Fiction: Silicon and surveillance

Sean M. Carroll in Nature:

BumThomas Pynchon's novels have several recurring themes: paranoia and conspiracy, pastiches of high and low culture, synchronicity and coincidence, shadowy networks lurking around every corner, and the impact of science and technology. With the coming of the Internet age and the surveillance society that sprang up in the wake of 11 September 2001, it seems as though reality has finally caught up with his vision. In his latest work, Bleeding Edge, Pynchon takes full advantage of this convergence. The first question asked of a new Pynchon book is: is this one of the sprawling, spiralling, time-tripping monsters with innumerable characters and a plot that is tricky to bring into focus, like Gravity's Rainbow or Against the Day; or is it one of the fun detective stories with a well-defined protagonist, like The Crying of Lot 49 or Inherent Vice? Bleeding Edge is definitely in the latter category. There is a colourful cast of memorable personalities, and high jinks often ensue, but the tale is told linearly, from the point of view of an acknowledged main character, with something approximating an explicit goal. The year is 2001. The dot-com bubble has just burst and Silicon Alley, New York's version of Silicon Valley, is in disarray. The Internet revolution is just beginning to gather steam. And, of course, the imminent 11 September attacks loom over every page.

The novel begins simply, in the mundane beauty of an ordinary morning. Maxine Tarnow is walking her kids to school in Manhattan on the first day of spring, stopping to admire the sunlight shining through a pear tree's blossom. The lapsed-licence fraud investigator is about to be drawn into a sinister web of intrigue. An old acquaintance asks her to investigate the suspiciously successful dot-com for which he is filming a corporate documentary. Poking around brings Tarnow into contact with shady hackers, gregarious Italian–American venture capitalists, Mossad agents, bloggers, petty fraudsters who are in over their heads, trophy wives, a private investigator whose primary tool is his sense of smell, a pair of disarmingly likeable Russian gangsters with a fondness for hip hop, and a mysterious government operative. Some will be exiled, some will run away and some will carry on; not all will survive.

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