Book Review

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

Photo on 26-04-2015 at 15.25 #2

Sometimes I read novels where I can’t really see why they were written. Novels that say very little to me on a personal level, that offer no psychological insight into obscure ideas I have encountered in my own life, or a deep experience related to something I have never known. Sometimes I read novels that take me nowhere, that explore themes and places that hold no interest, that are rooted too much in people I have no interest in exploring, or play with clichés in ways that feel clichéd rather than playful. Sometimes I read novels that I find boring, and often those are novels that have too much plot. Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge was one of those.

Bleeding Edge is a novel set in New York in 2001. It is about the collapse of the dot-com bubble and then, of course, the events of September 11. The protagonist is Maxine Tarnow, a decertified private fraud investigator, and it follows her around the city as she pursues allegations of serious financial disparities in the accounts of, one of the few tech companies that survived the market collapse and is now super, super wealthy. It is led by Gabriel Ice, a Bond-villain type figure who is definitely corrupt and possibly murderous, and Tarnow gets help from various individuals who have encountered Ice in his rise to internet oligarch and want to have him stopped and exposed. Aside from this, there are ex-KGB mafiosos with axes to grind, there are middle-aged Californian stoner programmers trying to create a point-and-click virtual reality Utopia to retreat to, there is a security agent from a secret government department of people with incredible olfactory senses, there is a foot fetishist, there is a high-level assassin, there is an elderly conspiracy theorist and blogger, a documentary filmmaker who overuses zoom…

In short, it is a big novel. There are numerous threads, too many characters and too many of them have similar names and personalities. Either that, or I’m just too much of a bumpkin to read the nuances between various wealthy tech and finance-industry New Yorkers. The text is a bit grating in places (which was what I found when I read The Crying of Lot 49) and the over-burdened plots felt less of an exciting evocation of a large city than they did of a cover-up of a significant lack within the text as a whole. Though there are lots of people, lots of events and lots of buildings, none of them really come to the fore. There are very few passages that are memorable, and I don’t believe my lack of any emotional engagement with the text was due to my own inability to read but rather with Pynchon’s inability to write.

It felt like a novel written by a white American man. Granted, to be fair to Pynchon, there is a verve and a freshness to the text that hides the fact that the author was in his mid-70s as he wrote, but there is a certain detachment and tone that is reminiscent of the self-important inelegance of all of these writers – Updike, Delillo and others (see my review of Stoner by John Williams) – there is an edge to the sex of these novels that is always self-involved, and this is especially evident in a novel of this type featuring a female protagonist – though she has a lot of sex*, she never really seems to be there when she does. Switching off from sex – that is what women always seem to do in texts written by men of Pynchon’s type**. As clever and resourceful and brave and quick as Tarnow is, she isn’t quite complete.

Maybe, though, this is all taste. Pynchon is revered, but I’ve found both of the two books of his I’ve read to be nothing special. Plotty, detectivistic plotlines but with an unengaging experimental edge. It sounds, when I type that, like something that could be entertaining. There are a few good jokes, perhaps, but a 500-page experimental thriller that neither made me think or thrilled me is a colossal waste of time. Now that I’m reading less books due to work commitments, it seems a shame to spend time reading books I don’t enjoy. It keeps me informed (in a way), yes, but it doesn’t keep me entertained.

Lauded New York novels often fail to thrill me. Though there are plenty I can think of I’ve enjoyed, I remember feeling nothing but ambivalence towards Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, and Bleeding Edge seemed to be very similar in intended audience. Pynchon may be an important writer because of how he was writing and when he was writing, but I don’t really see how this text has any relevance to me. It is about somewhere a decade and a half and an ocean away from me, it is about technology that has developed significantly and it is about wealthy, educated, professionals. The novel, its subjects and its settings, are tired. And though I am sure I will one day read again a novel about middle/upper-class Americans that I think is truly beautiful, of this one I felt the absolute opposite.

Would not recommend, would not reread, will not read Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, Pynchon’s alleged best works, unless several years pass and I forget how turgid I found this.



* Of course she does, she’s a woman in a novel by a middle-aged man.

** A “sex is something men do and women have done to them” mentality.

3 comments on “Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon

  1. Pingback: Question for the purpose of self-flagellation/screaming into the total noise: Are artists beyond politics? | mixedambivalence

  2. I recently tried to read Mason & Dixon; ‘turgid’ just about summed that one up as well. I only read about 150 pages but it wasn’t going anywhere. I felt my life draining away as I was reading it and had to end it. The problem is that now I’m thinking that I must be missing something because so many people rate him as a great writer. I mustn’t forget just how dreary the experience was or I may end up trying another of his novels.


  3. Anthony Palmieri

    “It doesn’t take any brains to have an opinion”. My grandpa dropped that on me when I was just a little mutt howling out my version of something or other (And stamping my feet)
    Pynchon’s very good. Try harder.

    Liked by 1 person

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