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Bleeding Edge

Thomas Pynchon spins a showstopping tale of New York residents living in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble.

December 19, 2013

Bleeding Edge, by Thomas Pynchon, Penguin Group, 496 pp.

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Reviewed for The Barnes & Noble Review by Liesl Schillinger

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In 1973, in the cult film "Soylent Green" – a science fiction thriller in which global warming has thrown the earth's ecosystem disastrously off balance, panic pervades society, and New York streets teem with the poor and dispossessed – humans choose the moment when they wish to die, which they call "going home." The process for making this final exit is lullingly benign – and, at the present cultural moment, hauntingly familiar. The departed-to-be willingly enters a surround-sound video chamber and, while slipping into drugged oblivion, drinks in an ecstatic screenscape of color-saturated vistas whose theme he has himself pre-selected, accompanied by a soundtrack of his favorite sort of music (picture the iconic '80s Maxell TV ad, but with the enraptured armchair listener etherized upon a table).  

In Thomas Pynchon's showstopping new novel (his ninth), Bleeding Edge, this visual means of escape has been made everyday by the technological progress of the last 40 years: what once was virtual death now has become a virtual reality.  His setting is New York City in 2001 – a place that will soon endure a catastrophe that will feel like science fiction but isn't: the 9/11 attacks. In his futuristic (recent) present, at a time when New Yorkers are still recovering from the bursting of the dot-com bubble, anyone who has access to a computer screen and knows where to look can find refuge from the post-tech-boom doldrums in a parallel digital universe called "DeepArcher" (get it?), and secede from "meatspace" reality … with or without doing what we once thought of as dying.

During one foray into this enveloping cyber universe, Pynchon's protagonist, a vigilante fraud inspector and separated Upper West Side mom named Maxine (Maxi) Tarnow, thinks of her young sons, Ziggy and Otis, who gleefully obliterate targets in violent video games at every opportunity. As she roves a pixellated online desert, interacting with avatars of her friends and foes (who may or may not be who they claim they are, if in fact they are alive at all), she asks herself how DeepArcher differs from her children's play. "Does anybody get extra lives," she wonders. "Does anybody even get this one?"

In New York in 2001, the line between imagined life and actual existence has dissolved to such an extent that Maxi cannot be sure. As she stalks her online labyrinth hunting for proof of the dubious dealings of a computer security firm called hashslingerz, which seems to have ties with Mossad, the Russian mob, CIA spooks, and Middle East terrorists, she senses DeepArcher's awesome synthesizing power. "Latent, maybe it's geometric," she reasons, this app may have the capacity to resurrect the pre-9/11 world and its inhabitants: "a sacred city all in pixels waiting to be reassembled, as if disasters could be run in reverse, the towers rise out of black ruin, the bits and pieces and lives, no matter how finely vaporized, become whole again."

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