By Thomas Pynchon
(Jonathan Cape, £20.00 stg, H/B)
America’s laureate of the 1960s (and pretty much everything else before and since), Tom Pynchon’s new novel is set in New York, just after Silicon Alley’s (the East Coast’s grubby cousin of the West Coast’s Silicon Valley) dot-com boom went bust, and moves on to encompass the events of September 11, 2001. In Pynchon’s world, naturally, these historical phenomena are not unrelated.
Our heroine Maxine Tarnow, who bears comparison with The Crying Of Lot 49’s Oedipa Maas, is a working Mum running her own fraud investigation company, Tail ’Em And Nail ’Em (formerly Tail ’Em and Nail ’Em and Jail ’Em, but that was judged too presumptuous). Something of a Rachel Weisz lookalike, Jewish Maxine’s family consists of her opera-loving parents Ernie and Elaine, her two sons in elementary school Ziggy and Otis, her estranged sister Brooke and her ex-Mossad husband Avi, and last but not least her on-again-off-again, not-as-ex-as-he-might-be-ex-husband Horst, a stolid but solid Midwesterner. A ‘big alexithymic lug’ according to best friend Heidi, a career academic with tenure at City College’s Pop Culture Department, with whom Maxine has a Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda double act relationship (analogy mine): ‘At some point early in their relationship, which has been forever, Maxine understood that she was not the Princess here. Heidi wasn’t either, of course, but Heidi didn’t know that, in fact she thought she was the Princess and furthermore has come over the years to believe that Maxine is the Princess’s slightly less attractive wacky sidekick.’ But, hey, Rhoda got her own show, eventually.
As with every Pynchon novel, long or short, there is a compendious cast of characters. A few among the many here are: Gabriel Ice, CEO of hashslingrz, a computer security firm which may be funneling money to Saudi Arabia; his wife Tallis, who is also daughter to Maxine’s anarchist friend March Kelleher; ruthless neoliberal enforcer Nick Windlust, with whom Maxine has a guilty fling; Xiomara, Nick’s Guatemalan ex-‘child bride’ – the two women’s relationships with Windlust echo that of Frenesi Gates with Brock Vond in Vineland, the recurring Pynchon motif of hippie/liberal/lefty chicks secretly attracted to (not so) clean-cut fascistic guys; and let’s not forget Maxine’s Buddhist ‘emotherapist’, Shawn: ‘Beaming at her with that vacant, perhaps only Californian, the-Universe-is-a-joke-but-you-don’t-get-it smile which so often drives her to un-Buddhist daydreams seething with rage. Maxine doesn’t want to say “airhead” exactly, though she guesses if somebody put a tire gauge in his ear it might read a couple psi below spec.’ Which begs the question: why does she attend him? Then there’s Conkling Speedwell, a professional ‘nose’ obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave (4711, fyi), born with an enhanced, canine-level sense of smell – redolent of The Crying Of Lot 49’s Dr. Hilarius, who could make a face that rendered people insane. Oh, and Lester Traipse is the embezzling programmer who gets murdered.
Lots of these characters interact through chance Woody Allen-style Manhattan street-meets, and the book is, among many other things, an askance love letter to New York, where by all accounts Pynchon now resides (and, by extension, Long Island, Pynchon’s birth place). There’s a nostalgic ode to sleazy old Times Square, before it was Disneyfied by Mayor Gulliani, a philistine suburbanite. Amid the mayhem of documentary film makers, nefarious computer programmers and hackers, Russian oligarchs and mobsters, the pining for the heady days of the tech bubble – when you could be at a start-up party every night of the week, and several on Thursdays – there is the ongoing critique of ‘late capitalism as a pyramid racket on a global scale.’
While there is a palpable and amazing sense of just how much cyberspace has moved on in the short time since the turn of the century, when most of the online conveniences we take for granted today had not even been invented, one thing that hasn’t changed is that the now 76-year-old Pynchon’s attitude to sex remains resolutely casual and adolescent. There is, of course, a school of thought which argues that sex should be causal (if not always adolescent), but it can be difficult to credit that some of the female characters here, Maxine included, let themselves get into the situations in which they find themselves.
As ever, conspiracy is Pynchon’s major theme, and here we have a Deepweb, accessible only to code breakers, while the rest of us swim in the shallows of the surface web; and also the notion that certain right wing elements had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks: ‘Is this all yet another exercise in freaking out the common folk so we’ll keep bleating and begging for protection? How scared is Maxine supposed to feel?’ Yet it all feels more vague and amorphous this time around, which paradoxically only adds to the foreboding and dread, and is also more reflective of the times we live in. If you pitch conspiracy theories of history, at one end of the scale, versus blind chance at the other, in many ways conspiracy is more comforting. At least it means someone’s in charge, the hidden hand is just not whose we thought it was, or whose we’d like it to be. But what if no one is actually calling the shots, and it’s all just one big cosmic gamble and free-for-all? Scary.
So, we’re not getting another Mason & Dixon or Against The Day blockbuster here, and certainly not something as era-defining as Gravity’s Rainbow. A bit like Vineland, and even Inherent Vice, this is the kind of thing Pynchon can do in his sleep. But it’s still better than what most writers who are wide-awake can dream up. In its own (relatively modest) way, it sums up a historical period of great turbulence and uncertainty just as much as the now canonical works of this great American novelist once did.
This review will appear in due course in the Irish Sunday Independent, doubtless in a much truncated version.