Turn of the Century
Kurt Andersen Headline, 677pp, £17.99
Kurt Andersen, a contributor to the New Yorker, recently wrote one of those prodigious interview profiles that the magazine runs over 15 pages (and four cartoons). It was about Tom Hanks. Noting Hanks's lack of career blunders or personal shortcomings, Andersen opened his piece by listing, paragraph by paragraph, minor defects and petty charges of an actor he perceives to be one of the most likeable superstars of his generation. It is the kind of punchy, self-conscious, brilliantly sustained article that any editor would happily give his or her right arm for. Andersen has also worked at Time, produced television programmes and written for the theatre, so it's no surprise that his first novel is a grand satire of US media excesses.
Turn of the Century follows the fortunes of a television producer, George Mactier, whose series, NARCS, uses actors to perform real-life news spectacles, notably a drugs bust. Like a Truman Show that blurs fiction and reality in real time, Mactier's vision assumes the lofty status of news, not merely real life; in fact, his next series is to be called Real Time. His wife, Lizzie, is a software entrepreneur whose company, Fine Technologies, is developing machines that communicate with our emotions and thoughts. Microsoft, the real-life computing giant, moves to acquire Fine Technologies, and a series of business deals make George and Lizzie's lives ever more complicated.
The tenor of our times is information overload - and there is a lot of information here. At 677 pages, it's a dense read. There is much padding, made up of asides and observations that sometimes flow convincingly from the central couple's thought processes but often feel like ghostly add-ons, more clever than organic. What's more, disarming plot twists occasionally happen mid-sentence, obscured by jargon, and neither a character nor indeed an omniscient narrator helps us nail down developments and make them seem real. And Andersen never allows us to forget that the tenor of our times is also that we live our lives too fast to notice many of the important signposts flying past.
Turn of the Century is written in long, staccato sentences with jargon that flares off the page like fireworks. Andersen's archly verbal humour draws on obvious material, such as absurd job titles, that British readers will recognise. More impressively, he uses the sparingly evoked subplot of the domestic drama of the Mactiers' marriage to counterpoint the outlandish social whirl in which most of the characters find themselves caught up. So this is a book, surprisingly, as much about a marriage and a family as it is about how the media and new technology control our lives.
There is no doubt that Andersen is eager to appear both funny and clever, frequently in the same sentence; but his style can become tiresome, as well as having the unfortunate effect of making everything immediately important and nothing permanently significant. In another novel, the sadness of George losing a hand while reporting in Nicaragua would surely carry more poignancy and emblematic resonance than is given space here.
But this is Lizzie's book, in the end. Beside her husband, she is a complex and sympathetic hero; and it's she, too, who finally understands that everything spoken in Turn of the Century is, as she puts it, "embedded irony". Within her own media world, she's not wrong about this. In his first fiction Kurt Andersen has applied the higher reaches of journalism to the novel form and, while the result is sharp and superbly entertaining, it is also over-reliant on the quick win, the immediate hit. Sometimes you really can have too much of a good thing.