"Turn of the Century"

Kurt Andersen's little big novel of the New York media world searches the noise for signal -- and finds it.

Published May 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

There is a millenarian doomsday premise behind Kurt Andersen's "Turn of the Century" far spookier than the "Left Behind" series of Christian Armageddon thrillers or an entire shelf of Ed Yourdon Y2K doomsaying tomes: What if, come Jan. 1, 2000 ... nothing happens? What if, in the cruel aftermath of the odometer's turn, we wake to find abundant electricity? What if telephones, televisions, modems -- all the tools we rely on to live -- still work? What if Christ does not return, the dial tone does return and civilization spirals inexorably into a state of further civilization? What if 2000 is just like 1999, but even more so?

There is no global panic in Kurt Andersen's year 2000, just more Internet IPOs, reality television and a successful new theme park called BarbieWorld. No famine, just a general anomie pundits in USA Today are calling "third millennium malaise." No Rapture, just a Dolly-like science scandale involving electronic brain implants to make cats telepathic. And there's no riot and revolution (except for a bit of unpleasantness in Mexico that barely grazes the American consciousness), but the New Yorker columnist and Spy magazine founder has set this hyper-sharp satire of business, media and manners among that class of people who, had they come, would have been first up against the wall: the broadcasting, finance and technology professionals who through lunches and pulled-from-the-ass brainstorms determine the obsessions and dreams of the global consumeriat.

The constituents of this milieu, as Andersen is well aware from his own career, are by now hopelessly intertwined. The trends of merger and acquisition deals and synergy have put everyone in this megasphere in bed with everyone else. What better way, then, to capture it than through two characters who are literally in bed with each other? George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist are a sort of fuddy-duddy, reduced-alcohol Nick and Nora, a highly educated Manhattan power couple (he's a TV producer, she's a software entrepreneur) who work hard, spend quality time with the kids in a spacious downtown home, treat their Hispanic domestic with self-conscious respect, have healthy sex when schedules allow and are by most definitions faithful. Their marriage, filled with arch bitchiness, is one of those urban-elite mutual-defense pacts against the constellation of minor wits and wealthy morons they rely on for work, investment and private-plane lifts. "You know, George, you have a high signal-to-noise ratio, but I find even your noise interesting" is an actual snippet of their pillow talk.

The setting allows Andersen to place George and Lizzie conveniently at or near the center of nearly every major event of the year 2000, which -- this being the only-slightly distant future -- are essentially media events (there's a presidential election, but no one seems to give a rat's ass). The risky pig-liver transplant that Lizzie's father undergoes makes them candidates for the movie-of-the-week and puts them in the center of a newsmagazine frenzy. Lizzie's company puts her in contact with a circle of young hackers with mysterious intentions. Meanwhile, George is producing "Real Time" for a Fox-like TV weblet called Mose Broadcasting Corporation ("the MBC," as it likes to call itself). The stars of the thrice-weekly infotainment series report actual news for part of the week and act out behind-the-scenes dramas the rest of the week. There may or may not be dark political MBC conspiracies against George and his controversial production; George's boss, Harold Mose, a greeting-card magnate and visionary manqui who charts how often the press uses certain descriptors in covering him-- "shrewd/savvy," "contrarian/buccaneer" -- may or may not be making business overtures to Lizzie's company, which may or may not be about to be acquired by Microsoft, which may or may not be interested in a deal with the MBC and may or may not be the target of the above-mentioned hackers, all of which may or may not threaten George and Lizzie's marriage.

As Mose likes to declare sententiously, it's all about "convergence." And George and Lizzie are about to get convergence right in the ass.

It's tempting to see George as a stand-in for Kurt Andersen. Like Andersen, George has been a magazine writer. Like George, Andersen has worked in television (and was reportedly courted earlier this year to head Comedy Central). But both George and Lizzie -- and, really, the entire world Andersen has created -- are stand-ins for him, or stand-ins, anyway, for the pop-culture noodlings that have filled his "Culture Industry" column since he joined the New Yorker. (In a business meeting, Lizzie blurts out a "lazy-sex paradigm" theory of baby boomers -- "As soon as they got rid of the taboo on oral sex, oral sex became the easy default mode, just like dishwashers and microwave ovens" -- that could have run in the New Yorker alongside Adam Gopnik's literary analysis of the Starr Report.) They trade bons mots and test out clever ideas -- video gravestones, an all-celebrity-death TV newsmagazine -- on each other and on their precocious children. In fact, what they and their well-juiced associates are, really, is precocious adults. Andersen, with an acute, holistic sense of the intellectual tenor of his times, has created a novel of precocity; rather than a novel of ideas, "Turn of the Century" is, often brilliantly, a novel of "ideas."

