Kurt Andersen wants it clearly understood that he's not George Mactier.
The New Yorker writer has penned a 659-page novel in which the chief protagonist is a self-absorbed, scheming journalistic hack turned yuppie scum who earns $16,575 a week making a mockery of the news business.
"He's 30 percent me, 50 percent me, I don't know," Andersen says in the Brooklyn brownstone where he created Mactier and his ambitious corporate-executive wife, Lizzie Zimbalist.
"He's like a brother. There's obviously genetic material in common. . . . All fictional characters are Frankenstein creations--an arm here, a leg there."
At the same time, says Andersen, 44, the onetime editor of Spy magazine, the Mactier character "is 42 years old and never really took a professional risk in his life. Certainly starting with Spy I took large and unwise risks--I use 'unwise' in self-deprecating irony."
This is the way Andersen talks, not unlike his often obnoxious Manhattan power couple in "Turn of the Century," in great rushes of post-ironic, self-conscious commentary. Just the other day, Andersen told his wife, Anne Kreamer, a television producer and former Nickelodeon executive, that they'd had "a George and Lizzie moment." It seems they bumped into a woman at a dinner party who is now paying them $1,200 a day to use their weekend place in upstate Dutchess County for fashion shoots.
"Turn of the Century" unfolds in the uncharted terrain of 2000--a world not unlike ours, but one in which Andersen can conjure coming attractions of the millennium (a Disney director teaching Washington generals how to direct a war, or "The Supreme Court," a celebrity fake-trial show with Robert Bork as the judge). The novel is generating big-time buzz, in part because Andersen, a former editor of New York magazine and onetime writer and architecture critic for Time, is a creature of the very media subculture he skewers.
But the book also touches a nerve, not just about self-important media types but about hyperactive Wall Street traders, wealthy Seattle geeks, moronic Hollywood producers, sex-obsessed executives and, like connective tissue, old-fashioned greed.
A shrewd cultural critic, Andersen is not without contradictions: A native Nebraskan who does a dead-on depiction of Manhattan. A genuinely funny writer who rarely smiles, even in his book jacket photo. A student of the human condition who was inhumane enough to fire a couple of New York staffers by fax. (Ironically, the novel was born when Andersen himself got the ax at New York three years ago.)
These days, he's working the publicity circuit. While he notes that the New York Post's gossipy Page Six (which makes cameo appearances in the book) once called him "reclusive," a New York Times piece on his book party "depicted me as an on-the-scene, socially-networked-up-the-wazoo Sally Quinn of Manhattan."
The book is peppered with insider references to "blondes on MSNBC," people who are "Nexised," Barry Diller, Al Gore, Charles Manson, Michael Milken, Cristophe, MTV, Slate, "Entertainment Tonight," CNBC, Variety, Newsweek and, in what's sure to draw a chuckle from the cognoscenti, "the final issue of Brill's Content." They are, in Mactier's words, "all members of the international fraternal order of the somewhat famous." Andersen also whacks away at some real-life targets, such as Bill Gates and his evil empire.
"I tried to make it not annoyingly obscure or arcane," Andersen says. "I asked, would my friends in Omaha get this? The twin risks are making it too arcane or dumbing it down to the point where it doesn't really capture these worlds."
He sketches a status-conscious universe of Armani blazers, Cynthia Rowley shirts, Helmut Lang pants, Badgley Mischka dresses, Gucci loafers, whipped mochaccino brulee, sun-dried boysenberries, cilantro ratatouille tartlets, Paul Newman popcorn, Le Gourmet baby carrots, Chinese vitamins, baby Vietnamese eggplant and, naturally, $60,000 Land Cruisers.
The story hurtles headlong toward a grand convergence of television, technology and investment banking, a virtual IPO of network nastiness and dot.com duplicity. There are even references to "inexcusably oleaginous" behavior and a certain "postadolescent anarchosyndicalist spirit"; it could not be determined without further linguistic research whether Andersen shares these traits.
The author combines the satiric sensibility of Spy and the Harvard Lampoon (where he was vice president) with the ambition of a man who lasted one day as a Daily News copy aide ("I had too much hubris and self-importance to bring coffee to Jimmy Breslin"). Instead, he learned the TV business by writing for Gene Shalit on "Today."
Andersen pushed the envelope at Spy, where Donald Trump was famously described as a "thick-fingered vulgarian," and at New York. He blames his abrupt firing there on stories that upset the corporate owners, including Henry Kravis, who was named in a "Fat Cat Catalogue" of "rich New Yorkers" as a top fund-raiser for Bob Dole's presidential campaign.
Building a plot around the faux reality theme, the author has Mactier developing a program called "Real News" for the "MBC" network that unabashedly mixes bona fide journalism with infobabes portraying reporters in how-they-got-that-story scripts. In a pivotal scene that suggests Andersen's dim view of the media, Mactier dresses down an old-guard news executive who challenges his fake-news extravaganza:
"Let's say you turn to Bill Rossiter for cross talk after a piece . . . and you feel like laughing--you don't dare smile, right? You fake a very, very sober expression and tone of voice. Right? Or when you have a live back-and-forth with a correspondent in the field. He knows what you're going to ask, and you know all the answers to the questions you're asking--so you have to portray curiosity. Right? That's virtuoso acting. Or when you shoot the subject of a story pretending to talk on the phone or pretending to examine a bullet hole in a door frame."
