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.
From the Publisher
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.
From The Critics
Editors of Wall Street Journal
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.
What People Are Saying
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.