True Believers: A Novel

If Red Bull underwrote literary endeavors in addition to such speed sports as auto racing, True Believers would come plastered in silver-red-and-blue logos. The big novel, Kurt Andersen’s third, is nothing if not caffeinated. It cycles at a hot pace between the late sixties and 2013, when its protagonist, high-powered jurist Karen Hollander, decides to write a memoir admitting the final, terrible truth about what she did as an antiwar protester in the era that simultaneously changed so much and not much. As the title indicates, “truth” itself is the real main character.

Andersen (author of Heyday and Turn of the Century, public radio host, and co-founder of epically funny magazine Spy) certainly knows a lot — the profusion of references as the pages hurtle past pushes us near certainty that he possesses knowledge of every last thing — about history, government, culture, technology, and their progressively intricate confluence. The overbuilt structure that results, with its now/then dialectic and meta-memoir, embedded in which is the work of yet a third writer (Ian Fleming), is appropriately cross-referential. Its digital-age nonlinearity adds up to an experience that is less like reading than like 3-D gaming. This World of Novelcraft poses a fractious question: Is it ever possible to grasp anything we can ultimately label “the truth” — especially here, where the formula of the political thriller demands its precise location but the author also philosophizes that it is situational, fluid over time? Oh, man, I feel dizzy.

And that’s the point.

Scenes from Hollander’s privileged youth in the Chicago suburb of Wilmette and her days as an angry young Radcliffe student alternate with chapters from the perspective of her sixty-fourth year as she sets out to discover what truly motivated her cohorts in rebellion, Chuck, Alex, and Buzzy. (Apart, that is, from Benzedrine, Marcuse, and a lavish obsession with restaging From Russia with Love.) With the help of old flame Stewart Jones — not his real name, of course, befitting one who speaks fluent Acronym, the language of the giddily re-created, Bond-esque world also known as the U.S. government’s intelligence branch, and who wields a smartphone that doubles as a lie detector — she maps the cul-de-sacs and U-turns of personal as well as national history.

The author’s selection of the very near future for one of his story’s many facets permits him one of few flights of humor in an otherwise deadly serious narrative: the lunacy that began on 9/11 and kept on coming with attempted shoe and underwear bombings and the eruption of the Occupy movement has been followed by a new terrorist attack…at a Boca Raton yacht club. But in the chronicle of the critical years ’67 and ’68, not much is funny. It can’t be, when it concerns things like the two-week span during which three American college students were shot (“two of them in the back”), Vietnam’s Ben Tre was bombed into oblivion on the assertion that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it,” and more than 3,000 American soldiers were killed or wounded in an increasingly deranged war.

The sort of maelstrom Andersen depicts in widescreen, the ricochet of cause and effect, youthful impatience and rapid cultural change, governmental dissembling and social despair, is shown in today’s mirror:

After a while visiting our era, [a time traveler from 1968] might become dispirited by all the familiar political tropes, what [my granddaughter] Waverly calls the “cover versions of the sixties.” The rest of the world is still complaining about the wealth and power and obliviousness of America, as they began doing in the ’60s. American leaders still warn that negotiating with foreign dictators is like the British appeasing Hitler, the way the secretary of state warned in 1966 against making peace overtures in Vietnam. Hip white kids are still romanticizing ghetto violence, unsmiling costumed Panthers then and costumed rappers now. Armageddon and apocalypse were right around the corner in the late ’60s, and they’re right around the corner now.

Yet Andersen is not a writer to be satisfied with a scenario as simple as plus ça change…and the story would not be half as absorbing, meaningful, or annoying if he were. It’s only the fuse on the fragment bomb that this book seeks to be. There is a latter-day ADD vibe to his enterprise, as if he were trying to create the print version of a news site replete with simultaneous screen crawls, banners, sidebars, and pop-ups: so much information all at once.

It’s not enough to plot espionage and counterespionage, astute social commentary on two separate eras, and literary references galore. No, according to Andersen: engage hyperdrive! Thus, among other themes, Esperanto, the wages of diabetes, Catholic absolution, and the concert calendar of Jimi Hendrix also pass by in a blur. Wordsworth, too, gets the breathless treatment. On our first reminder that to be young in a time of revolution is “very heaven” there is a frisson; by the fifth, even the most immortal poetry appears fatigued.

“Ambitious” is the word most frequently applied to Andersen’s books. Next come “busy” and “noisy.” His mind is a fine-gauge net in the ocean of American culture, catching important sea creatures as well as broken detritus of every description. He employs that New Journalism shortcut to tone and color, catalogs of stuff (“Bic pens and Instamatic cameras and live transatlantic TV broadcasts and in-flight movies and printed circuit boards and TouchTone phones”), and then wistfully justifies such literary cynicism by observing that the recollections of anyone born since the fifties are necessarily consigned to “a second-rate mental ghetto, supplanted by the canon of slick universal media memories.”

The author is, finally, a master of having it both ways. He is at once facile, his thousand-piece puzzle practically machine produced, and deeply wise. He subtly explores the way we always seem to make of ourselves fictive characters against the larger backdrop of our epochs. He suggests it is to serve youth’s intemperate needs — a form of insanity — as well as to avenge the real immoralities of power: just acts in an unjust cycle we are helpless to stop.

Andersen’s control of his subject is so complete that he has prewritten his own review. Of the Ink Spots’ “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire” (“I’ve lost all ambition for worldly acclaim / I just want to be the one you love”) he remarks, by way of the older and wiser Karen Hollander, “It’s too pat, right? But it’s true.” Yes, on both counts.


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