Pynchon . . . the invisible man of literature emerges again
fiction Bleeding Edge Thomas Pynchon Jonathon Cape, €18.70, tpbk, 496 pages
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There are certain American writers whose every book is a literary event and Thomas Pynchon, definitely, is one of them. The 77-year-old New Yorker has been a literary star since Gravity's Rainbow in 1973, which notoriously won the Pulitzer Prize but then had the award revoked by their board, who belatedly decided it was "unreadable" and "obscene".
Not that Pynchon was too bothered, presumably, because his reputation was set in stone. Subsequent novels such as Vineland and Inherent Vice, added to earlier works V and cult classic The Crying of Lot 49, turned that stone into the gleaming marble of greatness. Whatever else Pynchon does now, his name has achieved a kind of literary immortality.
Everyone from David Mitchell to Salman Rushdie has cited him as an influence. Even Kurt Cobain is said to have been inspired by Gravity's Rainbow when writing the generation-defining anthem 'Smells Like Teen Spirit'.
Interestingly, this living icon is totally unknown as a man. Pynchon is famously elusive (don't say reclusive, he hates the term). Very little is known about his personal life, he never appears at literary events, never gives interviews and hasn't been photographed for decades. Rather amusingly, he's spoofed his own enigmatic image, appearing on The Simpsons twice, once with a bag over his head, loudly demanding attention.
Pynchon's writing style is a mixture of high art – formally experimental, almost abstract at times – a wide and deep frame of reference from scholarly to pop-cultural, and a penchant for broad comedy. Virtually every major theme has been tackled: physics, theology, science and technology, sex, power, and mass-culture, especially music, feature frequently.
He's an acquired taste; there's something a bit too postmodern about his writing for some readers. Maybe it's that fast-and-loose amalgamating of "high" with "low" culture; for many people, either is fine on its own, but please, don't mix them up like that.
Bleeding Edge is the first Pynchon since 2009's private-eye pastiche/homage Inherent Vice. It sort of continues in that vein, with its story about Maxine Tarnow, a decertified fraud investigator who's examining the shady dealings of tech billionaire Gabriel Ice during that weird interregnum in mid-2001, after the dotcom crash and moving towards 9/11.
We see an extended cast of players through Maxine's eyes: the creepy Ice; the even-creepier spook Windust; Maxine's charming, precocious sons; their badass-but-sexy Krav Maga instructor; Californian tech gurus considering selling out to The Man; a dodgy-dealing Russian with a conscience; even a computer programme called DeepArcher, which seems close to human. The story, to use Pynchon's superb vulgarism, "barrel-asses" along at a breathless pace, taking in murder, conspiracy, corporate chicanery, the early internet, the binary badlands beneath the web we think we know.
Maxine is a great main character, a gutsy, sardonic Noo Yawk Jew, instantly likeable and the perfect guide to bring us through this sprawling story as big as America (almost 500 pages).
So it's big, but is Bleeding Edge deep? Not especially. Pynchon makes interesting observations about life, there are lovely twists of lyricism throughout, the dialogue is punchy and believable, the jokes are funny.
And there are some deeper thoughts: how technological developments can take on volition of their own; parallels between online innovation and religious mysticism; the unreality of what we perceive to be reality.
I couldn't compare it, though, to something like DeLillo's Underworld, which really did feel like it encircled entireties of time and space: the so-called "American century", distilled. Bleeding Edge is less ambitious, anyway, more quirky and endearingly odd in personality.
It won't make any 'greatest novels ever' lists. But it's a hell of a lot of fun to read.