Pynchon (Inherent Vice, 2009, etc.) makes a much-anticipated return, and it’s trademark stuff: a blend of existential angst, goofy humor and broad-sweeping bad vibes.
Paranoia, that operative word in Pynchon’s world ever since Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), is what one of his characters here calls “the garlic in life’s kitchen.” Well, there’s paranoia aplenty to be had in Pynchon’s sauté pan, served up in the dark era of the 9/11 attack, the dot-com meltdown and the Patriot Act. Maxine Tarnow is, on the face of it, just another working mom in the city, but in reality, after she’s packed her kids’ lunches and delivered them at school, she’s ferreting around with data cowboys and code monkeys, looking into various sorts of electronic fraud. Her estranged husband, apparently a decent enough sort, “to this day has enjoyed a nearly error-free history of knowing how certain commodities around the world will behave,” but Maxine has a keen sense of how data flows and from whom to whom. One track she follows leads to a genius billionaire and electronic concoctions that can scarcely be believed—but also, in a customarily loopy way, to organized crime, terrorism, big data and the U.S. government, with the implication, as Horst later will ponder, that all are bound up in the collapse of the Twin Towers. (“Remember the week before this happened, all those put options on United and American Airlines? Which turned out to be exactly the two airlines that got hijacked?”) If you were sitting in a plane next to someone muttering about such things, you might ask to change seats, but Pynchon has long managed to blend his particularly bleak view of latter-day humankind with a tolerant ability to find true humor in our foibles. If he’s sometimes heavy-handed, he’s also attuned precisely to the zeitgeist, drawing in references to Pabst Blue Ribbon longnecks, Mamma Mia, the Diamondbacks/Yankees World Series, Office Space, and the touching belief of young Zuckerbergs in the age before Zuckerberg that their bleeding-edge technology—“[n]o proven use, high risk, something only early-adoption addicts feel comfortable with”—will somehow be put to good use rather than, as Pynchon assures us, to the most evil applications.
Of a piece with Pynchon’s recent work—not quite a classic à la V. but in a class of its own—more tightly woven but no less madcap than Inherent Vice, and sure to the last that we live in a world of very odd shadows.