Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bleeding Edge (Thomas Pynchon): a fast paced but disappointing detective story about NY's 2001 tech industry

I can't remember who or what tickled me into buying Bleeding Edge (for Kindle) but I'd love to go back and interrogate them.

The basic story [culled from the back cover to avoid too many spoilers] is set in 2001 and the dot com bubble has burst. Maxine runs a fraud investigation business in New York and starts looking into the finances of a computer-security firm hashslingrz (always lower case) and its CEO Gabriel Ice. She is dragged through the 'Deep Web' and an unsavoury Big Apple underworld. Oh, and she stumbles across a video of men practician on a rooftop with a Stinger missile launcher that may link up with the 9/11 bombings ...

A much-quoted Washington Post reviewer described Thomas Pynchon's novel as "totally gonzo". I'd prefer "totally bonkers" or "totally disappointing". The story rips along and you can basically speed read it at any pace to keep up with the unfolding narrative, though you may miss the joy of some of the rich-in-vernacular conversations. Unfortunately the ending comes when the book runs out of paper - or the Kindle version runs out of screens to swipe - rather than when the story is complete or any of the loose plot threads are tied up. How terribly post-modern, with the emphasis on 'terribly'.

The book is well researched, and there are some lovely concepts like hacking a Furby to give it a wireless connection to spy on confidential conversations from an office shelf. And many corporate office workers will smile at the reference to the Disgruntled Employee Simulation Program for Audit Information and Review (or DESPAIR)!

There may yet be a gap in the real-world market for a "Darklinear Solutions" brokerage that maps out unused dark fibre in empty office buildings and matches them with technology clients. The idea of using a vircator to generate an EM pulse to disrupt data centres may not on Anonymous' anarchy list given the amount of power required, and the concrete walls that protect data centres together with the long distance they are set in from public roads?

There's a page-long rant about IKEA which includes the observations that "an entire section of the store was dedicated to replacing wrong or missing parts and fasteners, since with IKEA this is not so exotic an issue" [not true in my experience!] and "exits are clearly marked but impossible to get to". Good stand-up material that is sure to get a few laughs, but it sits awkwardly in the middle of this 500 page book.

The Stinger missile storyline has potential, albeit threaded into the narrative slightly more than half way through. However, rather than becoming the driving force for the rest of the novel, it surfaces every now and again before fizzling out rather than helping to draw the book to a satisfying conclusion.

If Thomas Pynchon has written shorter books, I'd be interested to read one to compare and contrast with the style and lossiness of Bleeding Edge. Perhaps it's a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. The technological/Matrix-style cover didn't translate into a technological detective story, but instead remained a mundane and overall disappointing tale about a very mixed up fraud investigator who should turn her magnifying glass on her own ethics before being set loose on others.

If you've read Bleeding Edge, let me know what you think.

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