Turn of the Century

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As the year 2000 progresses, George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, ten years married, are caught up in the whirl of their centrifugally accelerating lives. George is a TV producer for the upstart network MBC, launching a truly and weirdly groundbreaking new show that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Lizzie is a software entrepreneur dealing with the breakneck pleasures and pains of running her own company in an industry where the rules are rewritten daily.

However, after...

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Overview

As the year 2000 progresses, George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, ten years married, are caught up in the whirl of their centrifugally accelerating lives. George is a TV producer for the upstart network MBC, launching a truly and weirdly groundbreaking new show that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Lizzie is a software entrepreneur dealing with the breakneck pleasures and pains of running her own company in an industry where the rules are rewritten daily.

However, after Lizzie, recovering from a Microsoft deal gone awry, becomes a confidante and advisor to George's boss, billionaire media mogul Harold Mose, the couple discovers that no amount of sophisticated spin can obscure basic instincts: envy, greed, suspicion, sexual temptation -- and, maybe, love. When they and their children are finally drawn into a thrilling, high-tech corporate hoax that sends Wall Street reeling and makes one person very, very rich, George and Lizzie can only marvel at life's oversized surprises and hold on for dear life.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In the opening scene of Kurt Andersen's rambunctious debut novel, Turn of the Century, George MacTier, the contemplative TV-producer protagonist, is startled by the insistent vibrations of his pocketed cell phone and spills his steaming Starbucks latte all over the neon spandex uniform of an irate bike messenger. Such are the casualties of the coming millennium. Andersen, with the poignancy of a prophet and the irreverence of a late-night talk-show host, celebrates the bizarre vicissitudes of the 21st century in this giddy, sprawling portrait of millennial absurdity.

The former editor of New York magazine and currently a nonfiction writer for The New Yorker, Andersen has earned the right to lampoon contemporary culture. With a keen ear for dialogue, especially for the absurd -- ridiculous catchphrases, New Age blather, high-tech mumbo jumbo, and pompous corporate rhetoric -- Andersen writes with the unconscious ease of an insider, leading the reader on a rollicking tour of Gotham high society, Hollywood studios, Seattle technological start-ups, and Wall Street war rooms.

The novel follows the ups and downs of a post-yuppie high-powered couple, guiltily grappling with the meaning of their success. George is the producer of a hit TV series, "NARCS," a sort of dramatized version of "Cops," which pushes the idea of reality TV to a whole new level. On its New Year's Eve episode the show filmed a live drug bust, with actors delivering scripted lines and assisting police officers in the arrest. His latest brainchild, "Real Time" -- a "news show" in which the anchors' personal lives are as much on display as the daily headlines -- promises to be just as controversial. George's wife, Elizabeth (Lizzie), runs Fine Technologies, a computer software company developing, among other high-tech gadgetry, a cutting-edge time-travel video game. George and Lizzie's professional lives collide when Harold Mose, media mogul and president of MBC -- the upstart network that sponsors George's show -- begins to court Elizabeth for technological advice. After a deal with Microsoft falls through, Lizzie begins spending more time with the globetrotting and dapper Mose. Meanwhile, "Real Time" is canceled, leaving George to sit at home -- consumed by a jealousy both marital and professional -- looking after the kids, surfing the Web, and imagining the worst.

As George and Lizzie's career paths converge, numerous subplots and minor characters are tied together in a neat if somewhat wacky package. The novel ends with an ecstatic rush of plot twists and turns -- including a colossal hacking plot, a Wall Street scam, and a bizarre scuba accident -- ultimately allowing George and Lizzie to put back together the broken pieces of their marriage. The tidiness of the conclusion might have seemed too blatant a narrative conceit if Andersen did not ruminate so deftly on this very theme of interconnectedness. As George searches for images of Lizzie on Web spy-cam sites as she travels with Mose through Indonesia, the reader is left with the sense that physical, if not emotional, distance has been eradicated in the new millennium. Thus, instead of a "global community" fostered by international commerce, Andersen presents the reader with a world linked on a more human level through business partnerships, pranks, lawsuits, and high-society cocktail parties -- a teeming World Wide Web of personal dramas.

Another of Andersen's more prominent narrative strategies -- and at times it's a bit overwhelming -- is to pepper his book with innumerable references to the minutiae of contemporary culture. There are sections of the novel for which Variety, In Style, and PC World are the only adequate glosses. Indeed, Andersen is never reluctant to add that extra embellishment to a scene -- the CDs on a desk, the designer of an outfit, the guest list of a party. The back-cover blurb calls this technique "hyperreality," which I assume to mean that the novel is even more now than now, and almost grotesquely so. Andersen is poking fun at a world saturated with references to name brands, obsessed with celebrity watching, and governed by the rules of corporate sponsorship. Like one of George's reality-TV shows, then, Turn of the Century possesses an ambiguous sort of verisimilitude. The world of the novel is one quite familiar to us, just fast-forwarded a few months into the future: The Phantom Menace has already come out on video, George Stephanopoulos is busy promoting a miniseries based on his memoir, and Monica has been given her own talk show. But Andersen includes imaginative touches that push the world we know to its possible limits: a software company in Seattle whose employees wear name tags with the number of shares they own; the opening of BarbieWorld, a sort of adult Epcot Center in Las Vegas; Charles Manson released from prison on parole.

It is this intersection of fantasy and reality, parody and celebration, that produces the most fruitful passages of the novel. Tipping the scales at over 675 pages, Turn of the Century would grow quickly tiresome if it were merely a cranky antitech dystopia. But Andersen tempers his curmudgeonly tendencies with a wonder and a fondness for the age in which we live. In one scene, as Lizzie surveys the Seattle skyline, she wonders if we are all witnessing the dawn of a new renaissance. Sure, it might have its pretensions and follies, but within the deafening white noise of the new millennium, a gifted critic and writer like Andersen can discern the vital signals of humanity.

—Benjamin Soskis

Editors of Wall Street Journal
#1 hottest novel of the summer.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Rare is the book that makes me laugh out loud. Turn of the Century did constantly....Witty and dazzling.
Entertainment Weekly
Inspired...Grade: A.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A blockbuster fiction debut for media insider Anderson (formerly editor-in-chief of New York magazine, co-founder of Spy), this brilliantly conceived, keenly incisive social satire draws fresh humor out of the overhyped territory of millennial madness.

