“Paranoia’s the garlic in life’s kitchen, right, you can never have too much,” announces a character in the new novel Bleeding Edge—yet because its author is Thomas Pynchon, let’s not take that valorizing of paranoia too lightly; elsewhere the same character grouses about “when paranoia gets real-world.”
More than any other recurring Pynchonian concept, paranoia receives nuanced treatment in the novelist’s work. A tendency toward the “p” word would seem to color his personal life as well: although he reputedly lives in plain sight on New York’s Upper West Side, he keeps his private life more private than that of any other major American artist. And, after being a stone Pynchonophile for nearly thirty years, I’ve finally started feeling a bit paranoid myself. It’s not the dot-com “hashslingrz,” Pynchon’s latest fictional conspiracy, that’s freaking me out, but the author himself. Never before has he set one of his novels in a time and place which I myself inhabited, and as I whooshed back to the New York City of 2001—this time through Pynchon’s aesthetic filter—his world spookily coincided with mine, mapping over it at points both minor and major. Call it a case of “Pynchonicity.”
As it happens, I spent much of 2001 rereading the then-available Pynchon canon: the historical books (Gravity’s Rainbow, Mason And Dixon); the contemporaries set during Pynchon’s own adult years (The Crying Of Lot 49, Vineland); and his first novel, V., a hybrid of those two forms. I was thirty-eight then, Pynchon was sixty-four, and a goal of my project was to understand the man, to puzzle out what kind of mind could be equally open to profundity and vulgar puns, tenderness and cruelty, hard science and the occult, sweet lyricism and, well, Rainbow’s notorious shit-eating scene. Given Pynchon’s aversion to cameras, microphones, reporters’ notebooks, and public podiums, the texts were all I and his other readers had to work from.
Another resonance Bleeding Edge has for me, a nonpracticing Yiddishe boychick, is its cover-to-cover ethnic content. With the book’s protagonist and antagonist both members of the tribe, the novel is by a long stretch Pynchon’s most Jewish. (If Bill Clinton was our “first black President,” can Pynchon now be declared our most Judaical WASP?) Bar itzvah line-dances, Mossad cyber-trickery, something called Obsessive Yenta syndrome (“O.Y.”), an exhortation to “mensch up,” shout-outs to Gershom Scholem, Howard Cosell, and Stew Leonard (now there’s a trio), assorted Jewish mothers, a Krav Maga course for kids, more Yiddish backtalk than Philip Roth ever heard in Newark (I caught just one minor error), even the rift between the Ashkenazi and the Hochdeutsch—it all warms my Hebrew heart, when it’s not hitting too close for comfort.
More specific, and personal, examples of Pynchonicity abound in Bleeding Edge. The author describes carousing at Danceteria (and its rest rooms) in the eighties, pigging out at all-night diners on the UWS (Greek) and the East Village (Ukrainian), fuming about queue-cutting and other urban incivilities, listening to merengue at uptown Dominican nightclubs, getting creeped out by “karmically challenged” apartment buildings like the Dakota, strolling back and forth across the Brooklyn Bridge for kicks—all these behaviors turn up frequently in my Big Apple CV. In fact, I took that bridge walk to view and brood on the World Trade Center’s absence right around the time that two of Pynchon’s characters do. As for his labeling the intersection of Seventy-Ninth Street and Broadway as the city’s “most dangerous,” this carries a chilling double meaning for me, since it was precisely there that I once got menaced by a lunatic with a handgun who kept shrieking in my face, “I’m gonna shoot that cop! I’m gonna SHOOT THAT COP!”
Like the fictive population of Bleeding Edge, I’ve consulted Zen-oriented therapists, mistaken strangers on the street for dead loved ones, practiced the technique of “False Eating” (in order to deceive my stepmother, whose meatloaf I hated nearly as much as I hated her), engaged in Ambien-enhanced sex, “sung” Steely Dan at karaoke bars, enjoyed the little-known (and now-departed) stand-up comic Mitch Hedberg, collected dollar bills with homemade decorations (my prize specimen has George Washington uttering, “I GREW HEMP”), compared the Port Authority building to a Dantean hell, marveled at someone’s extraordinary sense of smell (my fiancée Vera could be one of the novel’s “professional Noses”), joked about organized social gatherings of people with borderline personality disorder, and bought Dragon Ball Z merchandise for my child. Parenting, incidentally, is a thread that runs throughout Bleeding Edge and serves, in the midst of the dark philosophizing and shenanigans, as a humanizing feature. Pynchon has written about the parent-child bond before, and quite poignantly, but not until now in a manner that feels congruent with my own experience of fatherhood.
Most astounding for me are the brief journeys to Montreal and Montauk described in Bleeding Edge. During the two weeks before I started reading the book, I happen to have visited those very places myself. In Montauk, I took photos of the gigantic Cold War–era radar apparatus which figures explicitly in the sinister “Montauk Project” Pynchon discusses. And in Montreal I experienced the coronary-baiting local specialty poutine, French fries slathered with viscous brown gravy and melted cheese curds. “Anyone who doesn’t dig this doesn’t dig being alive,” I told Vera, mumbling because my mouth was full.
Writes Pynchon, “In Montreal it’s a diagnostic for moral character—if somebody resists poutine, they resist life.”
On reading this line, two weeks after uttering the same sentiment, I put down my copy of Bleeding Edge and sat back, slack-jawed. Has Thomas Pynchon been spying on me? Eavesdropping on my chatter, reading my e-mails? Going the NSA one better and following me from a sneaky half-block remove as I schlep around the city, our city, and the wide world?
Of course not. Other New York–based readers of Bleeding Edge, particularly those closer to his age and background, will no doubt discover a sense of Pynchonicity even more uncanny than mine. Even so, reading Pynchon’s newest has allowed me to see myself in him for the first time. It’s as though I once stood gazing through a window at the author’s blurry self, yet now, with Bleeding Edge, a light has been switched on behind me. This light has not significantly sharpened his image in the glass. But it has superimposed over that image a surprisingly new one—that of my own reflection.
New York–style narcissist that I am, this suits me and my Pynchonophilia just fine. Then again (and can anyone truly prove otherwise?) maybe he is spying on me, after all.
Gary Lippman is a lapsed lawyer and former Fodors travel writer whose play Paradox Lust appeared off-Broadway, whose fiction has appeared in Open City, and whose heart is in the Highlands.