By Thomas Pynchon
Penguin, $28.95, 477 pages
Depending on how you feel about the Internet, the marvelous invention that for some people is like life itself, this may be the perfect book for you. OK, perfection’s a tough standard, so let’s call this a fine book for anyone who likes — in addition to computers — thrillers, good vs. evil, lusty romance, New York City and Thomas Pynchon, though not necessarily in that order.
Maxine Tarnow Loeffler, an unlikely (but totally engrossing) hero, is a CFE, a certified fraud investigator, or at least she was until she broke certain rules and got her license pulled. Now she does the same work but with fewer constraints, and she almost always gets her man — or her woman, fraud being an equal-opportunity employer. Not only does “Maxie” believe that the end justifies the means, but she carries a .22 Beretta as a helpful means to what she might see as a desirable end. Like her creator a moralist at heart, Maxine can smell a fraudster in the first graph of an online IPO.
The time frame of “Bleeding Edge,” somewhere between the bursting of the dot.com bubble in the late 1990s and the destruction of the twin towers in 2001, is propitious. The collapse of so many interesting Internet companies, from established businesses to once-promising start-ups, has left a lot of valuable items floating around in the ether and on actual inventories, and Maxine gets hired to check on the machinations of one Gabriel Ice, the billionaire founder and CEO of a computer-security company, who may be a geek gone goofy for money and power.
That’s the time; the setting, for almost all of the action, is New York City, mainly Manhattan and usually the Upper West Side, which the author presents as the Garden of Good (for people to live, places to eat, parks to play, etc.) as opposed to the Garden of Evil, the rich, money-worshipping Upper East Side, home to Gabriel Ice and his ilk.
While Maxine’s day job is high-tech and often dangerous, she has a real home to come home to. She is raising two young boys, usually on her own, but lately her husband, Horst, seems to want to come home again, angel that he can be. When we meet Maxine, she is not sure she wants him back. She is still young, sexually adventurous and clearly out and about. She may have fallen for a federal agent type who is not a poster boy for good agents. As the plot thickens, and does it ever, Maxine confronts all sorts of good-vs.-evil scenarios. Should she, shouldn’t she? Will she, won’t she? Did she, didn’t she?
One of the reasons it’s often hard to grasp the reality of the action is that so much of it takes place online. The viewer-operator-investigator may be sitting down, but what takes place on-screen — which is central to the resolution of the story — comes and goes with great speed. Here’s a typical passage: “Maxine clicks on ‘Midnight Cannonball’ — bingo. On, she is crossfaded, up and down stairways, through dark pedestrian tunnels up to a train whose kindly engineer leans beaming from the cab . The instant she steps on board, however, the terrain accelerates insanely, zero to warp speed in a tenth of a second, and they’re off to Deep Archer .”
This Deep Archer site is almost a major character, and I’m sure the fact that it’s a homonym for Departure is no accident. But someone is cooking the books, acquiring vast amounts of bandwidth, and firing anyone who might reveal the scheme, and, as Maxine gets closer to proving Gabriel Ice is the culprit, she gets shot at and others get killed, including some people she likes.
The federal agent, Windust by name, tells Maxine that a government-friendly software program has been tampered with by hackers. “What’s disturbing about this Promis software,” he tells her, “is that there’s always a backdoor built in so anytime it gets installed on a government computer anywhere in the world — law enforcement, intelligence, special ops — anybody who knows about this backdoor can just slip through it and makes themselves at home and all manner of secrets get compromised.”
Windust wants to catch the crooked mastermind who ordered the hackers to widen the backdoor, and Maxine is after the purloined profits, but, oh-oh, she finds herself attracted to the federal agent, and pretty soon all manner of things and people get compromised. When the Towers go down, everyone is even more scared and more confused as to cause and effect.
This is not, however, a depressing book.
As Mr. Pynchon has shown over and over again in both his novels and his nonfiction, somehow he always sees the (mordant) humor in human behavior. In “Bleeding Edge,” as he tells his old-fashioned story within this most modern framework, he never fails to see signs of hope for mankind. No wonder this book was a finalist for this year’s National Book Award.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.