Beginning his myopically futuristic novel on February 28, 2000, Anderson employs a future-present tense in which he mischievously tweaks current attitudes regarding marriage, friendship, the mass media, Wall Street and the computer industry, just to name a handful of his numerous targets. With ferocious energy, he also captures the essence of New York, Las Vegas, L.A. (its permanent sunniness, annoying and even slightly scary after a while, like a clowns painted-on-smile) and Seattle (... like a gawky guy with a great body whos bald and stammers and wears dorky clothes). These are not new topics for mockery, but Andersons eye is fresh and his irony carries a potent sting. George Mactier, executive producer of a controversial TV series called NARCS, and his wife, Lizzie Zimbalist, owner of a computer software company, serve as Andersons 21st-century poster couple. They are self-conscious enough to recognize the embedded ironies in their fast-paced, high-profile lifestyle (Lizzie voted reluctantly for Giuliani twice, but spent election day giving a five-dollar bill to anyone who happened to ask for money, as penance). Their already troubled marriage is being vaporized by the hysterical pace of their respective professional lives. The couple have three cyber-precocious children (Lizzie e-mails her sons bedroom from the kitchen to announce dinner), as well as a host of eccentric friends (Ben Gould is a multimillionaire investor whose latest venture is a Vegas theme park called BarbieWorld) and colleagues (Harold Mose, the egomaniacal owner of the MBC Network, becomes both George and Lizzies boss). The convoluted plot boldly defies summary, but it ultimately achieves a mad convergence highlighted by an intricate, hilarious plan to manipulate Microsofts stock by virtually killing Bill Gates. Anderson employs a biting topical humor that is always exaggerated, yet seldom actually seems inconceivable (the cover story in Teen Nation, an offshoot of the Nation magazine, is headlined: Jimmy Smits and Jennifer Lopez in Mexico: This Revolution Will Be Televised). Cell phones and computers are ubiquitous, but the vaunted Information Age is illusory at best. The characters are constantly thrown off kilter by disinformation, missed information and miscommunication. Yet while the tone is hyperbolic and beyond the cutting edge, the core issues are curiously old-fashioned: love, ethics, friendship, even happiness.

Anderson brilliantly sustains the comic pace throughout the lengthy narrative, though his ultimate message may be disappointing to millennial idealists: The future aint what it used to be.

Library Journal
Journalist Andersen, the cofounder of Spy magazine, has written a gargantuan first novel set one year in the future. Turn of the Century tells the story of married supercouple George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, both firmly ensconced in the media-crazed world of modern-day New York. George is a television producer and former "serious" journalist, while Lizzie runs a software company engaged in takeover negotiations with Microsoft. Their careers and personal lives change when Lizzie becomes an adviser to George's boss, media tycoon Harold Mose. Although Lizzie is slightly more likable than George, neither character is endearing, and the plot is not interesting enough to carry any but the most determined reader through the book. Reader John Rubinstein, a veteran of television and musical theater, has a pleasant, slightly reedy voice reminiscent of George and Lizzie's New York. He is particularly good with accents and convincingly voices not only the main characters but minor ones as well. Andersen apparently prides himself on his ability to insert into each chapter literally hundreds of cultural references on everything from Al Gore to digital television to online shopping. But Rubinstein's excellent reading and the recording's seamless abridgment are not enough to keep these nonstop references and the periodic technopop music from wearing thin. Not recommended.--Leah Sparks, Bowie P.L., MD Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
The Wall Street Journal
[An] elegant and relentless fictional send-up of the way we live now.
Editors of the Wall Street Journal
#1 hottest novel of the summer.
Timothy Noah
His dialogue sparkles....Extremely shrewd and funny.
Fortune
Po Bronson
[Andersen] wins back terrain for the novel that has been ceded to new media, demonstrating that the novel is as alive and as nimble as its high-tech competitors....[He has] shown that the novel is flexible enough to encompass the chattering of its electronic cousins and, in the end, to hush them.
The New York Times Book Review
David Gates
...[S]ome zippy forays into big media, the software biz, Wall Street, upscale Manhattan and other cultural pestholes...
Newsweek
Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Andersen, an editor, reporter and critic who now writes a column for The New Yorker, is endlessly energetic and occasionally exhausting and seems to know just about everything. It would probably take at least two readings to catch all the book's jokes and cross-references.

Still, as several characters say, the ratio of noise to signal is high. Maybe that's precisely the point that the relation of the commentary to the plot is making: that for all the noise that the communications revolution at the turn of the century is making, what still truly matters is the fundamental—love, death, jealousy and trust. If this conclusion is a cliche, why then, ACAT, meaning All Clichés Are True, as Lizzie and George keep reminding each other. To reach this conclusion Andersen has written the most uncliched novel imaginable.
The New York Times

Entertainment Weekly
Inspired...Grade: A.
Philadelphia Inquirer
Rare is the book that makes me laugh out loud. Turn of the Century did constantly....Witty and dazzling.
David Skinner
...[R]eads as though it were written by a reporter with a voracious appetite for the anecdotal scoop, who has been granted almost infinite access....[The novel] does relish its own in-the-know-ness....If Andersen had been willing to take his own question seriously, Turn of the Century might have been something more than the book that, this season, everyone knows.
The Weekly Standard
Daniel Okrent
This is one big mama of a book, its very size a hint of its ambition. Put the same characters and story into 250 pages, which Anderson could easily have done, and you'd have an amusing satire; at 659 oages, you're trying to create something important...Its loose digressive shape makes Turn of the Century awfully easy to put down...But it is nonetheless a joy to watch him at work, ricocheting off everything putrid and tinny in our culture. Whatever you call the thing after post-modern, Turn of the Century is it—something post-postmodern, a commentary on commentary. That may not make much of a novel, but it sure is fun to read.
Time
Daniel Akst
...Kurt Anderson's elegant and fictional sendup of the way we live now, or at least the way a few of us live—the rich, noisy, media obsessed...
Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
If you're not computer-literate and don't read People magazine, you may miss some of the jokes, but will nevertheless probably enjoy this gargantuan (Tom) Wolfeian satire on millennial hucksterism—the first novel from a well-known New Yorker nonfiction writer.
From the Publisher
“Outrageously funny . . . wickedly satirical . . . the most unclichéd novel imaginable.”—The New York Times 
 
