A couple of months before September 11, 2001, and nine chapters into Bleeding Edge, a novel set in—spliced into—New York City before, during, and after the events of that day, a commodities trader named Horst Loeffler
takes [his young sons] Otis and Ziggy down to his new office at the World Trade Center, and they eat lunch at Windows on the World, which has a dress code, so the boys wear jackets and ties…. There happens to be a more-than-moderate wind blowing that day, making the tower sway back and forth in five-, what feel like ten-foot excursions. On days of storm, according to Horst’s co-tenant Jake Pimento, it’s like being in the crow’s nest of a very tall ship, allowing you to look down at helicopters and private planes and neighboring high-rises. “Seems kind of flimsy up here,” to Ziggy.
“Nah,” sez Jake. “Built like a battleship.”
Apart from a soap-opera sting of Hammond organ audible only to the reader, the chapter ends there. Like many Pynchon characters, Horst is gifted with a form of precognition, which in his case enables him to predict the futures of certain traded commodities but not the Future itself. (Such gifts, chez Pynchon, are always narrowly bestowed.) Only we, irretrievably wised up, understand the hollowness, the irony, of Jake’s reassurance.
Irony, verbal and situational, has been the most often remarked of the tactics deployed by Pynchon in his fifty-year struggle against what fellow Nassau County visionary Jack Kirby called “the Anti-Life Equation”: death understood as the dehumanization imposed by vast and totalizing systems of control. And in spite of the depravities, brutalities, and horrors to be found in the pages of V. (1963), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), or Against the Day (2006), Pynchon’s struggle has overarchingly been a joyful one, rooted in a profound and abiding goofiness.
His magic bag has proved to be charged as inexhaustibly as Felix the Cat’s with puns, parodies, bits of shtick and slapstick. Unflinching when faced with stench and corruption, confronting massacres and atrocities in pre–World War I German Southwest Africa, in rocket-blitzed London, in goon-haunted Colorado during the Labor Wars, Pynchon has with hope and abandon sounded his mighty kazoo and flown his freak flag high. He has left the labs, bunkers, prisons, and slave factories of Anti-Life littered with banana peels. He has heaped up mounds of ironic incongruities behind him—corny lyrics, drug jokes, sight gags, characters surnamed Porpentine, Squalidozzi, and Vibe—as he worked his way along, undermining the twentieth century like Bugs Bunny tunneling toward Pismo Beach. Pynchon, irony: big deal.
But not so fast. Dramatic irony, Hammond organ and all, is something new, and unexpected, in Pynchon. Until…
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