Reviewed by Benjamin Svetkey
Every decade gets the novel it deserves. The greedy 1980s were savagely summed up in Tom Wolfe’s ”Bonfire of the Vanities”. The vapid 1970s were…well, the less said about ”Jonathan Livingston Seagull” the better. But with only seven months left of the 1990s, where’s the book that defines this era? Where is ourliterary time capsule — and what will it be filled with?
Kurt Andersen’s big, bristly Turn of the Century may provide the answer. Packed with everything that’s made the decade what it is today — runaway IPOs and power-mad CEOs, gourmet coffee shops and cable niche marketing, vibrating cell phones and cybersex — it’s an astonishing doorstop of a debut that deconstructs the 1990s by peering just over the border into the next decade. Andersen’s inspired gimmick: He’s set the story exactly one year into the future, to a time when Monica Lewinsky is sharing a talk show with Al Roker and kids are snacking on Endangered Animal Crackers.
”Century”’s heroes are George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, a professional New York married couple who, in the spring of 2000, are waking up with a shocking post-millennium hangover. He’s a hotshot TV executive working on a reality-bending newsroom drama called ”Real Time” (with actors playing anchors delivering genuine news). She runs her own computer software company, built on the success of her famous Y2KRx program (which fixes all the glitches left behind by the programs designed to fix the Y2K glitches). Together, they spend 659 pages trying to save a marriage buffeted by too much technology, too much ambition, and too little time.
As in a lot of old-fashioned social novels, plot isn’t exactly the point here: Mostly George and Lizzie zip around the country untangling various personal and professional snafus (Lizzie gets hired by George’s boss at the MBC network; George is convinced they’re having an affair). But along the way, Andersen, currently a columnist for ”The New Yorker,” gets to neatly pick apart the fabric of today’s culture by predicting where it will all lead to tomorrow. And his tour of the near future says volumes about the present: The new E!2 cable channel offers round-the-clock coverage of celebrity cocktail parties; the guy who does the MovieFone voice becomes a film critic; George Stephanopoulos’ book is made into a miniseries.
It’s a fresh and frequently very funny point of view — but you have to wonder how much shelf life it’ll have. Two years down the line, will jokes about Entertainment Weekly for Kids still have the same quirky resonance? Probably not. But then again, the book’s own built-in obsolescence couldn’t be more appropriate to the era it’s about. To borrow one of Andersen’s phrases, ”How now.”
Andersen is uniquely qualified for this sort of media-savvy skewering. Back in the mid-1980s, he cofounded ”Spy” magazine, the satiric monthly that brutally tweaked Manhattan society (referring to Donald Trump as a ”short-fingered vulgarian” in virtually every issue). By way of full disclosure, it should be noted that this reviewer worked for ”Spy” as a fact checker during Andersen’s tenure and remembers him as the likable but distant figure who wrote some of the magazine’s sharpest material (and, by the way, there’s something to be said for reviewing your ex-boss’ work).
His career since ”Spy” has been somewhat spottier. He edited ”New York” magazine for a couple years but ran into trouble after publishing negative features on his corporate overlords’ high-powered friends. Then he found refuge at ”The New Yorker” (so far surviving the departure of Tina Brown, the editor who hired him). Of course, with his new” Century” on the shelves, Andersen is likely to find himself boosted into an altogether different orbit — the first most promising novelist of the Third Millennium.
Can’t wait to see what he does with the next decade.