“Astonishing . . . Andersen [is] the first most promising novelist of the Third Millennium.”—Entertainment Weekly
 
“Extraordinary . . . exceptional.”—The Independent on Sunday
 
“Wonderful writing [that] sparkles with original observations.”—USA Today
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375500084
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/6/1999
  • Pages: 659
  • Product dimensions: 6.51 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen is the author of the novels True Believers, Heyday, and Turn of the Century, among other books. He writes for television, film, and the stage, contributes to Vanity Fair, and hosts the public radio program Studio 360. He has previously been a columnist for New York, The New Yorker, and Time, editor in chief of New York, and co-founder of Spy. He lives in Brooklyn.
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Read an Excerpt

Ordinarily, each forty-four-minute-long episode of NARCS is filmed and edited a few weeks before it airs. Eight weeks ago, on the first night of the year (and of the decade, the century, the millennium), they broadcast an episode of NARCS called "The Real Deal" live, from four locations in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and on three sets on their soundstage. Doing a dramatic show live is not an original stunt, but it is still rare, and none had ever been so . . . ambitious is the word George and Emily used in interviews. The episode's B-story was its unannounced climax, an actual bust of an actual Ecstasy dealer on Ludlow Street who had been celebrating the New Year for twenty-four hours straight.

Actual New York police detectives made the arrest, but the NARCS stars were in the shots with them, physically handling and delivering scripted lines to the bewildered suspect, who was in handcuffs and bleeding from a small, telegenic cut on his forehead. The dealer's actual girlfriend, a pale, very pretty young blonde wearing only underwear and an unbuttoned leather coat, stood sobbing in the doorway; one camera was isolated on her during nearly the whole arrest, and the director, with George's encouragement from inside the motor-home control room on Houston Street, had cut to her repeatedly, including a long fade-out to the final commercial break.

It was extremely cool television. That's really all George was trying for. Didn't the fact that they wrote the sensational cinema verité scene as the finale of the B-story, not even of the main story line, demonstrate their restraint? Editorial writers and legal scholars were unanimously appalled. Nearly everyone elsewas fascinated and amused and thrilled as well as a tiny bit appalled. The dealer, it turned out, had appeared briefly in Rent in 1998, and belonged to Actors' Equity; his lawyer asked for and got scale plus 10 percent for his client's "involuntary performing services" during the arrest. It was Emily's idea to sign the boy to the series for a possible recurring role, which provoked a small second wave of news coverage, all of which contained a lead sentence containing the word ironically. Stories about the show appeared everywhere, including the cover of Entertainment Weekly and even page A-1 of the Times. Nightline devoted a whole program to the episode. Ted Koppel mentioned in his introduction that George was "a respected former television journalist who used to work with us here at ABC News." It felt odd, being splashed with drops of Ted Koppel's disapproval, but not awful. When the episode was rebroadcast the following week, it got a 16 rating and a 29 share, twice the highest rating Mose Broadcasting has gotten for any show ever.

"So. (Thanks, Tranh.)" The fuzzy ambient sound of her office disappears as she picks up the receiver at last. "Why are you so . . . wormy?"
"My mom died last night." He swivels away from the desk and puts his feet on the maple credenza, and stares up toward the park, the snowy, astounding park. Why doesn't he adore Central Park as much as everyone else? Maybe because it's uptown, and uptown still disconcerts him slightly, even though he's making $16,575 a week. (Twenty years ago, his annual salary was $16,000. Five years ago, his and Lizzie's combined salaries were still only--only--$16,000 a month. They are discovering that they like making plenty of money, particularly George, even though it reinforces their disapproval of people who seem motivated by money.)

"Why didn't you say?"
"I guess I'm sort of numb."
"She was sick?"
"She was. But it was a car accident. She was, you know, boom, it was instant. We're flying out in the morning."
"Anything I can do . . ."
"Thanks. I know. Thanks."
"You're okay?"
"Yeah. I am."
"Well . . ." Seconds pass. "So, Mose, six-thirty?" Emily asks. "Ready?"
"I think."
"Yesterday Timothy said to me on the phone, and I quote, 'Let's literally lock and load, my mad dude.' "
"No."

"Uh-huh." Whenever George mentions Timothy Featherstone, Mose's head of programming, it briefly sets Emily off, which both of them enjoy. Provoked by the idea of Featherstone, her language becomes practically expansive.

"I ran into the second-dumbest man in TV at the Getty just last night. He had both kids--it was a Flemish seventeenth-century circus, a fund-raiser for Yucatán war orphans--and the pregnant twenty-one-year-old Chinese girlfriend."

"Vietnamese, I think," George says.
"Whatever. The girlfriend and the older daughter--bare-bellied, and pierced, both of them. Matching belly rings, I think. They sang the Melrose Place theme song together."
"Wow. It had words?"
"No, you know, humming it. And Timothy knew the tune too. And sang it. On the Getty plaza, in front of everyone, arm in arm with his daughter and his mistress. It was just . . . stupendous. I cannot believe he still has that job."
"He doesn't, really. Mose does."
"Yeah, yeah."
"So I'll see you. Safe trip."
"Live here, George," Emily says. For five months last summer and fall, Emily decamped to New York to get NARCS on its feet, with George as her apprentice show-runner. "Seriously."
Iris's head is suddenly in his office. "George! Your ten-thirty!"
"Bye, Em," he says, "see you this afternoon." He turns to Iris. "My ten-thirty?"
"Caroline Osborne," she whispers loudly, surely loud enough for Caroline Osborne to hear.

"Ah." Caroline Osborne is Gloria Mose's twenty-five-year-old daughter by a previous billionaire. Featherstone, when he asked George last week to meet with her, called her "the viscountess," which may or may not have been a joke. She isn't, technically, Harold Mose's stepdaughter, but here she is, come to talk to George about working for NARCS as an associate producer. As soon as George sees her stepping up quickly, bobbling a little on her high heels, to shake his hand--even before he makes a point of pronouncing Magdalen College correctly and asks her about her job at Channel 4 in London--he knows this interview is just a courtesy, a formality. He will not hire Caroline Osborne to work in this office. It's not just that she's English ("Scottish, actually"), although that is part of his problem. It's the way she looks and acts. His state of mind may now be in violation of city, state, and federal antidiscrimination laws. It's unfair, he knows, even piggish in some convoluted way. But she is unacceptable. She's too pretty, too bosomy, too beautifully dressed, too ripe, too smart, too funny, too flirty, and too tempting to have around all day, every day.

