Bleeding Edge is my least favorite Thomas Pynchon novel, though to put it in perspective, that’s like saying “my least favorite David Lynch film” or “my least favorite episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” If you’re keeping track, those would be, respectively, Wild At Heart and “The Golden Age of Ballooning.” But there are great moments in those worst work of major artists. Harry Dean Stanton’s death scene in Wild At Heart is supremely creepy; Sherilyn Fenn’s death scene in the same film is remarkably moving. “The Golden Age of Ballooning” episode has one of my favorite Python non-sequiters when the Ronettes, a girl group straight out of Motown, enter the court of George III and begin singing his name over and over as the king falls to the ground and laments that “I’m not supposed to go mad until 1800!” It’s one of the few times that Python had any reference to contemporary pop culture. This is one of the reasons why that series seems timeless whereas Saturday Night Live always seems dated come Monday morning. So even the “least favorite” work can have something to recommend it.
References to contemporary culture and getting them right, playful anachronisms, material that can be supremely creepy and/or remarkably moving; Pynchon is skilled at all of these. Bleeding Edge is set in New York City and begins after the early 2000’s dot com bust and ends shortly after the World Trade Center towers fell. Like his previous novel Inherent Vice, it is a detective story pitched at a smaller scale than his other work. Inherent Vice had the advantage of being set in a time and place – Los Angeles at the end of the 1960’s – where the mores and the mindset have changed so much since then that that book might as well be a Margaret Mead anthropological study of a long vanished tribe (or “vanquished” if you want to bring politics into it). Bleeding Edge is the first of his novels set in a time and place in which I actually lived. While reading it I kept thinking “Yeah, I know all this. I was there. I still am.” New York hasn’t changed that much since 9/11, it’s only gotten more so: more expensive and more in thrall to money and power. This sense of “having been there” might account for my resistance to the novel. There’s a section early in the book in which characters discuss “The Rachel” haircut, named after Jennifer Anniston’s character on “Friends.” Pynchon gets the scene right. I’ve overheard or been part of similar conversations. People did spend time, probably too much, talking about such things in the early 2000’s. But I’m stuck now reading several pages of characters talking about hair.
The novel doesn't become compelling until perhaps halfway or maybe two thirds through, beginning with a party on Saturday, September 8, 2001 and continuing through the aftermath of 9/11. Pynchon shows what it was like living in the city during those stunned days. I was there. I still am. I thought I knew all this but it wasn’t until finishing the book that I remembered how much I had forgotten. Pynchon avoids obvious dramatics – no major characters die in the attacks – but captures the feeling, the experience of living in the city then. And now. Greater than the change wrought by 9/11 (see above – there wasn’t much change) is the revolution afforded by the book’s true subject: the internet, the phantom that’s taken residence in all our lives.
The fact that Pynchon wrote this novel while in his mid-70’s is astonishing. The writing has an energy and an awareness of things that writers half his age can’t muster. It’s just my least favorite book by him and yet thinking and writing about it makes me want to read it again.