Andersen's glib masters of the N.Y.-L.A.-Seattle triangle are extremely smart people who are smart enough to know their intelligence can be a business liability. They are smart enough to suppress their misgivings about the trade-offs they've made for success but sophisticated enough to allow themselves dry little spurts of self-doubt and self-loathing. (Self-aware, self-indulgent, self-pitying: This is the class for whom the prefix "self-" was invented.) They have become a species of weasels that know they are weasels. This theme Andersen reinforces by ingeniously popping up actual weasels every so often; in a great tossed-off scene, Kim Basinger tries to force-feed a carnivorous Costa Rican weasel a vegetarian meal. ("The tayra want to eat lizard, Seqora. He not like banana.")

For better and worse, Andersen has clearly taken good notes while working in and commenting on the culture industry. For better, because his satire is militantly up-to-the-minute. There's the new autonomous region of Nunavut and Apple G3 computers. There's George Stephanopoulos' White House memoir which by Andersen's year 2000 has become the basis for a miniseries. There may never have been a novel this big with this short an expiration date; references and entire scenes will be dated by the time the book comes out in paperback. (Does the man care nothing about movie rights?!) I picture Andersen slaving over galleys, referring to copies of the current New York Post, Variety and Wired as another author would refer to a dictionary and thesaurus.

For worse, though, because he empties that notebook too freely. "Turn" will be called "Tom Wolfean" (and who wouldn't want that?) because of its big-money-big-media milieu, and "ambitious" because of its daring fictionalizations of real people and situations, but it will be called both, really, because it's more than 600 pages long. That's far longer than it should be. Though it has a broad focus and is never dull, it's not really a "sprawling" work; there are no significant subplots per se, and the rest of the characters never develop beyond being foils for George and Lizzie. As the couple's professional lives become dangerously intertwined, complicated by jealousies (professional and otherwise), Page Six rumors and computer and financial intrigues, the novel becomes bloated with funny but trimmable material: a page on the word "alternative," lengthy, too-familiar satires of trendy restaurants, three pages on a scheme to sell lamb as the more palatable "baby mutton" and a thrilling final section, complete with stock-trading chills and computer hackery, that has too little relation to the rest of the narrative.

At heart, in fact, this little big novel is not so much an industry satire -- though it's exceptional as that -- as it is a sweet, mature love story and, more, a meditation on modern communication and miscommunication. Andersen's jet-hopping, Dungeness-crab-eating TV producers, consultants and programmers are people who, having schemed or lucked into being wildly paid for expressing themselves, end up wrestling with whether there is any sincere, uncompromised form of expression left now that "all these deep, authentic emotions have been turned into fucking greeting cards." (George's mother's funeral finds George and Lizzie simultaneously grieving and overanalyzing their own grief.) Sincerity is dead and even cynicism is a clichi, so they communicate in a kind of hybrid language -- cynicerity -- leavened with rarefied pop-culture references to mark themselves as intelligent but not, you know, too. Continually multitasking and filtering, they mishear as often as they hear one another. Andersen, who has a great ear for dialogue, has an even better one for flubbed dialogue -- "Dostoyevsky's selfish steam" is "just our fucking self-esteem" spoken through a mouthful of dried boysenberries. The major turns of plot hang on deleted e-mail, misrouted cell phone calls and slow data transfers. These are people who describe life-changing emotional crises in terms of "hearing all noise and no signal" -- professional communicators who have rendered themselves emotionally dumb.

Andersen doesn't entirely fulfill the literary ambitions he seems to have for the novel, in part because the incessant riffing and theorizing gets in the way of character development. He's so concerned with nailing the surfaces of this world that we miss something of the characters' interior lives; even after 600 pages, we've never really gotten inside George and Lizzie, never broken through their surface ruminations, witticisms and media-saturated argot. (It'll be interesting to see how the book does in parts of flyover country where people aren't principally concerned with signal or noise and may never have read Variety.) But what he has created is impressive: a well-imagined picture of an info-teeming, overmediated, very possible near future, and, more important, of a class of people whom words, literally, fail.

By James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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