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First Chapter

February-March 1

He has just left an early breakfast meeting — very early — with three men he's never met before. He's never heard of the men, in fact, and he planned to blow off breakfast until his partner told him he should go, because the men are important and potentially useful. He trusts his partner, who used to work for their agency. They are agents, all three of the men at breakfast, but agents who made it very clear that they prefer never to be called agents. He is already confusing and forgetting their names, even though the men's main purpose in coming to town, they strongly suggested, was to meet him and tell him they would love to be in business with him. That's the phrase these people always use: "We would love to be in business with you," said in a breathy, solemn, confidential way that makes it sound profound and salacious. He is walking up the Avenue of the Americas, just south of Forty-seventh Street, now thinking of almost nothing but the morning sunlight pouring over from the right, making the line of proud, gray, dumb, boxy giants on the left — Smith Barney, Time-Life, McGraw-Hill, News Corporation — prettier than they deserve to be.

A pair of mounted police walking past him, about to make the turn onto Forty-seventh Street, snags his attention for an instant, the very instant a signal reaches the tiny device wedged in his left inside jacket pocket. It is forty-two minutes and forty seconds past eight on the twenty-eighth of February.

Between his right thumb and forefinger he grips a huge paper coffee cup, and, with the other three fingers, the handle of his briefcase. As the device's programmed sequence proceeds, there is no noise, not even a click, only a tiny, continuous, hysterical vibration. In the first quarter second, the muscles in his chest tense and his left nipple goes erect. He takes a short, sharp, surprised breath and, without thinking, flings the coffee toward the gutter, then grabs at his left pocket with his right hand. But already the first instant of dumb panic has congealed to dread — two seconds — as he claws to find the device, to punch the button, to shut the thing down before the sound — three seconds . . . four seconds — before it is too late.

It is too late.
"Hey, man," says the young man kneeling and looking up at George Mactier. His eyebrows, George sees, are sculpted into what look like Morse code dots and dashes, each eyebrow a different letter. "What the fuck you, man, you fucking clumsy dick, man! Shit."

The messenger's electronic signature-slate clipboard and his Day-Glo green nylon satchel of envelopes are drenched now in steaming ultra-venti latte, skim milk, extra shot of espresso. His helmet — a glossy magenta with built-in radio mouthpiece, like a fighter pilot's — has been knocked off the handlebars and into the street by George's briefcase. The helmet is now skittering up Sixth like a pinball between the tires of an accelerating Harlem-bound M5 — one of the dozen new, clear, vodka-bottle-shaped Absolut Transit buses the city has been given for Christmas. The two men each survey the wreckage. If only the restaurant's espresso machine hadn't been broken, George knows, he wouldn't have stopped at Starbucks; if the espresso machine at the Millennium hadn't been broken and he hadn't stopped at Starbucks, this poor groovy schmo wouldn't despise him, and the chasm between the races and the classes and the generations wouldn't now gape a nanometer wider. Perhaps it was the fluttering of a satyrid's wings in Bhutan that had roiled into a breeze in the South China Sea that blew across the Pacific and became a thunderstorm last week in Oakland, and that delayed the shipment of an espresso-machine valve to the Millennium.

"Maybe the helmet, maybe you can — "
"Maybe I can what, man? My boss is gonna motherfucking criticize my ass so bad, man," the messenger says, looking up at George. "You know that? He's Soviet, man!"
"I'm really — oh, jeez, look at your pants, too. I'm sorry." George leans in to help him up, but then remembers the kid hasn't been knocked down. He was kneeling when George flung the coffee, fiddling with his bike, and so instead, George just quickly touches his sweaty green-and-pink-spandexed shoulder and says again, "Sorry."

"The thing was brand-new, like three hundred dollars, I think. Man." They stare together across the street at the bashed, cracked pink helmet still wobbling crazily. (Stenciled on its side in big teal letters is a phrase George reads as !mom !69. A rap group? A brand of heroin? A lifestyle choice?)
"The coffee cup sort of like . . . collapsed." Sort of.

The silent, five-second-long vibrating alert on the tiny device in George's pocket has given way to the up-and-down do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do chromatic tweet of the audible alert. His wife, Lizzie, has said it sounds like reveille for pixies, and his stepdaughter, Sarah, has asked him if he cares if it makes strangers think he is gay. But George has stuck with the little tune rather than any standard beeeeeep choice, because it subverts the display of self-importance, he hopes, of getting a cell-phone call on the sidewalk, in an elevator, at a restaurant table. It has finally become possible, for about three years now, to carry on a phone conversation walking down the street and not look like an asshole. It's still not possible in a restaurant, he and Lizzie agree. Yet is consistently looking like an asshole really any different from being an asshole? This they are less sure about.

"My phone," George says to the messenger with a lame, bashful smile. He nods toward the silly electronic noise deedle-de-deeing from his chest and starts to move away. "Sorry." Shrug, step. "Sorry." Five paces later, crucially beyond the latte blast radius, freed again to be just another pedestrian, George puts his briefcase on the sidewalk and finally pulls out the phone.

"Hello?"
"George? Honey — "
"Yeah?" He hears nothing. "Lizzie?" Nothing. "Hello?" He punches end. He will wait for her to call back. Holding the phone a foot from his face, he leans against the sandstone of Rockefeller Center, the real Rockefeller Center, staring distractedly through the mists of his own winter breath at new Rockefeller Center, the stolid late-fifties and early-sixties addendum across the avenue. The sunlight has diffused now. But the buildings still look strangely, unaccountably handsome. Have they been steam-cleaned? Is it the new outdoor sculpture (Torqued Mousetrap with Logo, three blocks long, by Richard Serra) that Disney installed on the sidewalk? Or is it because Lizzie announced this morning as he said goodbye and she spat out toothpaste that she is desperate for him to fuck her? Where has his contempt gone? Then he realizes: the skyscrapers that looked atrocious in 1980 and 1990 now, in 2000, look quaint, elegant, swingy. He isn't aware of having revised his opinion; his opinion has been changed for him, updated automatically, gradually, by sensibility osmosis, leeching from glossy magazines and newspaper style sections into George's brain. First Frank Sinatra, cocktails, Palm Springs, rayon garments, plastic furniture, and all kinds of Cold War bibelots were resuscitated, even the words VIP and chick — and now, as of this morning, these buildings, which George has spent a few seconds every week of his adulthood loathing actively, are looking kind of cool. He doesn't know whether to feel pathetic or liberated by the insight.

