Thomas Pynchon / Jonathan Cape
Of all the unusual careers American fiction has thrown up – and there have been some mighty contenders – surely none match the continued iridescent strangeness of Thomas Pynchon, an author whose complete personal anonymity is a blank slate counterpointing the overflowing content, prodigious experimental style and teeming knowledge of his novels. Approaching what must be the closing stages of Pynchon’s career, his works fall clearly into two categories: the hectic paranoia of contemporary America – The Crying of Lot 49, Vineland and Inherent Vice – and the cryptic re-writing, via parallel, alternative historical narratives, of the birth and development of modernity and its multiple dark undersides – Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason & Dixon and Against The Day – with his first novel V combining elements of both. Taken as a whole, Pynchon’s novels comprise, it has been suggested, an entire history of the project that is the USA, dark-ambitioned science blending with music hall songs and mathematical conspiracies; bizarre, even ridiculous characters with fragile human tenderness; a cornucopia of pornographic practices and flights of psychedelia all coming together to describe an entropic arc in which we are all falling into final weightless, exhausted darkness, as modernity, science, capital and history – forces at one point or another believed tamed – turn and treat us as playthings. Pynchon’s latest, Bleeding Edge, falls into the former category of contemporary paranoid slapstick, as he enters an area as yet untouched by his wide ranging vision – the 21st century. It is a perfect marriage between author and subject. Readers familiar with Pynchon’s work will know that plot summaries are by and large pointless; Bleeding Edge is of course sprawling and chaotic, as the world itself is; here is the state of mind, both hallucinatory and predatory, of New York in 2001, as the dotcom bubble bursts. The novel transpires both prior to and beyond September of that year, with 9/11 operating as a briefly mentioned fulcrum around which de-listed fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow investigates a murky swamp of links between new internet technologies, military interests and, as always in Pynchon, the subtle uses of power, surveillance and exclusion. As so often, he has been writing ahead of his time. For those yet to discover this almost unclassifiable author, Bleeding Edge might not be a bad place to start. It lacks some of the majesty of his earlier work, and the jokes don’t always come off, but there are the essential quest and conspiracy, and the trademark densely spiralling plot – above and below ground, real and virtual, legal and counterfeit, tangible and illusory – as Tarnow tracks her way around the deeply breathing NYC, from corpses to outlet stores, from cold war bunkers to speedboats on the Hudson, Russian mobsters to hackers, geeks, stoners and a host of other Pynchon staples – Jews, dope, and very odd combinations of food. Pynchon dares to take language and the imagination places others won’t or can’t; he remains the most beautiful and inventive prose stylist of his generation. And most importantly, his post-modernism does not exclude a warm embrace of those intangibles such as beauty grace and love.