BLEEDING EDGE. By Thomas Pynchon. Penguin Press. 477 pages. $28.95.
Thomas Pynchon opens his Manhattan-set novel "Bleeding Edge" on the first day of spring, 2001. So you know what's coming.
For more than 300 curiously low-key pages, he hints and foreshadows. A character who "can foresmell things that're going to happen," for example, senses a "bitter," "caustic," never-before-smelled event whose approach feels "like breathing in needles."
This is the Pynchon we know well, the doom-tickled fashioner of paranoid scenarios that take shape at the intersection of history, science fiction and black magic.
Then Sept. 11 arrives and -- meh. The novel goes bantering on, the catastrophe acknowledged but hardly more, the characters surprisingly unperturbed. Which is all wrong: However Sept. 11 affected New Yorkers, it wasn't an anticlimax.
The book's central character, Maxine Tarnow, is a fraud investigator working on a case that she describes to her husband in Pynchonese, thus:
"This documentary guy Reg Despard -- his twice-as-paranoid IT genius, Eric -- they spot something cute in the bookkeeping at hashslingrz.com. OK, Reg comes to me with it, thinks it's sinister, global in scope, maybe to do with the Mideast, but it could be too much 'X-Files' or whatever."
The sinister chief executive of hashslingrz.com, Gabriel Ice, turns out to be "practically synonymous with U.S. security arrangements" -- which makes "Bleeding Edge" largely about the very now subject (how did Pynchon anticipate Edward Snowden?) of government surveillance and the new technology.
Maxine's father, an old-school lefty with a paranoid streak, elaborates. The Web, he explains, is the brainchild of Cold War militarism:
"Your Internet was their invention, this magical convenience that creeps now like a smell through the smallest details of our lives ... It was conceived in sin, the worst possible. As it kept growing, it never stopped carrying in its heart a bitter-cold death wish for the planet ...
"Take the next step, connect it to cell phones, you've got a total Web of surveillance, inescapable ... handcuffs of the future. Terrific. What they dream about at the Pentagon, worldwide martial law."
There it is -- history, politics, technology, paranoia: Pynchon's stomping ground. When it fully engages him, the book yields up elements of near greatness, such as Maxine's dreamlike voyages into the virtual reality of the Deep Web. (Pynchon has always been good at dreams.)
There is, as well, the off-kilter, wisecracking gorgeousness of Pynchon's prose. But the dumb jokiness that once functioned as a complex postmodern self-canceling device -- the fulfillment of a strange, neurotic need to spray-paint over his most gravely beautiful passages -- now just seems old-codgerish. (He's 76.) And the jokes aren't funny.
Structure has never been Pynchon's strong point. The all- over-the-place-ness didn't matter so much in the gargantuan "Gravity's Rainbow" (1973) -- at least, not until the last quarter -- because the sentences were so intense, sensually and emotionally, that the acid trip they constituted flattened every other concern.
"Bleeding Edge" is more like the kind of trip in which you keep asking from the back seat, "When are we going to get there?"
Editing would have helped. The novel's most obvious precedent is Pynchon's cosmic mystery of 1966, "The Crying of Lot 49," which also had a female hero. It's his only short book, and the brevity is part of its deadly power.
If the bland, watery medium the good stuff here is floating around in had been drained, maybe "Bleeding Edge" could have gained some of that power. (The title certainly has it.) But its emotional temperature is so tepid that it's hard to feel the book matters much -- even to the author.
This once deeply troubled writer seems to have found a way to live at peace with himself in a world that -- he still forcefully argues -- is monstrously, enragingly unjust. Good for him. Bad for us.