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May 24, 1999

BOOKS OF THE TIMES; Futuristic Family With Age-Old Subtext

By CHRISTOPHER LEHMANN-HAUPT

TURN OF THE CENTURY
A Novel
By Kurt Andersen
659 pages. Random House. $24.95.

It’s Feb. 28, 2000, at the start of Kurt Andersen’s huge and entertaining first novel, ”Turn of the Century.” New York City buses are now shaped like Absolut vodka bottles. The Yankees play in Pepsi/Taco Bell Yankee Stadium. Big Japanese collectors in Scarsdale will pay at least $1,600 for a mint first-edition pair of Nike Air Jordans.

The Webzine Slate has become ”a same-day-delivery home-office-site and selective-admission chat room” because Microsoft finally understands that it has ”no business in media.” Brill’s Content will shortly publish its final issue, featuring a 31-page ”pundits’ round-table critique of pundit-on-pundit punditry.”

George Mactier is a hotshot television executive who earns $16,575 a week and is about to produce a revolutionary new show for the Mose Broadcasting Company, whose leader, the billionaire Harold Mose, insists on calling it the MBC, like the BBC or the CBC. (Office clowns call its headquarters ”the The MBC Building.”)

Lizzie Zimbalist, George’s wife, owns a software company called Fine Technologies that Microsoft seems interested in buying for many millions. Fine Technologies makes video games and a year 2000 problem solver called Y2KRx, which Lizzie pronounces ”YAKety-rex.” George and Lizzie have three children: Sarah, from Lizzie’s first marriage, whose darker complexion sometimes causes her to be mistaken for the family au pair; Max, who has changed his name to Sir after seeing some old World War II movie (which suits Lizzie since their naming him Max was ”too trendy too late in the wave”), and LuLu, who is cheerfully obsessed with death.

What will happen to Lizzie and George in the long novel to follow? Not all that much. Lizzie will keep turning down Microsoft’s advances and sell her company to the MBC, where she will become president of Mose Media Holdings, Digital. George will produce his revolutionary television show, ”Real Time,” a fictional drama about newscasters who announce actual news, only to have it bomb and be killed by the higher-ups at the MBC. Since Lizzie has become one of those higher-ups, whom George already suspects of a romantic involvement with Mose, the death of ”Real Time” leads to a serious rift in their marriage.

Oh, and each loses a parent, George when his mother slows her car for a weasel and gets rammed by a giant semi; Lizzie when her father’s pig-liver transplant turns out not to have happened because he was part of ”a new placebo protocol, placebo surgery.”

Why then does it take 659 typographically packed pages to describe all this? Because no character in the story can have a thought, say a word, take a step, open a door, go through the mail, dial a phone, eat a meal, view a cityscape or breathe without inspiring the narrator to elaborate. It’s a little as if Leopold and Molly Bloom had been slimmed down, hyped up, tuned in and given a year instead of a day to exist.

Fortunately, most of the digressions are informative, wickedly satirical or outrageously funny and often all at once. George has drinks with Zip Ingram, an old pal from his reporting days, and learns that Ingram has been on a ”meat gig” for the National Lamb Board, trying to think up ”a new name for lamb that isn’t so beastly, that doesn’t remind Americans they’re eating a cute animal.” Two pages follow on the lamb nomenclature problem.

Lizzie has dinner in Seattle with a scientist who says he has succeeded in establishing direct communication between cats’ brains by means of computer chips. Two and a half pages are devoted to satirizing the pretentiousness of provincial cuisine. (”Would you like to settle into your table now? Or would you prefer to relax at the bar du vin with a complimentary glass? We have some very surprising Idaho Rieslings.”)

Almost anything sets the narrator off. ”George likes international music because he can’t understand it, neither the words nor the music,” one passage goes. ”It’s the same reason American graphic designers love Japanese magazines. It’s why strangers speaking foreign languages look more attractive and interesting than they would if they were speaking English — we hear their voices without judgment, snobberies deactivated, oblivious to nuances of class and education and geography. Conversely, it’s why fashion models become less beautiful the moment they speak.”

Mr. Andersen, an editor, reporter and critic who now writes a column for The New Yorker, is endlessly energetic (and occasionally exhausting) and seems to know just about everything (except that Lady Macbeth’s husband isn’t Duncan). It would probably take at least two readings to catch all the book’s jokes and cross-references.

Still, as several characters say, the ratio of noise to signal is high. And maybe that’s precisely the point that the relation of the commentary to the plot is making: that for all the noise that the communications revolution at the turn of the century is making, what still truly matters is the fundamental — love, death, jealousy and trust. If this conclusion is a cliche, why then, ACAT, meaning All Cliches Are True, as Lizzie and George keep reminding each other. To reach this conclusion Mr. Andersen has written the most uncliched novel imaginable.

 

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