The Book Club

Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century

Dear Nathan,

Top o’ the millennium to you. I’m raring for conversation about Turn of the Century–partly, I think, because the experience of reading it is so much like being locked in the longest cocktail party of your life; a little one-on-one conversation appeals to me as balm just now. But also because the parts that most interested me were those I knew least about going in–your world. I’m curious to hear how these parts struck you.

First, though, a general description for our readers: This is a huge (659 pages), Tom Wolfean satire, set in the very near future, of life at the top of the information industries. George Mactier, our hero, is a producer of TV dramas for the Mose Broadcasting Company (MBC); his wife, Lizzie Zimbalist, is the founder of a Manhattan-based software company, Fine Technologies. The plot, so slight as to be almost unnoticeable, concerns a series of marital misunderstandings created by the reverberations of George’s and Lizzie’s various business dealings (among other things, Lizzie is in perpetual negotiations over whether to sell her firm to a certain Evil Empire based in Redmond, Wa.). The story, with its writers, bankers, media execs, movie types, computer scientists, and a hedge-fund manager strikingly similar to Jim Cramer, is transparently a device constructed to allow Andersen to do what he does best, which is the cultural anthropology of the chattering classes.

On the one hand, he’s kind of a genius at this. Some of his minor characters are wonderful–like the hard-charging banker Nancy McNabb, whose husband “is sweetly ridiculous, like so many men married to tough, professional women in New York,” and who buys a new phone every four months “just on principle.” ” ‘What principle?’ Lizzie asked. ‘Bestness,’ Nancy said in all seriousness.” I loved Timothy Featherstone, the dreadful No. 2 at George’s company, who utters greetings like “Yabba dabba doo” and who “still relishes any opportunity to say dot com.”

Like Wolfe, Andersen delivers some dazzling reportage, whether he’s re-creating what goes on in a trader’s head or describing a network chief’s apartment. He especially excels at classification. Here is my favorite such exercise (you’ll have to take my word for it that it is a complete accident that this passage includes one of the book’s several references to Nathan Myrhvold):

There are two basic show-business-executive personality types, the Merry Chatterer (Steve Ross, most of the DreamWorks principals, a majority of record executives, almost every agent, everyone in TV) and the Inscrutable Hard-ass (Michael Ovitz, Barry Diller, John Malone). … Some Inscrutable Hard-asses are brilliant, but every one is dead-set on appearing to be brilliant–if you doubt that their still waters run deep, well, they might drown you just to prove the point. Inscrutable Hard-asses often form good-cop/bad-cop partnerships with Merry Chatterers–Ovitz with Ron Meyer at the old CAA, Jon Dolgens with Sherry Lansing at Paramount, and, at Microsoft, as Lizzie once pointed out, Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold. But George’s preferred executive type was an old-fashioned mogul hybrid, the Merry Hard-ass, who he had discovered is surprisingly rare, especially in Los Angeles. Merry Hard-asses are scary but fun, like fairy-tale creatures.

Andersen, who writes for The New Yorker, is also a former editor of New York magazine and a co-founder of Spy. Clearly, he has decanted into Turn of the Century every telling detail that ever caught his eye. The problem is that this steady diet of knowingness gradually palls. On almost every other page–especially during the first half of the book–Andersen stops dead and clears his throat before delivering The Clever Thing I Always Thought About Headwaiters, or The Three Types of Men You Find in West-L.A. Restaurants. These pronouncements are almost always withering and funny, but not the kind of thing you want to read, back-to-back, for a 600-page stretch. It’s like eating nothing but guacamole for dinner; before long, you think you never want to read a puckish aperçu again.

And it’s not just an aesthetic problem. I thought Turn of the Century was a pretty decadent book, finally. (How 20th century of me, I know!) Andersen pays such exquisite attention to every surface he sees; there’s something kind of creepy about it. For the first 50 pages, or even 100, he seems to be piercing all the pretensions of the world he’s describing. But when he goes on doing it–and on, and on–the sheer accretion of detail gives that world a weight that becomes unbearable. George and Lizzie and all their friends have that annoying boomer obsession with irony (“Is that a retro, semi-ironic groovy, or an earnest, unthinking, post-retro-groovy?” wonders George, in the wake of one of Featherstone’s greetings), the way it’s “embedded,” as George likes to reflect, in everything. And they have the annoying boomer self-consciousness (about their servants, their money, their liberal politics; about why it’s OK to use a car service instead of the subway sometimes, if you’re keeping an appointment in the east 60s between Park and Madison; about whether talking on their cell phones in public makes them look like assholes, or actually makes them into assholes, and whether there is any difference).

A couple of lines give the game away, I think. “He cannot abide dumb snobbery, easy snobbery, snobbery ten or twenty years behind the curve,” Andersen writes of his hero. He’s got some authorial distance here, I think–but not as much as you might think; there are long passages in which Turn of the Century really does seem to be about limning the correct forms of snobbery. My shot-from-the-hip suspicion is that great social satire needs the juxtaposition of classes. Almost everyone in Turn of the Century is minutely, neurotically obsessed with status, but it’s all about minor ups and downs in the pecking order; no one is threatened with a serious change in station.

“Such a balmy, swirling feast, such a slick, pretty mural of high inconsequence to inhabit for a couple of hours,” Andersen writes of a dinner at a hot L.A. restaurant. Surely a satirist ought to think twice before dropping a line like that into such a pretty mural of a book.

Anxious to hear what you think. (And curious: Why hasn’t my Word spell-check ever heard of inconsequence?)