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Turn of the Century

by Kurt Andersen

Hodder pounds 17.99

This is an extraordinary book. It has been likened to Tom Wolfe, but I don't think the comparison is a good one. Wolfe is primarily about character, in a Dickensian sense. Although has a plot and some fine characters, it is a book utterly preoccupied with the meaning of surface detail, of consumer disposables, of infotainment, and of the communications revolution. It poses questions in virtually every scene about the nature of this alleged revolution. Put simply, the theme of this novel is that the communications revolution is a monstrous deception. Andersen's liturgy of idiocy and self-deception is all too believable in its depiction of a society that lurches from one empty form of newness to another. For instance, one of the characters is commissioned to find a new name for lamb "that doesn't remind Americans they're eating a cute animal". Where the book stumbles is not in its basic premise, but in its method: no conversation, no description, indeed no sentence is allowed to appear on the page without some satiric or comic intent. It is overwhelming to read every last detail of every revolting foodstuff, plastic surface, junk TV programme and computer game that every single character encounters. That said, this is far from a trivial lot of nonsense such as Glamorama: it is Nicholson Baker on additives.

The book is set in the year 2000, an uneasy time when nobody really knows how much to believe about the much-vaunted communications revolution. The principal players are George Mactier and his wife, Lizzie Zimbalist, both of them intimately involved in the latest forms of television and internet technology. She is working on very advanced forms of computer software which can detect the players' brainwaves and possibly communicate directly from brain to computer. She has devised a game which involves alternative history scenarios. Andersen has this vapid nonsense down to a tee.

George Mactier, former journalist, now produces a new type of cop show called NARCS: his actors take part in real busts. In one scene they bust a dealer, who turns out to have an Equity card and demands the full rate for appearing. George has plans to produce a show called Real Time, a drama involving real news. He is well on his way to being a major television tycoon, and is already on $16,500 a week. His ultimate boss is a billionaire called Harold Mose: all the concepts of extreme wealth are unerringly skewered. Mose has designs on Lizzie Zimbalist, who is flirting with selling her company to Microsoft. Instead she sells to Mose and in effect becomes George's boss. George's new series is a failure, the Mose Digital Corporation cans it. But now, of course, Lizzie is one of those responsible for killing it off. This leads to a marriage breakdown and a very sharp decline in George's fortunes, after the fashion of Sherman McCoy from Bonfire of the Vanities.

All this is done against a hectic schedule of media shenanigans, satirical strikes on California, rather wonderfully idiosyncratic children, and the death of two parents. Lizzie's father, a minor agent, has a pig liver transplant. When he wakes up from the operation his first words are "Oink, oink". It turns out, however, that he has been the recipient of the first placebo surgery. The endless comic digressions are not all as successful as that one: descriptions of the empty tend to produce a cumulative feeling of emptiness. Nor are the apercus always very sharp, as in "fashion models become less beautiful the moment they speak". Over 600 pages, this can be very heavy going when it is not sustained by fully realised characters. Timothy Featherstone is an exception. He is a hilariously, amiably, slimy corporate figure, who appears to do nothing except shmooze. Andersen has given him a rich language of sinister overfamiliarity and playfulness.

Kurt Andersen, a writer for the New Yorker, has produced an exceptional book, even if, to quote one of his characters' favourite phrases, the ratio of noise to signal is too high. To mix metaphors even more comprehensively, all he needs is to take his foot off the pedal next time if he wants to inherit Tom Wolfe's mantle.