Turn of the Century , by Kurt Andersen. Random House, 659 pages, $24.95.
Because you happen to be plugged into Manhattan media circuits (you’re holding in your hands the essential, salmon-tinted, pulp-based interface) you know who Kurt Andersen is: co-founder of Spy , former editor in chief of New York magazine, now a columnist at The New Yorker . You know the word on him, too–that he’s whip-smart, well respected and (this is rare) well liked, somebody everybody in the business knows: a “player.”
Because you’ve read the New Yorker excerpt of his media-saturated novel, Turn of the Century , you now have proof that Mr. Andersen is indeed way cleverer than your average bear, and that when it comes to the details of how news and entertainment are cooked up and what it’s like to work with “the big owner-operators of American culture,” he’s about as knowledgeable as you can get without violating S.E.C. regulations.
Because you are as much a Zeitgeist Zelig as the next plugged-in media type, you are uneasy about insider knowledge and the status it’s supposed to confer; you laugh a bit at yourself for being proud of what you already knew about Kurt Andersen. And you laugh a bit at him for having hoarded all that jargon, the secret handshakes of the media guild. You pad your knowingness with irony. (You worry, sometimes, that irony is corroding the strong, true feelings that anchor the real you, which makes you a lot like George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, Mr. Andersen’s husband and wife, hero and heroine combo.)
Because, like George and Lizzie, you cruise in absolute comfort what Mr. Anderson labels “the Infotainment Zone,” you worry (but only with a pundit’s detachment) about the blurring of fact and fiction, news and fluff, true and false. (If anyone asks, this is the theme of the novel.) You note that Mr. Andersen splices real folk into his fiction, from Eisner to Ovitz to Milken (and that’s merely the Michaels). But the action is set next year, just over the dateline into the hypothetical, in the gray zone between competing millennial moments (is it 2000 that really counts, or 2001?). Both hero and heroine shuttle daily between reality and illusion: George, a journalist turned television producer, is developing a show that is half drama, half newsmagazine; Lizzie, owner-operator of a small software company (she loves “the whiffs of science”), is developing a computer game called “Warps” that simulates time travel and mixes entertainment and education.
Because you are ambitious but not sweaty, and you juggle a dynamic career with a rich family life, kids and all–like George! like Lizzie!–you don’t have time for a 659-page novel unless it’s exceptionally good, indispensable to anyone who is used to being effortlessly (and ironically) media savvy. (Lizzie sometimes dips into the Aeneid ; George can quote James Joyce like a pro, but you never catch him with a book–no time!) So you need me. I’ve read Turn of the Century , every word, and I’m here to deliver the news–with a little entertainment tacked on.
It’s good but not great, smart but not brilliant, engaging but not astonishing. The New Yorker excerpt, taken from the best part of the novel–the beginning–promises a crisp confection composed of myriad microthin layers, each layer a slice of canny, out-in-front expertise: a mille-feuille of a book. What you get, as the weight of all those pages presses down, is more like a nice, thick pancake. Or, to switch to Tom Wolfe’s mega-novel metaphor, instead of the billion-footed beast you get maybe a centipede–anyway, a creature less generously limbed.
A white suit shimmers in the margins of Turn of the Century , Tom Wolfe’s spectral presence. You sense how badly Mr. Andersen wanted to make his first novel as breathtaking as Mr. Wolfe’s; you see how close he came. When George points out that show business executives come in two flavors, the “Merry Chatterer” or the “Inscrutable Hardass,” you hear the echo of The Bonfire of the Vanities , in which Mr. Wolfe divided all well-heeled Manhattan wives into “Lemon Tarts” and “social X rays.” When Mr. Andersen follows George and Lizzie’s friend Bennett Gould, self-
acknowledged “Wall Street asshole,” into the “Big Room,” command headquarters of his hedge fund, for a highly profitable $28 million day of trading stocks and options, puts and calls, you remember Sherman McCoy, bond trader, Master of the Universe, stepping into the roaring frenzy of the 50th floor at Pierce & Pierce.
Turn of the Century , like Bonfire , is mostly a novel about work; it comes alive, like a caffeine jolt, at the office, in the production meeting, on location, aboard the corporate jet. When George confers with his comically terse partner, endures the presence of a comically manic network executive, or meets with the network’s owner, Harold Mose (“an old-fashioned mogul hybrid, the Merry Hardass”), conference room and telephone etiquette loom large, all those intricate stop-and-go signals flashed in every professional exchange, as though the dynamic of power might shift with a wink or a nod. Mr. Andersen is infallibly accurate about the 9-to-5 manners of everyone from busboy to stylist to chief technology officer to news anchor. (Mose knows–or rather his P.R. man has told him–that “Americans would more easily embrace an anchor with a one-syllable nickname, like Dan or Tom or Ted or Jim.”) Kurt catches America where it lives: at work.
The mass of detail is more compelling than the plot. Will George’s new show succeed? Will Lizzie sell her company to Microsoft or go to work for Harold Mose? Will their “tag-team marriage” survive success and failure? Mr. Andersen generates plenty of interest in the texture of his heroine’s day, and not much suspense about her fate. Ditto for his hero.
Part of the problem is that Mr. Anderson is not good with emotion. He can do a speakerphone but not a crying jag. Here is Lizzie reacting to wretched news about her husband: “Oh, God. Oh, God. Oh, shit . She feels horrible for George. Feeling someone else’s pain has become a cheap joke, thanks to the President (like so much else), but Lizzie’s heart aches.” Sixteen years ago, when he was a reporter for Newsweek , George lost his left hand to a contra mortar shell; this fact, awkwardly presented, never fits. Lizzie says to herself that her amputee husband is “plucky”; as to what George feels (and not what he cleverly thinks )–we haven’t a clue.
Mr. Andersen’s characters are observers, critics, decoders, rational agents. Their consciousness is elaborately layered (“George marvels at how thoroughly jokes and no-bones-about-it insincerity have sifted into ordinary discourse. Irony is now embedded in the language, ubiquitous and invisible”)–but it’s all intellect, all blandly available. The strange, ugly, half-buried stuff Mr. Anderson ignores. George’s mother dies, Lizzie’s father dies; later, there’s an improbable suicide. These events can’t be digested; like George’s missing hand, they don’t fit. They linger awhile, trace memories, and then they’re forgotten. What can you say? Repeat along with Lizzie: “It turns out the clichés about parents dying are true, too.”
As you can imagine, the part of the novel where we’re supposed to be worried about George because he’s worried sick about his marriage is not entirely successful.
Let’s head back to the office, where Mr. Andersen’s encyclopedic store of knowledge is still on tap (fed by a T1 line, no doubt, and scrolling across a vast flat monitor). Are you wondering what the Infotainment Zone will be beaming your way next year? A new talk show called Al & Monica (“George wonders if they cast Al Roker in order to make her look slim by comparison”). Mattel will open “Barbie World”–in Las Vegas, natch. The Web ‘zine Slate will relaunch as “a same-day-delivery, home-office-supply site and selective admission chat-room.” E!, the entertainment channel, will introduce a new service, “E!2, pronounced ‘E squared,’ … a kind of show-business C-Span.” “The Chopper Channel” will debut, “all aerial panning, all the time.” And the renovated Viacom headquarters, all 53 stories, will be entirely clad “in a new type of quarter-inch-thick video-screen polymer”–a building-sized billboard capable of displaying images such as this: “Howard Stern, 500 feet tall, walking in place against an impossibly meteoric Manhattan night sky, his head stretching from the 44th to the 53rd floors, his hair hanging down to the 39th, his boot tips almost touching the sidewalk.”
Are you ready?