The phone jiggles.
"Yeeeesss?" he says joshingly.
"Oh, George."
"What is it?"
"Your mother died last night."
"Ohhhhh . . ." He feels like he's been shot in the face at close range. With blanks, but it's still loud and sickening. "Oh, Christ."
"I'm so sorry, darling."
"How? I mean . . ."
"Honey?"

"She told me a couple of weeks ago her doctor said she probably has years."
"It wasn't the cancer. She was in a car accident, honey. She was driving home on the interstate from her line-dancing class, and she slowed way down for some animal, a weasel, and a giant semi rammed into her."

"Which car?"
"Which car? The Yugo."
"Christ."

"Your sister says she, you know, she didn't — it all happened so fast, she died instantly."
George watches the messenger he victimized pedal west toward Times Square. With the helmet now right side up, he sees that the odd legend, on the satchel as well as the helmet, isn't !mom !69, but go! now! It's the name of a messenger service; the same company operates the car service Lizzie uses at work.

"So," Lizzie says, "I'll go home and pack."
"You don't have to. We can fly out in the morning."
"Why not tonight?"
"We're presenting the shows to Mose at six-thirty, which means I'm out of here at seven. At the earliest. This is the meeting, Lizzie. I guess we could try to reschedule, but Emily's flying in from L.A. for it, and she needs to be in Washington at some Kennedy Center Al Gore thing tomorrow." He knows he's babbling. "But, I guess, if we could maybe get in to Mose tomorrow . . . No, shit, tomorrow is, he's — Mose and the rest of them are going — are in, uh, Washington State? . . . Maybe Vancouver. Someplace out there, I'm not sure, for something." He coughs; so lame. "I think I really ought to be here this afternoon."

His mother was killed hours earlier; he and his partner are to have an audience with the chairman of the network to pitch two new shows; now he's concealing a business secret probably not worth concealing from his wife, and doing it clumsily. He isn't even sure what he's dissembling about. He's only heard snippets, glancing references, roundabout allusions, all equally plausible and implausible, all equally reliable and unreliable. Asian video-game programming? An agreement to earmark MBC's extra digital channels for data transmission in return for putting the network's two-a.m.-to-five-a.m. home-shopping show Booty! on Microsoft's WebTV? Some grander plot to ally with Microsoft against Intel, or to make life a little unpleasant for NBC vis-à-vis MSNBC? Computers and the internet, so radiant with revolutionary promise and terror, change everyone's business strategy every other month, so the gossip changes every week to keep up. All he knows definitely is that he shouldn't be frank with Lizzie. The strands of anxiety are too much, each exacerbating the other and making George feel guilty and stupid.

Lizzie saves him. "We'll go to St. Paul in the morning. Sarah's got a sleepover at our house with Penelope tonight, anyway, to work on their video. We can go tomorrow."
"Did you tell the kids?"

She doesn't answer.
"Lizzie, do the kids know about my mom?"
The connection is lost. Taking full advantage of the convenience of the wired era, George finds, can be very difficult.

He dials home, using his thumb, and the voice mail picks up ("Hello — we're not here," his own voice says to him, which always gives him the willies), then calls her office ("This is the office of Elizabeth Zimbalist at Fine Technologies," the recording of Lizzie's assistant Alexi says. "Please leave — "), and finally the phone in the Land Cruiser, which generates a sort of Disney World PA-system announcer: "Welcome to AT&T Wireless Services. The cellular customer you have called is unavailable, or has traveled outside the coverage area." George specifically hates this passive-aggressive record-o-man. The prissy, vague excuse — "unavailable"? — always strikes him as a prevarication meant to keep him from speaking to Lizzie, or his colleagues, or other cellular customers. (Nothing like America Online's digital butler, with his fake-enthusiastic utopian-zombie voice. George continues to find "You've got mail!" entertaining enough, even ten thousand repetitions later, so that he didn't finally deactivate it until around the time the movie came out and he read that the AOL man, whose first name is Elwood, has his own web site.)

"U.S. West!" a female electronic voice says over the opening chords to the overture from John Williams's new U.S. West Symphony, "Directory assistance . . . for which community in the . . . 6-5-1 . . . area code?"
"St. Paul," George says.
"Which customer listing?" the robot operator asks.
"Edith Hope Mactier." He figures his sister is at his mother's house. He can never recall his mother's new phone number, which she changed a few years ago to dodge telemarketers; from now on, he won't have to try to remember it.
"One moment," the robot operator replies.
John Williams, "Fanfare for the New Economy," the same four chords, once again. "Northwest Airlines flies . . . five . . . convenient, comfortable nonstops to the Twin Cities from . . . New York/Newark . . . every day! The number you requested . . . can be automatically dialed by pressing the star or dollar keys, or by saying the word please."
Dollar key? The star key on his cell phone has not worked for a year. George, walking past Radio City, says, "Please."

His sister answers.
"We'll do the modified fondue option," she is saying, "but we do not need Smithfield ham," and then, into the phone, "Hello?"
"Alice? Hi, it's me."
"Hello, George."
He sighs. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she says, sniffling violently. "When are you coming?"
"Tomorrow."
"Tomorrow, huh."
"Sarah has to finish some important school project tonight."
His sister doesn't reply.
"I mean," George continues, filling the space, not quite lying, not quite being honest, "I guess I could fly out with Max tonight and then she and Lizzie and Louisa could come tomorrow."
Still no response.

