May 16, 1999
By Po Bronson
TURN OF THE CENTURY
By Kurt Andersen.
659 pp. New York:
Random House. $24.95.
In ”Turn of the Century,” Kurt Andersen jacks you into the nerve center of the media society and pins your eyelids open until you go nearly blind with overload. He achieves this with just old-fashioned black lettering on consecutive white pages — no shocking glossy photographs, no soundtrack, no hand-held video clips and no Web site. He wins back terrain for the novel that has been ceded to new media, demonstrating that the novel is as alive and as nimble as its high-tech competitors.
This big, sprawling book targets the great infotainment economy, principally Manhattan — in midtown and Silicon Alley — Hollywood and Las Vegas. The novel is set one year into a slightly satirical future, when clothing catalogues are headed by prestigious magazine editors, BarbieWorld has opened in Vegas and there’s a 24-hour cable channel devoted entirely to raw footage of celebrity parties. Prostitutes not only have to pretend to enjoy sex, they have to pretend to be impressed by beer connoisseurship. Somewhere in the background, Al Gore is running against George W. Bush and the Chiapas rebellion has evolved into a war.
The Manhattan power couple George Mactier and Elizabeth Zimbalist are the book’s central characters. George is a television producer for the emerging network MBC, the Mose Broadcasting Corporation. His specialty is blurring fact and fiction, weaving live video of drug busts into his serial episodes of a narcotics squad — but the show’s ratings are dwindling. Elizabeth is a Silicon Alley C.E.O. with a secret sense that work is a ”big make-believe game, dress-up Monopoly.” She’s met her revenue expectations with a Y2K software solution and now has to keep the numbers from falling off in the post-millennium. The pressure would be greatly relieved if she just sold out to Microsoft.
George and Lizzie are decision makers, never having to actually do anything; but their hollowness is masked by working in creative fields. They survive the stress by defusing everything with verbal wit. Their harried lives have the feel of jump cuts or channel surfing; one second Lizzie is screaming at the bait-and-switch tactics of Microsoft’s negotiation team, the next second she is babbling on the phone with her daughter, ”Hello, my baby-duck!” George and Lizzie spend a great deal of time debating whether they might be incrementally happier if they moved to Redmond or Los Angeles. They live with an instant feedback loop, where their adventures are hinted at in New York Post gossip columns and they must fend off Time magazine reporters begging for exclusives. Their overly precocious children make documentary videos, act in plays, sneak in overtime programming for porn sites and make insider trades in mock-investment clubs.
The trouble starts when it turns out that Microsoft is interested in Lizzie’s company only because she’s got an inside track on a brilliant scientist’s patents. When she finally meets with him and thinks he’s just another obnoxious nerd, Microsoft hangs Lizzie out to dry. Meanwhile, George has come up with a new show that is too much of a hybrid between a fictional news show like ”Murphy Brown” and the evening news to avoid the condemnation of every news purist in town. When the head of George’s network, Harold Mose, discovers that acquiring Internet companies does wonders for his lagging stock price, it’s only a few months before he makes a generous offer to Lizzie. George ends up far below her in the Microsoft hierarchy, and their marriage becomes riddled with distrust. When his show gets yanked from the air, he suspects Lizzie has something to do with it.
The satire is sharpest when Andersen takes us onto the sound stage of George’s show, right into story editing meetings and negotiations between stars over their lines. Similarly, the portrait of Lizzie managing her company at the point it must choose between an I.P.O. or acquisition exit strategies is dead on. Option traders and computer hackers alike are drawn in vivid, accurate detail. Andersen, a columnist at The New Yorker and former editor of Spy and New York magazines, layers his writing as if he’s on the record, off the record and on deep background all at the same time. And into this realistic scenario he throws outrageous gags — the first pig-to-human liver transplant, live broadcasts of Charles Manson parole hearings, cat-telepathy experimentation, cemetery tombstones with built-in video screens. All of it is played straight, with the laughs swallowed.
”Convergence” is the driving force behind the future Andersen portrays. While other writers might see our world as splintering, to him it’s a melting pot in which even the pot is melted. Fact is converged with fiction, people behind the scenes are part of the scene, the Net is like television, and today is a lot like the future. The characters have such nomadic backgrounds that they obliterate categorical stereotypes. Lizzie is a ”yoga-practicing Jew married to a lapsed Unitarian, whose children attend a nonreligious Episcopal school.” Oh, and George has a handicap — he lost a hand in Nicaragua covering the contras as a reporter.
In this future, careers become the new ethnicities. Andersen gets a kick out of tuning in to the different languages spoken by programmers, executive assistants, arbitragers, M.B.A.’s and Hollywood producers. These languages overshadow differences due to race or religion. So Lizzie’s programmers from India, Germany and Minnesota all understand when one of them says, ”The transition vector is totally in the application heap!” but they most likely wouldn’t understand the question, ”How are your direct reports incented?,” as Lizzie does, and certainly none would understand what George means when he says that a rival show ”only got a six, nine.”
The limitation of a Zeitgeist novel is that an accurate portrait of today can quickly feel dated and lose all its kick by the time it’s out in paperback. Andersen has managed to hoodwink this trade-off. He’s got a book chock-full of references to today that stick out like neon Post-It tags — Dharma Minus Greg” on television, Morcheeba on the CD player, George Stephanopoulos at parties — yet he’s infused it with so much inventive imagination that it transcends all that. This book’s vision of next year will last a good five to seven years. It’s a book that should be put in a Manhattan time capsule with the note: ”This is how we lived at the turn of the century. And yes, we really talked like that.”
At one point I didn’t want the novel ever to end — but I was only on page 200, with nearly 500 more to go. A couple hundred pages later I was wishing I was there already. Andersen doesn’t employ literary devices to condense time or abbreviate plot, so every chapter is laden with his exhaustive deconstruction of the moment. The high ratio of pause-button analysis often keeps us from getting caught up in the characters and the story. ”Turn of the Century” starts to feel like a party where all the guests are trying to prove how smart they are. A recurring theme is how cell phones and E-mail accounts can’t save us from old-fashioned misunderstandings, and in fact aggravate them. The one extended drama comes when George, unable to talk openly with Lizzie about his suspicions, uses every bit of technology he can to spy on her. Here, we feel the author’s hand (or perhaps his virtual robohand). Author ex machina.
The other problem with the novel’s length is that people may buy the book but then only pretend to have read it. That would be too bad, because in the last 100 pages a suspenseful plot breaks out. Computer hackers who work for Lizzie hatch an elaborate prank on Bill Gates, and the pages fly. No technology is beyond Andersen’s amusing powers of observation. He reveals how every newfangled communication device requires its own little ritualistic suspension of disbelief — from how we answer cell phones to how we log on to computers to how we get sucked in to television shows by teasers. We live constantly interrupted by this technology, and he’s managed to write a book portraying our fragmented lives that is not itself fragmented. In other words, he’s shown that the novel is flexible enough to encompass the chattering of its electronic cousins and, in the end, to hush them.
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company