It carries the hopes and dreams of all of us, dear reader. It is beaten, prodded and occasionally abused by generations of authors. Yet it endured for centuries only to be met with the cry from some desperate drivers that it was not fit for purpose. "Let us see where the novel can take us," they said. "Let us see how the novel can be changed. Let us see how its form can be manipulated, how its conventions flouted."
This was rather disconcerting news for those of us who felt the novel was doing very nicely, thanks.
Adherents to this view quietly protested that the good old yarn had revealed the power of goodness in the bishop scene from Les Miserables, had yielded truths about hypocrisy and the evils of poverty in Dickens, had taught one to be careful about shaking hands after reading Portnoy's Complaint. The novel, then, was the beast of burden that carried one to knowledge, even wisdom, that clopped along on the highway of truth, that took one on a journey beyond mere entertainment, beyond the self.
There were, of course, the unfortunate beasts who were not very good but they only increased the appreciation of the greatness of those fantastic travels on the backs of Hugo or Flaubert or those unexpectedly wonderful jaunts with a Marilynne Robinson or an Elmore Leonard, the authors one found outside the authorised canon of school or library.
Then came post-modernism, high modernism and post post-modernism. And Thomas Pynchon.
He has written eight novels in about half a century yet has also created two adjectives: Pynchonesque and Pynchonian. He would be amused to find the definition of either/both is: densely convoluted, verbose and full of allusion. How is that for verbosity, creating two adjectives with one meaning? How is that for being convoluted, missus, as Ken Dodd, the post-modern comic might muse.
Unfortunately, dense convolutedness, verbosity and, yes, a fullness of allusion have not yet quite pierced the public consciousness as, say, the attractions of a "a darned good read" or "a smashing twist on the last page". So Pynchon and his works are famous but largely unread, even one suspects among his devotees.
Pynchon, who is as gregarious as JD Salinger with a heavy cold, has, though, attained the rank among influential critics (are there any other kind?) as one of the great American authors of the age.
He is undoubtedly brilliant. But so is the sun and one does not want to be staring at that for hours.
He is also supremely clever, but so was wee Joe in second year Maths and there was never a ballot to sit beside him on the bus home. And, yes, Pynchon is also verbose, allusive and convoluted but no one ever put that under best qualities on a form for a dating agency.
Pynchon, rather, was exclusive. This has changed. Bleeding Edge, helpfully described as a novel, is routinely extraordinary but also wonderfully funny, regularly gripping and, whisper it, engaging. It is even comprehensible, though, heaven forfend, not on every page.
Literary theorists will be comforted by Pynchon's adherence to his regular themes of paranoia and science, to his allusive (yup) obsession to music styles and forms, and to the density of plot. Other readers will be delighted that Pynchon has produced a work with a viable theme, a convincing and affecting heroine and with an assured sense of place and time.
Bleeding Edge is a detective novel set in New York in 2001 just before September 11. Its sexy, sassy lead character is Maxine Tarnow, who runs a fraud investigation agency. She and a host of characters that include a sinister master criminal, a government agent, a superannuated drug dealer, a couple of Russian rap artists, a Californian hipster, an aged revolutionary, an estranged then strange husband and others inhabit a landscape where the dotcom bubble has burst and something bad and powerful seems on the way.
There is conspiracy, intrigue, twists and sheer horror as Pynchon and his creations peer into the abyss of the internet. There is persistent fear. "There are a thousand things in this town to be afraid of, maybe even two thousand," says Maxine, unable to enlighten her husband on just what horror faces them.
This full-blown anxiety is seen as the American Nightmare that has always prevailed, though it has been hidden behind big cars, bigger movies and bigger aspirations. Maxine's father points out: "Everyone thinks now the Eisenhower years were so quaint and cute and boring, but all that had a price, just underneath was the pure terror." He talks of a USA that has become wedded to an internet that was "conceived in sin" and now "creeps like a smell through the smallest details of our life". This World Wide Web is a surveillance agency that has millions of willing victims, signing in and exposing their lives, informing on themselves.
None of this, of course, is revolutionary in terms of theme but Pynchon's execution is singular, even Pynchonesque and Pynchonian. Bleeding Edge is certainly his most accessible novel and his best and worst, depending on where one stands on the merits of profound convolutedness. There are meanderings up and down and across Manhattan and deep into the nether regions of the web. But they only occasionally perturb or convolute the reader. And when they do, hey ho. One can forgive an author almost anything when he creates a character of such winning authenticity as Maxine and can make a joke out of Scooby Doo and drug cartels, culminating in the punchline "Medellin kids".
The accusation, or even acclamation, will be that Pynchon has taken the American detective novel and has subverted it. But this is not only forgivable but welcome. Maxine is Chandleresque as well as Pynchonian. She is the good, flawed woman operating in a bad, flawed world. She carries a gun in her handbag and a sense of righteousness in her soul. She investigates where money has gone but has no interest in it.
She is a mother who knows love comes at a price and demands a cheque at the end of the night. She is at the centre of the swirl of conspiracy theories over the attacks on the Twin Towers but she remains firmly rooted to her personal morality.
Pynchon has written a novel that has the sometimes discordant rhythm of jazz. It is interspersed with notes of affecting humour and has riffs that carry the plot and character pleasingly. Like some jazz, there are clumps of dialogue that can seem messy and jarring to some ears.
But Bleeding Edge has a vibrancy that carries it high above its unsatisfactory moments.
It may be high modern. It may even be post-modern. Gratifyingly, though, it remains old-fashioned enough to seek both to entertain and inform. The novel succeeds with a pleasing regularity. The faithful beast of burden has carried yet another story and an insistent, interior and occasionally mysterious voice to the outside world.