Talk about neat timing. What could be more fortuitous than Random
House bringing out the paperback edition of Kurt Andersen’s hefty
dazzler of last year’s bestseller, “Turn of the Century,” just when
we’re all looking for the perfect book to carry off to the beach.
So maybe you’ve already checked-out Harry Potter’s latest adventures
and maybe are looking for something a little more, say, adult, and
you’re tired of yet another John Grisham or his ilk? Well, this witty
insider look at the world of electronics and IPOs, moviemaking and scams
may be just the book you’re looking for.
Some years back, Tom Wolfe, master of the contemporary social novel,
e.g., “Bonfire of the Vanities,” advised would-be novelists to look
about them for material, and raise their eyes from the contents of their
In short, Wolfe recommended them to peruse the mighty tomes of 19th
century fiction. He told them to study Trollope and Zola for
inspiration. Both men were first-rate reporters. Zola takes you into
the world of high finance, of the Paris stock exchange, of the famed
wholesale markets — Les Halles — the coalmines, the first department
stores. They were genuinely instructive.
Andersen, whose resume includes a stint covering crime and politics
at Time before moving on there to be architecture and design critic for
eight years, stands well qualified as reporter cum novelist. He moved
upwards in the magazine world, co-founding the sassy monthly, Spy, then
on ever upwards to editor-in-chief of New York and, now, is a writer at
the New Yorker, as trendy a slot as any writer could wish.
He has chosen to set this, his first novel in the ever upwardly
mobile and shifting worlds of electronics, television and software. He
sounds exceedingly knowledgeable about the workings of these worlds,
where his protagonist, George Mactier — now earning $16,757 weekly (“an
astonishing figure that occurs to him often, daily”) as a producer of a
television series NARCS, involving actors in real life situations but
using scripted lines — is in the process of developing a new series,
“Real Time,” using much the same shtick with actual news items set in
His wife, Lizzie, is a software entrepreneur. Their careers mix,
mingle and tangle — on occasion, disastrously. They form one of the
more plausible and convincing couples in recent fiction and their
children are interesting rather than precocious or sentimentalized.
Their work leads them to frequently consider where they will live.
The northwest is the chosen territory for the Silicon Valley folk of the
age but, as George puts it, he’d rather “live in a sunny city of stupid
pretty people than a rainy city of smart ugly people like Seattle,”
adding, “He doesn’t know if he really would, but he enjoys saying so.”
On a corporate flight, a couple of virtually incidental comments of
Lizzie arouse the interest of George’s boss and proceed to involve them
with Microsoft. Yes, Andersen deftly weaves real life institutions and
people in with his fictional ones — not unlike in a way as George is
doing with his television series.
Andersen does a wickedly entertaining job of setting out the likes of
Los Angeles, Los Vegas, New York, and sundry playgrounds. His
characters, major and minor, are deft turns. Timothy Featherstone is a
near epitome of a showbiz character — wonderfully observed, bordering
without ever actually falling into caricature. And the characters are
very, very funny.
Andersen has a near-perfect ear for how we talk now. Indeed, his
whole book is about how we live now. Yes, he is aware of the famed
Anthony Trollope novel, “The Way We Live Now.” Slyly, he has Lizzie
reading that very novel. Trollope set his novel at the height of
Britain’s great industrial age, abounding in scams, scandals and social
One of the added pleasures, in fact, of reading Andersen’s novel may
lead you to Trollope’s. The 19th century novelist is, of course, less
profane and sexually overt but is nonetheless acutely observant of the
intricacies of human behavior. Andersen, let it be noted in passing,
creates humane, plausible characters — they are not puppets designed
Should you want to sample “The Turn of the Century,” go to
amazon.com and then go to the title for an excerpt plus abundant documentation. Should contemporary social history intrigue you, you might head for your nearest newsstand — alas, not on the Web — and pick up the August 7 issue of New York, which investigates “Why New Yorkers all feel poor.” “We learned that it’s still possible to live the good life here — if only you made a few thousand more.” Of course, on the cover, the magazine shows you two men: one with an income of $1 million, the other, practically a street person with a bare $100,000 to get by on with detailed listing of their yearly incomes. It certainly will bring “Turn of the Century” home to you.