Sept/Oct/Nov 2013

The Crying of West 79th Street

Reality comes undone in Thomas Pynchon's novel about New York in the early aughts

Ed Park


Bless an author with a long enough career, and even the most outcast elements can get a second chance. In Thomas Pynchon’s encyclopedic, pull-out-the-stops first novel, V. (1963), the Upper West Side merits only a withering dismissal:

This was on Broadway in the 80’s, which is not the Broadway of Show Biz, or even a broken heart for every light on it. Uptown was a bleak district with no identity, where a heart never does anything so violent or final as break: merely gets increased tensile, compressive, shear loads piled on it bit by bit every day till eventually these and its own shudderings fatigue it.

Fifty—fifty!—years later, Bleeding Edge, his latest, situates its heroine, Maxine Tarnow, and much of its action firmly on the “Yupper West Side.” Though the area retains a rep as “a vague sort of uptown Dubuque,” Pynchon’s affection for Maxine means the neighborhood gets his signature treatment, three parts laughing gas to one part subterranean profundity.

Present in every scene, Maxine is a single mom and a quasi PI—in Pynchon’s words, a “Certified Fraud Examiner gone rogue.” A case involving certain shadowy transactions leads her into Matrix territory, first to a virtual world known as DeepArcher, a sort of Second Life avant la lettre, then to the Deep Web, the “endless junkyard” of the Internet, beyond the reach of search engines, and toward a “horizon between coded and codeless,” where even the dead might live again. But it’s the living, breathing details of Upper West Side life, circa 2001, that give Bleeding Edge its humor and its heart. In a region that might have the most shrinks per capita in the country, it’s no surprise that the Otto Kugelblitz School, which Maxine’s sons attend, is an institution marinated in the teachings of an ostracized Freudian, so that “each grade level would be regarded as a different kind of mental condition and managed accordingly. A loony bin with homework, basically.” Her elder son’s after-school activity of choice is the Israeli martial art of krav maga, taught by the crushworthy Emma Levin, “rumored to be ex-Mossad.”

Pynchon delights in the quirks of local cuisine, such as it is, from the gourmet shop Crumirazzi (read: Citarella), where a Thanksgiving-turkey fracas escalates to slapstick, to La Cibaeña Chinese-Dominican Café (“you might want to try the General Tso’s catibias, they’re highly spoken of”) and Comprehensive Pizza (“whose delivery area arguably does not even include this apartment, requiring the usual Talmudic telephone discussion over whether they will bring food to begin with”). Even as its plot grows ever more complex, Bleeding Edge is reliably entertaining as a sort of cracked Zagat’s, with entries ghostwritten by Ben Katchor.

Of course, Pynchon is famous for his complexity. V., The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), and Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) virtually set the template for the paranoid style in American fiction, and for what’s semi-synonymously called the systems novel—vast interrogations in which character and plot get subsumed in grander architectures built to explain or exhaust various systems of control (political, technological, financial, chemical, etc.). Other high priests of this tendency include the stylistically diverse William Gaddis, Don DeLillo, and David Foster Wallace; The Corrections has one foot in this tradition, as do many of William Gibson’s novels. If you double the list of key figures, most will still be dudes. At times, the systems novel can seem like the ultimate in what we now call “mansplaining.”

In Bleeding Edge, Pynchon is keenly conscious of this gender divide, and even seems to address it. “Generally, all-male narratives, unless it’s the NBA, challenge Maxine’s patience,” he writes. “Now and then [her sons] will hustle her into watching an action movie, but if there aren’t that many women in the opening credits, she’ll tend to drift away.” The conspiracy racket is a man’s man’s man’s world; though several winning female characters weave their way through the novel (including March Kelleher, the snood-wearing, paranoid-blogging, old-school UWS lefty who delivers a “parable nobody is supposed to get” at the Otto Kugelblitz commencement), mostly we are introduced to a maze of men, some of them likable (e.g., her ex, Horst), some of them sinister, some of them obsessed grotesques—foot fetishists, olfactory connoisseurs, ice-cream junkies. Maxine is the resourceful amateur venturing into terra incognita, like cool hunter Cayce Pollard in Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. In one goofy set piece, she tries her hand, not to mention legs, at pole dancing in order to scope out a nerd contact who can help her navigate the Deep Web.

Maxine isn’t Pynchon’s first memorable female protagonist. The Crying of Lot 49 begins:

One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.

From the first sentence, the domestic (female) and financial (male) spheres intermingle, suggesting that the organization implicit in a Tupperware party could help in ironing out a scrambled financial record. Oedipa has the role thrust on her so suddenly that she still needs to sort out the language: Executor, executrix? In empathy terms, we are with her immediately—Pynchon has us, as Renée Zellweger sez, at hello—to the degree that we even accept “Oedipa” as a name someone could actually have. As several men in the story are in love with Mrs. Maas, so, clearly, is her creator. A labyrinth of arcane information—bone-filter cigarettes and Civil War footnotes for starters—awaits the reader, but we’ll only go in with someone we trust. Pynchon? Hmm, not sure about that dude. But Oedipa—yeah! She’s both his stand-in and ours. (Could be, too, that a questing female instantly eroticizes these convoluted quests—a woman uncovering what men have concealed.)

