Lee Klein November, 1999
Turn of the Century
By: Kurt Anderson
Random House 1999
Reviewed by Lee Klein
"Anything Kurt Anderson Writes About Me is Okay"
Charlie Rose responding to his appearance as himself
in Kurt Anderson's Turn of the Century
"If he names me by name then he probably has a lawsuit on his hands"
--Richard Serra when told that a fictional sculpture by him appears
in Kurt Anderson'sTurn of the Century
I thought it would take until the turn of the century to read The Turn of the Century, the 659 Kurt Anderson novel on what it is like to be a middle aged post-millenial infotainment yuppie. In this tale set in the twelve-month cycle just after New Years 2000, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Zimbalist and her husband George Matcier beat a path through a mercenary infested jungle of avaricious do-gooders for themselves parading under the professions of media executive, financier, and boutique industry irreplacable. We follow George (the co-producer of the hit show "NARCS" on the MBC network) as he launches a new mixed news and entertainment project, "Real Time", and Lizzie as her company "Fine Technologies" is courted for takeover by Microsoft. The conflict in this story arises when Lizzie's Microsoft deal falls through. Subsequently, her firm is bought outright by George's employer, MBC, and this married couples primary intrests begin to diverge (proving that those who live in Herb Allen's world do so after all in a very comfortable fish bowl).
This work opens in a paen to family life, flounders in endless chapters about such subjects as technolgy for physcic cats and prospective anchorwomen for Real Time, and ends in a full-scale securitites trading opera over the apparent death of Bill Gates. This book is saved by it's final movements (hopefully reached by the determined reader willing to endure an esoteric megadownload of jargon). Meanwhile the novel is host to a literary landscape whereby one navigates a world in which the technology of this week outdates the technology of the last via recombinant tag teams of components: only to be rendered obsolete by the developments of yesterday.
The first thing
Real or imagined, the people and worlds of access and power Mr Anderson chooses to write about are ones where soviergnty is vested in a very small group of people. This small group of people also happen to be those who control the media, high tech, and the financing for those said industries. It is Mr. Anderson's insider status which has allowed him to make such real observations. And how I felt about Mr. Anderson's insider stautus is how I felt when I was at Harold Evans book party/ symposium for "The American Century". There at a social hour standing around, adjacent to a cast that included Michael Bloomberg, Mortimer Zuckerman, Steve Brill, Tina Brown, William F. Buckley, etc; I thought to myself what is the use of talking to these people. Beyond the fact that I could easily be dismissed, (lacking mega-mogul status), grouped together this cartel represents an upside down yogurt. Or in otherwords they are a self contained bacterial datbase of themselves whose harvested crop of information is believed by them, to be farmed by them, and only for them. Not to say that Dan Quayle was right about a cultural elite but Mr. Anderson sure does try hard to make an argument for Mr.Potato/Potatoe head. Further this is definitely a novel laden with politics and status; limousine liberals suddenly noticing themselves exhibiting Republican behavior.
This book's sexual cosmography is one giant dance of monogamy not unlike a variation on Aurthur Schnitzler's "Eyes Wide shut (the basis for Stanley Kubrick's last film of the same name). While there there is a lot of discussion about possible marital infidelity it is always into each other's arms that George and Lizzie fall.
When the author is not exploring the media workplace he is investigating the family living space. In the end this may be suprising but he spends a great deal of time cataloging how children and relations of the featured characters hold up during the heady days of the here today gone tommorow world of the new computer based information economy.
Mr. Anderson also manages to include a noticable foray into multiculturism though not always with a politically correct bent. While George is working early in his career as a journalist he and an African American colleague at Newsweek jokingly suggest proposing a side venture for the magazine called "Newsweek for Negroes". Then later in the book he notes the tragedy which befalls George and Lizzie's Mexican maid Rafeala as her familiy is murdered during the insurrection in Chiapas. He follows both the media coverage of this event and the families screwups in trying to comfort the woman.
The whole problem with this volume, is that while it is certainly more pleasant to follow than David Foster Wallace's "infinite Jest", it shares the latter's flaw of legnth. We really can do without the endless vacous soliliquies uttered by bit players from bad T.V shows and corrupt executives trying to cash in at other's expense.
There are however within these pages some priceless observations. My favorite line remains "euphoria is not business strategy" and my favorite exchange is engaged in by the seven year old child whose inspiration it was to build the Las Vegas monstrosity "Barbie World"
... I want a Shirley Temp- wait what type of ginger ale do you use? The bartender glances towards Ben and winks. "Shasta, Madam" he says. His accent is Australian. Then I'll just have a Pellegrino. But with four cherries in it.
That for me just about sums up this transitory and ridiculous age. And Jedidiah Purdy says it's the end of irony!
Lee Klein November, 1999