The morning I finished reading Turn of the Century, The New York Times reported that an ocean liner had sunk off the coast of Malaysia. As the passengers watched the ship go down, they began to sing the song from Titanic. This, my friend, is a Kurt Andersen moment: You hum the theme song to your own disaster. Turn of the Century
by Kurt Andersen (Random House, $24.95) In Andersen's sprawling first novel, the very air tastes of the entertainment industry. It's the year 2000, and it looks a lot like today, only with more commercials. Dharma Minus Greg is on TV; Times Square has become the Infotainment Zone; prep school soccer teams have Adidas endorsement deals to pay for professional coaches. All possible, all probable, let's face it, all just about to happen. Also just about to happen is George Mactier, former Newsweek correspondent, current producer of the TV show NARCS, which sets its cast of actors in the midst of real drug busts. George Mactier has a vision: a TV show that would perfectly meld fact and fiction. Newscasters would play themselves in a "dramedy" depicting their lives, then report on breaking news. He has just sold this notion to the Mose Broadcasting Corp., run by Canadian billionaire financier Harold Mose (who, in a fine send-up of CEO jargon, inspires his employees with metaphors from the sport of curling). George's wife, Silicon Alley exec Lizzie Zimbalist, produces Y2K debuggers, violent video games, and other necessities of millennial life. Her company is small, inventive, getting richer by the moment, and—of course—in negotiations with Microsoft. Lizzie and George battle their way through the labyrinthine politics of the entertainment and computer industries, but it's Andersen's satirical guns that gleefully blaze. Turn of the Century has been compared everywhere to Tom Wolfe's two big novels, but on its shimmering, oily surface it also resembles the recent Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis: Celebrities, real and invented, pop up constantly; brand names are invoked; the thing fairly hums with sheer useless unwanted irresistible information. George giggles when Lizzie describes her new corporate workplace to him: "[It's] like Darth Vader's Berchtesgaden designed by Michael Graves on a Crate & Barrel budget." In Andersen's book, the silly (and very funny) name dropping goes to work and comes home having bagged something that looks a lot like meaning. Yes, George and Lizzie are horrible people—self-serving and self-satisfied. But they are the horrible people we suspect we ourselves might be given the right DNA of money, power, talent, and lack of scruple. And the MactierZimbalist m鮡ge is nothing if not self-aware. They're conscious of their cultural over-determination, and conscious that they need a break from it. They live in the Seaport section of New York, which they love because "living in the Seaport doesn't mean much of anything to the world, as living in SoHo or the Upper East Side or Brooklyn does." They also dream occasionally of moving to Redmond, and the book takes a side-trip to Seattle and the Microsoft campus, where Andersen takes some disappointingly Jean Goddenesque swipes at boutique beers and ubiquitous fleece. On the other hand, when a visiting writer picks up on ironies that you yourself have literally walked past without noticing every day for the last three years, you must, as they say in poker, yield to the power. By way of example: Lizzie goes out to dinner at a restaurant on Elliott Bay with a freaky UW scientist named Grinspoon, and at the end of the evening, "Grinspoon's car is parked a long way away ('Over by the Central Gun Exchange—across from Aveda')." Andersen savors that deeply Northwest juxtaposition of businesses, but doesn't dwell on it, and the snide, wonderful aside is typical of the best of his writing. Andersen's masterstroke as a comic writer, though, is his positioning of his book five minutes in the future. Americans have often been more accepting of British comedies of manners than they have of ones written here at home, which I had always chalked up to a finer British ear for dialogue. But I wonder now if it's not a matter of timing. Satirical writing depends on a reader's innate sense that the writer is just slightly ahead of the game. When we Americans read British writing we don't live with the referents, the slang, the costumes, and the manners; therefore we're not bothered by moments that ring untrue or outdated. Andersen has cleverly done another kind of end run around the problem of currentness by setting his book in the very near future. Toward the end of the book, Lizzie lies in bed reading Trollope's The Way We Live Now, maybe the best title ever given a novel. It would also make a fine, ironic title for Andersen's own book. By making an exaggerated picture of a possible world, Andersen has in fact given us a portrait of the way we live now, a portrait scarier and truer than most realist fiction. The title is apt in another way: Andersen's book—with its detailed, loving exposition of business matters; its exhaustive display of manners; its comic types giving way to real emotion; its sheer size—is Trollope for moderns. Claire Dederer is the film critic for 'Seattle Weekly.'