NEW YORK - "Bleeding Edge" (The Penguin Press), by Thomas Pynchon
Thomas Pynchon's latest book, "Bleeding Edge," begins in New York in the spring of 2001, before Sept. 11 but after the dot-com bubble has burst, leaving Manhattan's Silicon Alley in a malaise. Somber times, but Pynchon anchors the book with a determined levity, filling 477 pages with quirky characters, silly song lyrics and tender descriptions of Manhattan's flowering trees and byzantine neighborhoods.
The novel centers on Maxine Tarnow, an Upper West Side-dwelling mother of two boys and self-described "paid up member of Yentas With Attitude," who talks tough and runs a fraud investigation business called "Tail `Em and Nail `Em." Tarnow's cases mostly involve small-time accounting fraud, but soon she gets embroiled in a larger investigation of a computer-security firm called Hashlingerz. It is led by a mysterious techno geek CEO and seems to be unaccountably minting money, triggering Tarnow's fraud radar.
Her investigation leads her deeper and deeper into the Internet underworld, to a Second Life-like "deep Web" world called DeepArcher, to a mysterious underground bunker in Montauk, on a drug-smuggling boat on the Hudson, and a myriad of other places deep in Manhattan's fringes. Meanwhile, Sept. 11 draws closer, and Hashlingerz's activities appear to have some kind of connection to terrorist groups.
Pynchon, who received the National Book Award for "Gravity's Rainbow," zips the plot along at a frenetic pace and populates his book with dozens of colorful characters and pop culture references: bars with Zima on tap, a messenger from the defunct delivery service Kozmo.com who still mysteriously makes deliveries, a Zenned-out surfer therapist, a Web designer obsessed with Jennifer Aniston's hair, and so on.
The novel's title, used often in the dot-com boom to describe companies with unproven and risky but possibly game-changing technology, today seems somewhat dated, and that's the point.
In "Bleeding Edge," Pynchon draws parallels between a relatively young Internet and a pre-Sept. 11 Manhattan - both ever-evolving landscapes marked by so much change over the past 12 years that the spring of 2001 seems like an ancient era.