Books: Wolfe in geek's clothing

The cream-suited dandy and chief zeitgeist surfer has a competitor with information overload. Douglas Kennedy savours the details of a blockbusting debut but wonders: what's the story?; Turn of the Century by Kurt Andersen Headline, pounds 17.99, 678pp
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Tom Wolfe wrote a much-discussed essay at the time of The Bonfire of the Vanities in which he hectored an upcoming generation of young writers to stop indulging in navel-gazing fiction and start making contact with the street again. Wolfe's point was that too many contemporary novels were narrow in scope, and detached from day-to-day existence. The nub of his homily was essentially this: Look around you. There are a lot of big stories out there. And, while you're at it, start dealing with the folly of our times.

More tellingly, Wolfe wondered why the hell writers had abandoned the big social novel: that sprawling epic stroll through the stratified realms of class, money, and assorted corridors of power; the sort of fiction which, among other things, attempts to document the way we live now. Which brings us to Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century - a big, sprawling epic stroll through hyper-kinetic, end-of-the-millennium life. Andersen is a well-known player in the New York media jungle. He has an impressive CV: one of the co-founders of the satirical magazine Spy, a contributor to Time, and a regular columnist for The New Yorker.

What's more, he is an upper-echelon zeitgeist surfer - one of those ultra- smart, ultra-sophisticated "cultural commentators" who is always one step ahead when it comes to sniffing out new mercantile trends, or discussing the language of clothes, or explaining the hidden subtext lurking behind, say, the new Apple computer.

Throw Kurt Andersen into a West Hollywood restaurant, for instance, and he can quickly point up the tribal memberships of its upscale diners: "The male half of the restaurant's clientele can be divided just about evenly into thirds, the standard West LA cut. There are those wearing mint-condition blue jeans or chinos, perfectly white sneakers, and freshly laundered shirts - the Spic 'n' Span super casuals... who would prefer that you envy their happiness and serenity more than their money and power. There are the Sullen Seven-Figure Scruffs, about a decade younger than average, dressed in well-worn jeans and dirty sneakers and casual shirts that do not look lemony fresh, happening nerds and cool cats, wan chubby sitcom actors with 1870s by way of 1970s names - Ethan, Billy, Christian, Vince. The nameless third group of men, lawyers and lawyer-like executives and older agents, would be more comfortable wearing suits and ties, but can't because it's the weekend."

Now you don't have to be a zeitgeist surfer to see that Andersen's acute, sassy style of social observation owes more than a bit to a certain T Wolfe. And I am not the first to note that Andersen's first foray into fiction is unapologetically Wolfean in its social scope and stylistic vigour. Moreover, its crammed 600-plus pages is a virtual compendium of contemporary trends, fashion statements, and up-to-the-minute commentary on the latest in whizbang software and gadgetry.

Indeed, if you're a latent Luddite with a detestation for the technological detritus of modem life, avoid this novel at all costs. Because virtually every page is packed with wonderfully insane techno-detail. Consider this description of how a contemporary school-bus run works: "`Hello!' machined female voice on the other end of the line announced brightly. `Your child's transportation will be waiting at the designated location in. Four minutes. And thirty seconds!'"

Turn of the Century is brimming with this sort of splendidly skewed stuff. It's funny, hip, and relentlessly sharp. All it lacks is a compelling story. There is a story here, all right -- a tale of a couple, George Mactier and Lizzie Zimbalist, their three culturally aware children, and their crowded lives as the new millennium kicks into life.

Lizzie is a software executive star. George - a Midwestern boy made good - is gearing up for the launch of a new mega-series which crazily blends real news with fiction. Lizzie is fending off takeover offers for her company. And, hey presto, before you can say mergers and acquisitions, Lizzie and George's professional destinies collide, and their future domestic happiness is under threat.

Of course, I am only giving you the briefest outline of a plot in which (among other things) the machinations of contemporary corporate life are gleefully explored. But the novel's narrative thrust inevitably takes a back seat to Andersen's kinetic prose, and his obsessive need to crowd every page with detail, detail, and even more detail.

There is no doubt that Andersen is a writer of wow-'em style and great brio. There is no doubt that he has created an expansive, imaginative landscape of life as currently lived inside the media/software bubble. And there's absolutely no doubt that he is a premier cru polymath. It is just a shame that he isn't much of a storyteller. Or that he did not curtail his polymathic instincts to let us engage more with his two central characters. Occasionally, he does slow the pace down, and allows us a peep into their contradictory psyches.

When this happens, Andersen demonstrates his ability to explore emotional complexity, and the deep-rooted fears that propel all ambitious folk forward. But, inevitably, such moments are subsumed by those layers of detail, and more detail.

Still, let's not be churlish. Turn of the Century may not score big points for its storytelling. Yet you have to admire its ambition, its deranged breadth of knowledge, and its high-voltage energy.

Douglas Kennedy's latest novel is `The Job' (Little, Brown)