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By Thomas Pynchon. The Penguin Press, $29.
If 2009’s giggly Inherent Vice was a pot brownie from Lebowski Land, Thomas Pynchon’s latest seriously ups the flavor profile as the author relocates to pre- and post-9/11 NYC. He’s not going there, though, without his usual reserve of comic paranoia, and the resulting tension between silly and somber is the appeal of this mystery, which rides the same electric currents as The Crying of Lot 49 (itself suffused with Kennedy-assassination dread).
First, the dazzling stuff: UWS single mom Maxine Tarnow is one of Pynchon’s warmest creations, a fraud investigator with a keen bullshit detector. Her wobbly orbit swings her into contact with Web designers desperate to escape “meatspace” and shady entreprenerds with names like Gabriel Ice. Throughout, we’re treated to a rush of millennial signifiers, from defunct messenger service Kozmo.com to the “Rachel” cut, deployed with caustic zing.
But 300 pages in comes that awful Tuesday (impossible not to telegraph), and the author’s impressive sense of cultural skin-shedding begins to feel redundant. Worse, his secret subplots sometimes veer into tired trutherisms; Pynchon’s brand of conspiracy is classier than that. Thankfully, most of the book shows as much.