TURN OF THE CENTURY
By Kurt Andersen
Random House. 657 pp. $24.95
Reviewed by Andrew O'Hehir
We live in perhaps the greatest age of self-regard the Western world has yet seen. So I suppose George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, the hyper-successful, endlessly self-scrutinizing power couple at the heart of Kurt Andersen's debut novel, Turn of the Century, make the perfect focal point for an epic novel of the Information Age. When Turn of the Century begins, in February of 2000, former journalist George is producing a controversial prime-time TV hit series called "NARCS" and Lizzie is running a boutique software company that's designing a revolutionary video game called "Warps." They live with their 2.5 children (the eldest girl is Lizzie's daughter by a pre-George boyfriend) in a converted coffee-and-chocolate warehouse in lower Manhattan's South Street Seaport district, having moved back to the city after two years in an upstate small town made them feel "too Republican."
In fact, as George and Lizzie rush from meeting to meeting, from New York to Los Angeles to Seattle to Tokyo, they constantly critique their own performance, seeking reassurances that they're not as disgusting as the lunatic cast of infotainment slimeballs who surround them. Lizzie occasionally rides the subway, instead of hiring a limo or driving their $60,000 sport-utility vehicle (her "Anglophilia-phobia" prevented them from buying a Land Rover), in order to avoid slipping into "a gold-card arms-length soft-focus simulacrum of urban life." George's running commentary on his own lack of authenticity is far more strident: "You pathetic brazen self-loathing corndog whore, George," he tells himself as he smoothes the ruffled feathers of an airhead "NARCS" actress. Earlier, while issuing a double-edged compliment to his scheming Minnesota brother-in-law, George concocts an internal formula that might well serve as a manifesto for Andersen's novel: "Sincerity plus irony simultaneously equals . . . what? Nuance. Cosmopolitanism. Weaseliness. Cosmopolitan weaseliness."
Now a staff writer at the New Yorker, Andersen co-founded and edited the satirical monthly Spy in the '80s and early '90s and then was editor-in-chief of New York magazine for two years. His acknowledgments page reads like the reservations list on a good night at the Four Seasons; this is clearly a man who knows from cosmopolitan weaseliness. From its title and its focus on the Manhattan chattering classes, one gathers that Turn of the Century is meant to evoke the New York novel of manners of a hundred years ago -- perhaps Andersen aims to be the William Dean Howells of the 2000s. Certainly his well-tuned reportorial ear and unparalleled skill as a scene-setter are employed to often dazzling effect here. George's increasingly byzantine dealings with his unctuous overlords at the Mose Broadcasting Company (MBC), a fictional sixth network run by a Canadian greeting-card tycoon, hilariously convey the backstage drama and arcane insider argot of the media industry. Perhaps the most enjoyable of Andersen's satiric creations is MBC acting president Timothy Featherstone, a blissfully sleazy 50-year-old white executive who veers from not-quite-current street slang to marketing gobbledygook and claims to be the first producer to show "female butt cleavage" on network TV.
By beginning his novel just a few months into the future -- it ends on New Year's Eve of 2000, which, as George and Lizzie's precocious son points out, is the real turn of the century -- Andersen gets to have the easy fun of exaggerating current trends ever so slightly, for purposes both comic and grave. The 2000 of Turn of the Century features an "obitutainment" prime-time show about celebrity deaths, an Adam Sandler remake of "Koyaanisqatsi," and a new Las Vegas theme park called BarbieWorld, adjacent to a faux-Rat Pack casino called Swank City. (I didn't think it was possible to write anything interesting about Las Vegas at this late date, but Andersen, formerly the architecture and design critic for Time, manages a tour de force scene there.) It also raises the specter of a widespread guerrilla uprising in southern Mexico, along with the possibility of U.S.-sponsored death squads and a Vietnam-level military quagmire.
Andersen is after something bigger than dystopian satire, and I suppose that's to his credit. As Lizzie soars to corporate mega-stardom, George struggles to launch a troubled new show that is half-newsmagazine and half-melodrama, and their marriage begins to crumble. This is obviously where Andersen wants the heart of his story to be, but George and Lizzie, for all their surface brilliance and their constant internal carping, are about as likable and distinctive as a handsome WASP couple in an L.L. Bean catalog. Each of them loses a parent during the course of the novel, and each seems to forget about it almost immediately. They seem to know no one -- besides their kids' Mexican nanny, their extended families, and a few of Lizzie's anarchist programmers -- who isn't a member of the 99th socioeconomic percentile.
If levelheaded, comfort-seeking Lizzie becomes more sympathetic as the novel progresses, it's largely in contrast to George. My guess is that Andersen intends George, who lost one hand in a Contra grenade attack while covering the Nicaraguan conflict in the '80s, to be a challenging and ambiguous figure. But George's flirtations with adultery (coupled with his deepening paranoia about Lizzie's fidelity), his mock-Freudian litany of random references to pigs and weasels, and his general "sense of his own spuriousness" only struck me as a smug yuppie's run-of-the-mill guilt complex. When George finally descends into dementia and begins electronically stalking Lizzie, convinced she's having an affair with Harold Mose (formerly his boss and now hers), Andersen has painted himself into a narrative corner, and his resolution of this dilemma is both sentimental and shockingly cavalier.
For all his deft caricatures of left-leaning securities gurus, perverted wannabe actresses and Microsoft-loathing hackers, Andersen has little sense of how to maintain the narrative tension and momentum demanded by the novel form. Far too much of Turn of the Century's ample heft is devoted to witty but utterly conventional musings on the differences between New York, Los Angeles and Seattle -- the three poles of the infotainment economy that sustains George and Lizzie's opulent lifestyle -- as well as half-mocking paeans to digital telephony, the luxuries of corporate jet travel, and other techno-wonders both real and imagined. It's less a sweeping social novel in the Dickens or Tom Wolfe tradition than a collection of glittering shards, a big book whose focus is much too small and whose perspective is curiously, cluelessly myopic.
Andrew O'Hehir has written for Salon, Spin, US, Gear and other publications.