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From Barnes & NobleIn 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.