So, Kurt, what do you really think of the press?
"I'm skeptical, moderately jaundiced, but not deeply cynical," he says. "I mean, corners are cut, deals are made, slippery slopes are slid down and we all know about it. . . . There are a lot of dumb reporters, a lot of sloppy reporters. Not a majority, but too many. That influenced how I depicted the journalistic class."
Lighting a cigarette, he says: "I don't want to sound like a pretentious moralizer and say I wish it was like 1965 when two big papers and three big networks and three big magazines told us what to think." But Andersen laments that journalism is now ruled by "marketplace values."
" 'Greed is good' no longer even needs to be said. It's presumed. Today if you're not making money, you're some kind of sap. I don't think there's any longer any debate about that. I find it strange and somewhat chilling."
As for Lizzie, the foulmouthed executive who runs a small technology company and crosses swords with Microsoft, Andersen's wife played a part. "Some of my friends say, 'Is Lizzie you?' " Kreamer admits. "I am a woman who, because I was raised a Catholic, uses profanity on a regular basis. And I was able to provide some insight into corporate workings in terms of the television world."
Andersen, who smoked throughout the interview, says he gave some of his own traits to Lizzie (who goes through a couple of packs of Marlboros a day). And George and Lizzie both casually fire people. Andersen says he wanted to "convey the excitement and adrenaline and thrill of running a business, and the ghastliness and absurdity and stupidity of it as well."
In Tom Wolfe fashion, Andersen burrowed into his research, hanging out with his friend Jim Cramer, a high-powered Wall Street trader; with his friend Paul Simms, creator of the TV show "News Radio"; and in Seattle with his friend Tom Phillips, who runs deja.com. He also hired a hacker expert to help him write about rebellious techno-nerds. But Andersen says he didn't set out to produce a sprawling "Bonfire of the Vanities" for the '90s; he just kept writing and writing, to the point that his editor had to cut more than 100 pages.
"Turn of the Century" has drawn strong praise, a book that "jacks you into the nerve center of the media society and pins your eyelids open until you go nearly blind," as the New York Times put it. But some reviews serve to trumpet Andersen's insider status.
In Time, Daniel Okrent begins by saying, "I know Kurt Andersen. Everyone knows Kurt Andersen (especially here at Time)," and that he drew the assignment because he knows the author less well than everyone else. At New York, media columnist Michael Wolff discloses that "I know Kurt, too, and he's blurbed one of my books." In Entertainment Weekly, Benjamin Svetkey notes that "this reviewer worked for Spy as a fact checker during Andersen's tenure and remembers him as [a] likable but distant figure." Only Vanity Fair, run by Andersen's former Spy partner Graydon Carter, limited itself to a brief mention.
With Andersen's media pedigree, it's hard to imagine him living anywhere but Manhattan. But he cherishes this 19th-century, four-story, high-ceilinged brownstone in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens for being "out of the maelstrom" and an escape for his daughters from the city's "pathological private-school madness. Raising them here will reduce the chances they'll grow up to be insufferable [expletives]."
"Kurt does not need that constant infusion of being with media bigwigs to define himself," says his friend Jim Kelly, Time's deputy managing editor, noting that Andersen steers clear of hobnobbing in the Hamptons. "Kurt is very much a realist, a romantic realist. He has this intense, intense curiosity. He's a jazz pianist in that regard. He goes off on these wonderful riffs all the time."
Andersen's biggest fan says he's not the dark, brooding figure that some imagine. Anne Kreamer says her husband is smart, funny, optimistic and "fearless, in his willingness to actually speak his mind. I would add 'sexy,' but then I would, wouldn't I?"
So just when one might conclude that Andersen is nothing like George or Lizzie, who fly around communicating by cell phone while a Mexican nanny raises their overachieving children, Andersen tells the New York Press: "I withdrew from my familial responsibilities for five months. . . . I saw my kids the way lawyers and investment bankers see their kids." But he obviously feels guilty about it, and that period of book-crashing is now over.
Next stop on this hall-of-mirrors express may be Hollywood. Director Nora Ephron is looking at the book, and there is talk of a feature film or HBO movie--either of which could propel Andersen further into a Mactier-type life.
"There's no question I've gotten more attention than I would have if I were just Kurt Andersen, young first novelist, or insurance man turned novelist," he says. "But there's also been some skepticism, some snarkiness attached to some of the coverage. It sounds disingenuous, but in the end the work stands on its own."
CAPTION: Andersen: "Today if you're not making money you're some kind of a sap. . . . I find it strange and somewhat chilling."
CAPTION: Andersen's Daily News stint lasted a day: "I had too much hubris and self-importance to bring coffee to Jimmy Breslin."
CAPTION: A former colleague at Spy recalls Andersen as "a likable but distant figure."