"Tomorrow, I — we'll all be there before lunch. Alice?"
The connection is lost. Maybe, he thinks as he lurches into the revolving door of the tower on Fifty-seventh Street, he really ought to get a new phone, a smaller, digital one. This phone cost a fortune when he had ABC News pay for it four years ago; the same model now sells for twenty-nine dollars. Did the thing really work better in 1996, he wonders, or did it just feel more reliable and powerful when it was selling for seven hundred dollars? It was the smallest one available back then, but now it seems as clunky and enormous as an eight-track tape cartridge. On the other hand, George, six foot three and one-ninety, feels out of scale using the new three-inch-long, 1.9-ounce models, like he's handling a piece of fragile dollhouse furniture or someone else's newborn.

Which leads George to an idea for NARCS, a B-story for an episode this spring: the new deputy commissioner wants the detectives to start using tiny pocket-size computers, a vice-cop intranet, and Jennie has to get the old guys cyberready . . . No, he thinks, no . . . make Jennie resist the computers as trendy bullshit.

"Hello, NARCS." Daisy Moore, the twenty-six-year-old English receptionist, looks up, punches a button — not a button, really, but a picture of a button printed on the flat plastic plane of her black telephone console — and says, parodying deference, "Good morning, Mr. Mactier, sir," taps the little picture of a button again and says into her headset, "Hello, NARCS." Being black as well as English, Daisy said to George when she was interviewing for the job, she would give him two for the price of one — convenient not only in the routine way that black receptionists are convenient in America, but also in pandering to Americans' Anglophilia. Her second week, in a conversation with Daisy about her family, George used the term African-American. "Crikey, George!" she had said, "I'm English!"

George loves coming to work, the arrival and the settling in, the wakeful, hopeful, testing one-two-three-four sameness of that first hour. Each morning he all but marches through the reception area and down the corridor that bisects the open space, his hair still wet, his eleven-year-old Armani overcoat unbuttoned and flapping, and makes the ritual heartfelt exchanges of hellos with Daisy, with the story editors, Paul and Phoebe, with Jerry the line producer and Gordon the director, with the odd writer or production designer, with Iris Randall, his assistant. He likes the sight of Iris making the fresh pots of freshly ground, freshly roasted coffee, and of his in-baskets filling tidily with fresh Nielsen packets, fresh Daily Varietys and Hollywood Reporters, fresh network memos, fresh drafts of scripts. He gets a little high on the sense of readiness, even if that readiness is almost always also the imminence of frenzy, of third-act scenes that weren't ever fresh and aren't working now, of MBC executives quibbling knowingly and meaninglessly about "beats" and "arcs" and "laying pipe" in scripts they haven't read, of sulky guest stars, incremental ticks in the ratings, negotiations with the network standards-and-practices woman (she didn't want a character's seven-year-old son to call him a bung-hole, and she didn't want the star to refer to Pat Robertson as "a born-again Nazi" or to a colleague as "white trash"), of leased camera cranes that won't swivel or a fake-bullet squib that burns an actor, of do-or-die presentations to the chairman. ("Do and die," as Emily Kalman, his L.A. partner, says at every opportunity about every important task.) The beginning of the workday, from the moment he steps into the lobby until the ten a.m. phone call with Emily, is a consistently fine, bright swath of life: hopeful, purposeful, organized. George takes pleasure in the anticipation of familiar problems. All problems are either soluble, in which case he promptly solves them, or else insoluble, which is rare, and these he ignores.

As he checks his e-mail, he realizes that his mother's death has completely slipped his mind.

He has never assigned his sister a programmed speed-dial number on his office phone, so he has to punch in nine for an outside line, zero, all eleven digits of her phone number, and then the fourteen digits of his calling-card number, since it's a personal call. (He has become scrupulous about that kind of fiscal niggle, almost obsessively so. Since he is now making $16,575 a week — an astonishing figure that occurs to him often, daily — he can afford it.) Twenty-seven digits, all from memory! Given the proliferation of number-dialing automation and number-dialing assistants in his life, it seems to George a sweet, old-fashioned task, like subway riding, that he seldom performs anymore.

When her machine picks up, he remembers that he just spoke to Alice at their mother's house. He has only a few seconds to decide whether to hang up; to leave a message admitting he dialed the wrong number — which Alice might attribute to grief-stricken insensibility or (more likely) heartlessness — or to leave a message pretending that it's earlier in the day and that he hasn't, in fact, spoken to her already. But what if her phone machine registers the times of incoming calls?

At the beep, he finesses a not-quite-lie that straddles options two and three.
"Hi, Alice, it's George. You're over at Mom's? I'll try there. If
I don't get you this morning, we'll see you tomorrow around lunchtime. Okay. Bye."
Iris has entered, shiny brass watering can in hand, to water the huge flowering plants that don't annoy him quite enough to make her remove them.

"You know the author Dr. John Gray? Guys Are from Mars . . . Men . . . whatever? Last night in my book group we discussed his new one, Children Are from Pluto. You and Lizzie would love it, and there was this new woman there I kind of know from Harold Mose's office — You don't care. I'm droning, sorry, let me spritz your orchids, bye."

"My mom died last night, Iris."
"What?"
"In a car accident."
"Oh, George! Oh, my God."
"Yeah, it's pretty . . . shocking. Lizzie is going to be really upset."
"Of course. That is terrible. Oh, my God. . . ."
"We need to fly to St. Paul for the funeral — "
"Whatever I can do — "
" — so we'll need reservations for tomorrow morning for the two of us and all three kids. Nonstop. To Minneapolis."
A pause. "Business class for the baby?"

"She's six, Iris. That's a little large for laps." The price sensitivity mooted by earning $16,575 a week sometimes needs to be supplied artificially by Iris or Lizzie. Sometimes, coming from Iris, there's more point of view than necessary.

"George, I am so sorry, how old was she? I loved your mom. May she rest in peace."
"Uh . . ." This year, 2000, minus 1918 equals eighty-two, but Armistice Day is months away. "Eight-one. She's eighty-one. Was."
Iris starts to cry, and leaves her extremely shiny watering can on his desk, dripping onto the tiger maple, as she rushes out.
Almost immediately, she is back, now wearing a black sweater and sunglasses. "George," she says, holding back sobs, "I know it's only nine, but pick up for your ten o'clock."
"Hiya, Emmy."
"Hi, George, it's Becky. I have Emily for you. Go ahead, Emily, it's George."
"Morning." She's on a speakerphone.
"Emily, the next time I get the assistant when it's supposed to be you, I hang up. And if you stay on the speakerphone, I'm hanging up right now." He's kidding, sort of, and she knows it, sort of. "And why aren't you on the plane?"
"Tranh's doing me. I'm coming — ahh! — as soon as I finish here."
"Emily, I'm not sure I want to have a serious business discussion with one of us naked and greasy."