Bleeding Edge is several times the length of The Crying of Lot 49, and Pynchon’s close-third-person POV is even closer this time around. The prose is looser, the magpie high-low warblings inflected with New York attitude. No terse late style here (fifty years!). Since we’re talking beginnings:

It’s the first day of spring 2001, and Maxine Tarnow, though some still have her in their system as Loeffler, is walking her boys to school. Yes maybe they’re past the age where they need an escort, maybe Maxine doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?

Executor, executrix; Tarnow, Loeffler? The just-this-side-of-poignant single-mom scene is darkened by “spring 2001.” We know the Big Thing that is going to happen later that year. With Maxine as muse in this soon-to-burst milieu, Pynchon sets up a fractally splitting early-aughts scene: hacked Furbies and misbehaving cash registers, amateur porn delivered in kozmo.com bags, elaborate dot-com parties, and Sex and the City–caliber footwear (“the sort of shoes that get podiatrists to daydreaming of Ferraris and personal golf lessons from Tiger Woods”).

When Maxine ventures into DeepArcher (say it slowly till you get it), Pynchon conveys the magic sensation of entering a virtual world (be it Myst, Skyrim, Minecraft) for the first time, as she “finds herself wandering around clicking on everything, faces, litter on the floor, labels on bottles behind the bar, after a while interested not so much in where she might get to than the texture of the search itself.” “So where’s the Undo command?” someone asks at one point. There are a number of haunting scenes rendered in the desert of the Deep Web, but this unreal estate has been so powerfully rendered before (in The Matrix, in Neuromancer) that Pynchon is wise to keep most of the action out of the monitor.

After the towers fall, and after immersion in DeepArcher, even the real world feels less real. Pynchon slips a note of unease into his droll description of that first post-9/11 Halloween, when “not even people who said, ‘Oh, I’m just going as myself’ were authentic replicas of themselves.” There is the usual quotient of bad lyrics reproduced at length. A channel called BioPix offers daffy actor/subject pairings, e.g., Hugh Grant in The Phil Mickelson Story—pretty good, but not as good as when Pynchon did it back in Vineland (1990), where the “Eight O’Clock Movie [one night was] Pee-wee Herman in The Robert Musil Story.” The comic descriptions land fast and furious: Someone’s chances are “about as fat as Ally McBeal”; Maxine’s ex knows something’s up when he sees her turn “whiter than Greenwich, Connecticut on a Thursday.” Pynchon makes Madonna’s “Borderline” the theme song for a group of people with borderline personality disorder, and he goes through the trouble of inventing a cable offering, Scooby Goes Latin, for the sole purpose of having the villain say, “And I would’ve got away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for those Medellín kids!”

The epigraph, from the late, great crime writer Donald E. Westlake, reads: “New York as a character in a mystery would not be the detective, would not be the murderer. It would be the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” We—OK, I—don’t need to know exactly what’s happening at every point of Bleeding Edge (hey, it’s New York, it’s enigmatic, so?) (fifty years!) (Oedipaaaaa!), but I’m loving that Pynchonian alchemy which can intensify and elevate your average New York street scene into something monumental, such as the self-consciousness of sticking out your hand for a cab:

She imagines herself solidifying into not exactly a pillar of salt, something between that and a commemorative statue, iron and gaunt, of all the women in New York who used to annoy her by standing by the curbsides “hailing a taxi,” though no taxis might be visible for ten miles in any direction—nevertheless holding their hand out toward the empty street and the oncoming traffic that isn’t there, not beseechingly but in a strangely entitled way, a secret gesture that will trigger an all-cabbie alert, “Bitch standing at corner with hand up in air! Go! Go!” Wolf Blitzer on CNN breaking in, hey, wow, she wants a cab, everybody, let’s get some footage of this!

Bleeding Edge is full of secret gestures, the weird stuff that keeps things real. But chillingly, even that word is up for grabs. Toward the end of the book our heroine sees a “plastic top from a nine-inch aluminum takeout container” barreling down Broadway. It’s “on its edge, an edge thin as a predawn dream, keeps trying to fall over but the airflow or something—unless it’s some nerd at a keyboard—keeps it upright for an implausible distance,” on and on till it finally meets its end under a truck. “Real?” she wonders. “Computer animated?” Pynchon’s book—or is it a game, with Maxine as the author’s avatar?—leaves you wondering.

Ed Park, the author of Personal Days (Random House, 2008), wrote the introduction to Russell Hoban's Turtle Diary (New York Review Books, 2013).

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