with the fictional conspiracies with which Pynchon's imagination surrounds it. For Bleeding Edge is one long, paranoid shaggy-dog story, in which the villains and villainies never stop proliferating. CIA torturers, Russian mobsters, Internet hackers, Arab bomb-makers, Mossad assassins—just about every stereotypical figure of power and menace that populates our imagination, or our TV sets, finds its way into the pages of Pynchon's novel. The book becomes, quite deliberately, a burlesque of Pynchon's own reputation for paranoia: "Paranoia's the garlic in life's kitchen, right, you can never have too much," as one character says early on.

Paranoia posits mysteries everywhere, and to solve mysteries what you need, of course, is a detective. The Philip Marlowe of Bleeding Edge is Maxine Tarnow, a twenty-first-century P.I.—or, to be precise, a C.F.E., a Certified Fraud Examiner. Yet in addition to being a hard-boiled, pistol-packing professional, Maxine is also a divorced mother of two leading a seemingly ordinary existence. As the novel opens, we see her walking her sons to their private school, a picture of urban bourgeois contentment.

Much of the oddball charm of Bleeding Edge comes from the way Pynchon roots Maxine in a familiar New York milieu. The Jewishness of Maxine's world is insisted on, not for its deeper social or political possibilities—the subject of American Jewish fear after September 11 was probably best treated by Philip Roth in The Plot Against America—but for its atmospheric and comic ones. Pynchon fills the book with cultural signifiers—Yiddish words, delicatessen food, even Loehmann's department store—partly out of his sheer pleasure in them, and partly because they make Maxine seem so warm, normal, haimish. (The very name "Maxine Tarnow" is possibly the most normal of any character in Pynchon's fiction.)

A second source of soothing familiarity comes from Pynchon's truly encyclopedic memory for pop culture circa 2001. You would have to search a long time to find a 75-year-old as attuned to television, movies, pop music, and Internet memes as Pynchon proves himself to be in Bleeding Edge. Just about every page provokes a little wink of recognition: Remember the failed delivery service The Rachel haircut? "All Your Base Are Belong to Us"? These are the kinds of trivia that seldom find their way into serious fiction, but Pynchon knows they can be a remarkably strong source of identification for that narrow demographic that is just the right age to recognize them. (They also make you wonder if the book will be completely incomprehensible to a reader 20 years from now.)

One of the favorite bits of tech wisdom deployed in Bleeding Edge is the distinction between the "surface Web"—all the sites we see and use on a daily basis—and the "deep Web," the unsearchable zone of hidden information where mysteries reside. Pynchon, always a believer in deep webs, loves this conceit, and the novel seems to imitate it formally: Its surface is cluttered with familiar trivia, like our browsers, while weird secrets are continually emerging from its depths. But Pynchon's grasp of the quotidian is so firm, in fact, that the weird and sinister forces he conjures up never quite manage to disrupt it.

Even its mysteries come to us wrapped up in a cozy package. Indeed, the structure of Bleeding Edge is that of a hundred film noirs and detective stories; Maxine does not so much make discoveries as have them thrust upon her by a series of shadowy informants and convenient clues. She is forever running into disgruntled computer programmers, or Russian enforcers, or left-wing activists, who have some new evidence to feed her; when things threaten to stall, Pynchon has someone anonymously mail her a videotape or computer disk.

This proliferation shows that Pynchon's focus is not on plot, but plots. These come in fistfuls, and it's never clear exactly how they are meant to fit together, or if it matters. The number-one bad guy in Maxine's world is Gabriel Ice, a dot-com billionaire whose company, hashslingrz, seems to be a front for moving large amounts of money to secret bank accounts in the Middle East. But he is far from alone. There is also Nicholas Windust, a government agent responsible for unnameable crimes in Central America in the 1980s; and Rocky Slagiatt, a possibly mobbed-up venture capitalist; and Igor Dashkov, a Russian special forces veteran who drives around Manhattan in a Soviet-era limousine; and Vip Epperdew, a low-level fraudster who turns up on a clandestine sex tape.

The most sinister presence in the novel, however, is not a person but a building: The Deseret, a hulking Upper West Side luxury apartment house clearly modeled on the real-world building The Apthorp. First, a dead body turns up underneath the Deseret's swimming pool. Then Maxine receives a video showing a crew of men on the building's roof, aiming a Stinger missile at passing airliners. Naturally, it turns out that Gabriel Ice is a part-owner of the Deseret. Is he also, somehow, involved with the Montauk Project, a rumored military program that researches time travel? And what is the nature of Ice's interest in DeepArcher, a virtual-reality website which, Pynchon suggests, may be a portal to the realm of the dead?

When September 11 comes, however, the ballooning conspiracies of the novel instantly burst, pinpricked by reality. For the memory of that real conspiracy is proof that, when evil is done in the real world, it is not colorful, zany, evocative, or tantalizing. It is a matter of real people in real places doing largely mundane things: taking flight lessons, buying airplane tickets, carrying box-cutters. On September 11, there was no time-travel involved, and no mystical websites—not even anyone with a funny name. The deep web turned out to be not a realm of dark magic, but just a part of the surface we weren't able to see.

The best thing that can be said about Bleeding Edge is that Pynchon seems to recognize the unseriousness of his own mystery-making, and so doesn't insist on taking the novel's paranoia too seriously. All those comic names, all those puns and references, keep the tone playful and the pace quick. However odd it may seem, this is a September 11 novel that is light reading—a genre parody, genial and rambunctious. Its very portentousness is a kind of game, and so it remains safe, like Maxine Tarnow, even as it wanders down the darkest of alleys.

Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.

This piece has been corrected. It originally misstated the name of one of the characters.