"So: nasty numbers." She means the instant overnight ratings, derived every night from a sample of TV viewers in big cities. "The nationals'll drop." One of the reasons George enjoys being in business with Emily (in addition to the fact that she's an experienced show-runner, and has actually created and produced her own network entertainment series — Girlie, a 1996 Fox show about a hooker turned feminist lawyer) is her extreme economy of speech. Except when she gets excited, she speaks as though she's being charged by the word, double for verbs.

"Yeah," he says, "the numbers are not what one would hope for." Since NARCS went on the air in October, five months ago, its average rating has been 7.2, and its average share 14 — which means, as every American knows, that the show is watched in about 7 million households, which, at ten o'clock on Saturday nights, amounts to 14 percent of the houses in which TVs are on. This past Saturday night the rating was 7 and the share 12, down .4 and 2 respectively, from last week's rating and share. George and Emily vowed, the day the NARCS pilot was picked up by Mose for thirteen episodes the previous May, never to obsess over ratings, certainly not the weekly overnights. But of course they can't help themselves. And their success has made them stew more.

"Dharma Minus Greg only got a six, nine," George says hopefully. "And we were up against the Rosie O'Donnell special with Tom Cruise, and all the septuplets and octuplets on NBC, and the big NBA game, at least in the West — "
"And Ken Burns's show about Des Moines in the fifties was on PBS. Stop. No excuses."
"Do we think doing 'The Real Deal' so early on was a strategic mistake? You know, maybe we raised the bar too high too soon."
"No. We got a fourteen, George. Ted Koppel said it transformed the face of television."
"It wasn't praise."
"It wasn't not. But you do have to top it for May sweeps."
"Emily," he says, mock sternly, fondly, as he might say "Max" to his son after a loud fart at the dinner table.

Ordinarily, each forty-four-minute-long episode of NARCS is filmed and edited a few weeks before it airs. Eight weeks ago, on the first night of the year (and of the decade, the century, the millennium), they broadcast an episode of NARCS called "The Real Deal" live, from four locations in Queens, the Bronx, and Manhattan, and on three sets on their soundstage. Doing a dramatic show live is not an original stunt, but it is still rare, and none had ever been so . . . ambitious is the word George and Emily used in interviews. The episode's B-story was its unannounced climax, an actual bust of an actual Ecstasy dealer on Ludlow Street who had been celebrating the New Year for twenty-four hours straight.

Actual New York police detectives made the arrest, but the NARCS stars were in the shots with them, physically handling and delivering scripted lines to the bewildered suspect, who was in handcuffs and bleeding from a small, telegenic cut on his forehead. The dealer's actual girlfriend, a pale, very pretty young blonde wearing only underwear and an unbuttoned leather coat, stood sobbing in the doorway; one camera was isolated on her during nearly the whole arrest, and the director, with George's encouragement from inside the motor-home control room on Houston Street, had cut to her repeatedly, including a long fade-out to the final commercial break.

It was extremely cool television. That's really all George was trying for. Didn't the fact that they wrote the sensational cinema verité scene as the finale of the B-story, not even of the main story line, demonstrate their restraint? Editorial writers and legal scholars were unanimously appalled. Nearly everyone else was fascinated and amused and thrilled as well as a tiny bit appalled. The dealer, it turned out, had appeared briefly in Rent in 1998, and belonged to Actors' Equity; his lawyer asked for and got scale plus 10 percent for his client's "involuntary performing services" during the arrest. It was Emily's idea to sign the boy to the series for a possible recurring role, which provoked a small second wave of news coverage, all of which contained a lead sentence containing the word ironically. Stories about the show appeared everywhere, including the cover of Entertainment Weekly and even page A-1 of the Times. Nightline devoted a whole program to the episode. Ted Koppel mentioned in his introduction that George was "a respected former television journalist who used to work with us here at ABC News." It felt odd, being splashed with drops of Ted Koppel's disapproval, but not awful. When the episode was rebroadcast the following week, it got a 16 rating and a 29 share, twice the highest rating Mose Broadcasting has gotten for any show ever.

"So. (Thanks, Tranh.)" The fuzzy ambient sound of her office disappears as she picks up the receiver at last. "Why are you so . . . wormy?"
"My mom died last night." He swivels away from the desk and puts his feet on the maple credenza, and stares up toward the park, the snowy, astounding park. Why doesn't he adore Central Park as much as everyone else? Maybe because it's uptown, and uptown still disconcerts him slightly, even though he's making $16,575 a week. (Twenty years ago, his annual salary was $16,000. Five years ago, his and Lizzie's combined salaries were still only — only — $16,000 a month. They are discovering that they like making plenty of money, particularly George, even though it reinforces their disapproval of people who seem motivated by money.)

"Why didn't you say?"
"I guess I'm sort of numb."
"She was sick?"
"She was. But it was a car accident. She was, you know, boom, it was instant. We're flying out in the morning."
"Anything I can do . . ."
"Thanks. I know. Thanks."
"You're okay?"
"Yeah. I am."
"Well . . ." Seconds pass. "So, Mose, six-thirty?" Emily asks. "Ready?"
"I think."
"Yesterday Timothy said to me on the phone, and I quote, 'Let's literally lock and load, my mad dude.' "
"No."

"Uh-huh." Whenever George mentions Timothy Featherstone, Mose's head of programming, it briefly sets Emily off, which both of them enjoy. Provoked by the idea of Featherstone, her language becomes practically expansive.

"I ran into the second-dumbest man in TV at the Getty just last night. He had both kids — it was a Flemish seventeenth-century circus, a fund-raiser for Yucatán war orphans — and the pregnant twenty-one-year-old Chinese girlfriend."

