George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, ten years married, are caught up in the whirl of their accelerating lives. George is a TV producer launching a ground-breaking new show. Lizzie is a software entrepreneur running her own company. However, after Lizzie 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 temptationand, maybe, love.
Like Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century lays bare the follies of our age with laser-beam precision, creating memorable characters and dissecting the ways we think, speak, and navigate this new era of extreme capitalism and mind-bogging technology. Entertaining, imaginative, knowing, and wise, Turn of the Century is a richly plotted comedy of manners about the way we live now.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.51(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.40(d)|
About the Author
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."
"Yeah. I am."
"Well . . ." Seconds pass. "So, Mose, six-thirty?" Emily asks. "Ready?"
"Yesterday Timothy said to me on the phone, and I quote, 'Let's literally lock and load, my mad dude.' "
"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."
"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.
What People are Saying About This
From the Author:
When I started writing Turn of the Century, my intention was to create characters and tell a story and invent a world of the near future. I wanted to entertain (and reveal and provoke and disturb). I didn't set out with any set of themes or doctrines. But by the time I finished, ideas had germinated and themes had emerged, some of them obvious enough even for me to see.
We're living in an unparalleled age of free-market torrents "extreme capitalism."
Not in my lifetime and probably not in this century (and maybe not ever) have our reckonings of worth--the worth of people, of jobs, of places, of ideas, of works of art, of practically everything--been so thoroughly a function of their success in the marketplace. The new national pastime is stock speculation. I voted twice for a Democratic president who is a crypto-Republican--a president who ended welfare as an entitlement and for whom a Wall Street bull market is the lodestar and goal of federal policy. When people asked 20 years ago how a book or TV show or movie or magazine was doing, they weren't simply asking how was it selling; now they are. Twenty years ago, editors of serious magazines and TV news shows weren't expected to generate profits commensurate with ordinary businesses; that media-nobility exemption has been phased out. The programming bedrock of one of the most successful new TV channels, MTV, consists of commercials that we don't even see as advertising anymore--music videos, 4-minute commercials for CDs. People now wear advertisements every day--for Ralph Lauren, for Nike, for almost everything, and advertisements appear on bank receipts, on the walls of public schools, glued onto fruits and vegetables. (Even this essay is essentially an advertisement.) In Turn of the Century, the protagonists' six-year-old child repeatedly asks, "Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" It's a question necessary to ask often about extreme capitalism in turn-of-the-century America. The answers are seldom easy or plain.
Apart from questions of (limited) war and peace, national politics almost irrelevant to American life. It's no accident that Turn of the Century is set in New York City, the Pacific Northwest and Los Angeles (and Las Vegas), but not Washington, D.C. Americans have a rough, broad consensus on almost all the big issues right now, which means that the obsessions of professional Washingtonians just aren't very interesting or consequential. (In fact, the only resident of the District who knows and really uses this new truth is Bill Clinton.)
The digital flood of information and "transparency" has not (yet) increased understanding. We all have more access to more data than ever before. But who is thereby more truly knowledgeable, more in control of life, wiser?
Confusion is the contemporary condition--high-stakes confusion, simultaneously thrilling and terrifying confusion. We may be fat and happy, but intellectual chaos reigns. No one knows what they are supposed to do next. CEOs are confused about the bets they should or shouldn't make on new technology. (Are Time Warner and America Online media businesses or utilities? Is a Net browser a standalone piece of software or part of an operating system? Is Java an operating system or a programming language? The multi-billion-dollar Iridium satellite system was conceived as a telephone business, then became a paging business, then became a cellular-patch-and-phone-billing business. And it's still not a real business.) The financial markets are confused about whether the digital bubble is about to pop or inflate to ten times its present size. Movie studios are confused about whether $50 million or $10 million is the correct budget for a given film. Journalists are confused about whether they are entertainers, politicians and citizens about whether Kosovo is or isn't worth ten or a thousand American lives, architects and artists about whether they are part of a movement or should be, spouses about how to deal with work confidences and professional rivalries, parents about whether to allow their children unfettered access to the Net.
It has never been harder in so many realms to distinguish between the real and the fake--and to be certain in every case that the former is preferable to the latter. For the last decade or two a plurality of interesting new music (Beck, neo-Swing, neo-funk) and movies (neo-noir) and new architecture (historicism, neo-modernism) and fashion and graphic design and industrial design (the Miata) have been reworkings of old genres and artifacts. The most important contemporary movement in urban planning is neo-traditionalism--the creation of brand new suburbs meant to look and feel just like small towns 75 years ago. Online, a hacker can pass off a home-made web page as a news bulletin and move the stock market, women can pretend to be men, adults can pretend to be children, anyone can pretend to be almost anyone or anything. We think nothing any longer of having conversations with robot telephone operators. In movies, digital simulations of ships sinking in the North Atlantic and extraterrestrial devils look perfectly real. (The enormous popularity of The Matrix is both a symptom and a chronicle of rampant simulationism.) The real stigma that until very recently attended breast implants and cosmetic surgery now has a half-life of about two years, and bionic people (artificial organs and joints and hands and skin and hair and sexual desire) live among us. And then there's Turn of the Century, a novel set in real-seeming versions of actual cities and companies, a novel inhabited by real people (Bill Gates, Barry Diller, Mike Milken) as well as imaginary ones, a novel published in 1999 but set in 2000.
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
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.