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Bleeding Edge
Bleeding Edge
Thomas Pynchon
Penguin Press, 2013
477 pp., $28.95

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Alan Jacobs


Unexpected Refuge

Thomas Pynchon comes home.

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Pynchon's new novel Bleeding Edge begins—or almost begins; I'll explain the caveat later—when a man shows up at the Manhattan office of a friend (Maxine Tarnow) who is a fraud investigator: he wants her to look into the books of a company he's connected with to see how and why they're being cooked. She takes the case, as a favor more than a job, and finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into various possible and real conspiracies, sees the living killed by agents unknown and the certainly dead find apparent new life. Meanwhile persons go missing under extremely frightening circumstances, but then turn up alive and well—most of them, anyway—and the puzzle with which the book begins evaporates in the face of stranger and more ominous mysteries.

Much of the investigating that Doc does he does by intuition: "Doc's nose had begun to run, a sure sign that he was onto something here." Sustained drug use seems to intensify, or at least liberate, this intuition: "A private eye didn't drop acid for years in this town without picking up some kind of extrasensory chops." Maxine too, though without drugs, relies on a similar kind of esp, a series of "sensors" that alert her to significant information waiting to be collected: "Among Maxine's more useful sensors is her bladder. When she's out of range of information she needs, she can go whole days without any particular interest in pissing, but when phone numbers, koans, or stock tips from which she's likely to profit are close by, the gotta-go alarm has reliably steered her to enough significant restroom walls that she's learned to pay attention." (Curiously, Oedipa Maas, in Pynchon's early book The Crying of Lot 49, first encounters the mysterious organization called the Tristero through a message and an image scribbled on the wall of a public toilet.) Doc and Maxine alike possess something like Socrates' daimon: when they heed that inner prompting, things go well for them—or, still more important, very very bad things are averted.

Bleeding Edge also fixes its temporal coordinates by referring to sporting events, in this case an NFL matchup on September 9, 2001. One book invokes its own title once, the other twice. Each book is far more accessible than most of Pynchon's more expansive tomes, content to work largely if not wholly within the familiar procedures of realistic fiction. (Though, it must be said, with the ongoing comical-shtick accompaniment that every Pynchon novel inflicts on its readers: stoner jokes in the earlier book, remarkably clichéd Jewish ones in the new one, which also features, most cringe-inducingly of all, a Sassy Black Woman.) And at one point in Bleeding Edge two people start singing and dancing to "Soul Gidget."

Pynchon could scarcely indicate more clearly that he wishes these books to be seen as companion pieces, bookends to each other as their settings bookend the continent, mirror images. But the shrewd reader will be at least as attentive to the ways the books diverge, and indeed, the differences between the two are key to understanding them both, and especially to grasping the ways in which Bleeding Edge is a kind of revision of, or corrective to, the most widely-noted tendencies of Pynchon's fiction.

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Doc Sportello doesn't do acid any more, at least not intentionally, preferring the gentler high of weed. But the inevitable flashbacks pay their visits, and on at least one occasion Doc's joint has more than just weed in it. Flashbacks are typically seen as problematic, but from one point of view, like the first-order trips they follow, they're an opportunity: they open the doors of perception to other worlds, places as real as or maybe more real than everyday Californian space-time. One world that Doc visits seems to be Lemuria, that long-departed island of legend, the Atlantis of the Pacific: a place of perfect harmony, guided and guarded by ancient wisdom; the kind of world that the hippies of the Sixties, at their best anyway, loved and longed to restore. In Lemuria Doc learns that a woman he cares for is safe; their spirits resonate, they find peace in the midst of chaos.

One of the last, and most important, invocations of Lemuria comes in the late passage where the book's title also emerges. Doc's lawyer Sauncho mentions the term "inherent vice":

"Is that like original sin?" Doc wondered.
"It's what you can't avoid," Sauncho said, "stuff marine policies don't like to cover. Usually applies to cargo—like eggs break—but sometimes it's also the vessel carrying it. Like why bilges have to be pumped out?"
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