"Vietnamese, I think," George says.
"Whatever. The girlfriend and the older daughter — bare-bellied, and pierced, both of them. Matching belly rings, I think. They sang the Melrose Place theme song together."
"Wow. It had words?"
"No, you know, humming it. And Timothy knew the tune too. And sang it. On the Getty plaza, in front of everyone, arm in arm with his daughter and his mistress. It was just . . . stupendous. I cannot believe he still has that job."
"He doesn't, really. Mose does."
"Yeah, yeah."
"So I'll see you. Safe trip."
"Live here, George," Emily says. For five months last summer and fall, Emily decamped to New York to get NARCS on its feet, with George as her apprentice show-runner. "Seriously."
Iris's head is suddenly in his office. "George! Your ten-thirty!"
"Bye, Em," he says, "see you this afternoon." He turns to Iris. "My ten-thirty?"
"Caroline Osborne," she whispers loudly, surely loud enough for Caroline Osborne to hear.

"Ah." Caroline Osborne is Gloria Mose's twenty-five-year-old daughter by a previous billionaire. Featherstone, when he asked George last week to meet with her, called her "the viscountess," which may or may not have been a joke. She isn't, technically, Harold Mose's stepdaughter, but here she is, come to talk to George about working for NARCS as an associate producer. As soon as George sees her stepping up quickly, bobbling a little on her high heels, to shake his hand — even before he makes a point of pronouncing Magdalen College correctly and asks her about her job at Channel 4 in London — he knows this interview is just a courtesy, a formality. He will not hire Caroline Osborne to work in this office. It's not just that she's English ("Scottish, actually"), although that is part of his problem. It's the way she looks and acts. His state of mind may now be in violation of city, state, and federal antidiscrimination laws. It's unfair, he knows, even piggish in some convoluted way. But she is unacceptable. She's too pretty, too bosomy, too beautifully dressed, too ripe, too smart, too funny, too flirty, and too tempting to have around all day, every day.

Copyright © 1999 by Kurt Andersen. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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Interviews & Essays

A Q&A with the Author:

1) What gave you the impetus to write the book?

It seems to me we're living in a time of "extreme capitalism," where the marketplace rules as never before. We're living in a time when almost everything (news, politics, advertising, the computer revolution) is a form of entertainment. And we're obviously living in a time when the culture generally, thanks to technology and the aging of the baby boomers and the end of the Cold War and feminism and a hundred other reasons, is in a state of thrilling, terrifying flux and newness. All those seemed rich, ripe terrains on which to stake out a big, realistic, funny, social novel. I hadn't seen contemporary business or a certain kind of modern marriage drawn very knowingly or interestingly in fiction, and I thought I might be able to do an entertaining job of it.

2) Set in the not so distant future, Turn of the Century has many futuristic inventions and events — such as computer games that incorporate biofeedback, minty-flavored Prozac for kids, civil war in Mexico. What new developments from the book do you think we'll actually see?

Of the three "inventions" you mention, one—the mint-flavored Prozac for children—-actually exists. I am thrilled that reviewers and reporters (you're not the first) assume some of the actual things in the book are fictional, and vice-versa. I think practically everything in the book could come to pass, and may. In fact, some of my inventions in earlier drafts did come to pass before I was finished, and I edited them out.

3) As a writer for The New Yorker and Time magazine, editor in chief of New York magazine, and co-creatorof Spy magazine, you've been writing and editing for years, but this is your first novel. How does writing fiction compare to nonfiction?

After 20 years of adhering scrupulously to facts, fiction-writing was discombobulating at first—I felt giddy, like gravity had changed, or as if I were committing adultery. In the end, I find writing fiction (and a 659-page book, as opposed to a 1000 or 10,000 word magazine piece) both vastly more difficult and more fun than writing non-fiction. But without those years of writing and editing week after week, I wouldn't have had the confidence in my craft to attempt a novel—nor, I don't think, the experiences worth transmuting into fiction.

4) What research did you do to be able to so realistically depict the business lives of your characters who work in television, the computer industry (both software executives and hackers), Wall Street ...?

I have some professional experience in television and online, but only some, so as I was beginning the book I spent weeks doing research in Seattle and Los Angeles and on Wall Street, hanging around with friends in the software and TV and financial businesses as they did they jobs, and asking lots and lots of stupid questions.

5) Where did you grow up? Your young children could live to see the turn of the next century — How do you think their experience and their adult lives will differ from yours?

I grew up in Omaha. And the distinct possibility that my daughters will live in the 22nd century is a fact I regularly astonish myself with. I can't pretend to have any idea what that world will be like. Well, I can pretend—in fact, at one point, this novel had an epilogue set on New Year's Eve 2099, with two of the three children in the book reminiscing about their lives and the 21st century. I do have a hunch that a hundred and two hundred years from now, the current epoch—1960-2010, say—will look pivotal.

6) Real people mingle with fictional characters in your novel. Does anyone in the book have a real-life counterpart (if you can tell us) and are you concerned about whether people will see themselves, rightly or wrongly, as the models for your characters?

In general, I am not one for doctrines, but I did begin this book with a doctrine about reality and invention—that is, I endeavored either to concoct wholly fictional people (and places and companies and TV shows and movies and inventions), or to use real people (and places and companies and TV shows and movies and inventions) as themselves. This is not a roman a clef, thinly veiled or otherwise. That said, I will confess that my good friend Jim Cramer, the financial writer and stock trader, bears a certain strong genetic resemblance to the character Ben Gould.

7) Turn of the Century highlights the cultural differences between New York, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Do you think these and other American places will come to resemble each other more in the faster-paced, more technologically-driven future, or will they maintain their distinct characters?

I think they will maintain their distinct characters, even as they become, in places, more alike. I think it's places like Omaha and Minneapolis and Houston and Atlanta that are more quickly becoming more alike—as well as more like NewYork, Seattle, and Los Angeles. And I think Washington (D.C., not State) is as close to irrelevant to the national life as it has been in this century.



copyright Kurt Andersen 1999

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 1999

    A LOOK INTO THE FUTURE OF LITERARY ENTERTAINMENT

    Entertaining,Fast, hummorus, suspensful and exciting. What more could you want. I have read 2 books monthly for the past year. I was lucky enough to find Turn of the Century at my library in December. This was by far the best book I have ever read, and when I buy it, I will read it again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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