Turn of the Century

Turn of the Century

by Kurt Andersen


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“A big, sprawling book . . . [Kurt Andersen has] infused it with so much inventive imagination. . . . Should be put in a Manhattan time capsule with the note: ‘This is how we lived at the turn of the century.’ ”—The New York Times Book Review
In his brash, brilliant first novel, New York Times bestselling author Kurt Andersen casts a penetrating eye on our giddy, media-obsessed era. With a keen sense of irony and a storyteller’s grace, he weaves a tale that is at once a biting satire and a wickedly incisive portrait of marriage, family, love, and friendship.
The millennium is here. BarbieWorld has opened in Las Vegas. Charles Manson’s parole hearing is on live TV. And George and Lizzie are a Manhattan power couple with three kids in private school and take-out from Hiroshima Boy waiting at the door. Lizzie owns a software start-up. George is a TV producer. With cell phones tickling their thighs and gossip buzzing in their ears, their future couldn’t be brighter. Until, that is, Lizzie cuts a deal with George’s boss and gets an office twenty-one floors above her husband’s. Until all the glitter and the hype threaten to destroy George’s and Lizzie’s sanity and their marriage. Until the only thing that can save them is a little understanding—at a time when everyone is talking but no one hears a thing.
“Savagely subversive . . . a smart, funny and excruciatingly deft portrait of our age.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Inspired . . . astonishing . . . very funny.”—Entertainment Weekly  
“A big, Tom Wolfe–ish New York comic novel . . . on the last breath of the century.”—Elle

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385335041
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 07/28/2000
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 672
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.19(h) x 1.36(d)

About the Author

Kurt Andersen is the author of the novels True Believers, Heyday, and Turn of the Century, among other books. He writes for television, film, and the stage, contributes to Vanity Fair, and hosts the public radio program Studio 360. He has previously been a columnist for New York, The New Yorker, and Time, editor in chief of New York, and co-founder of Spy. He lives in Brooklyn.

Read an Excerpt

February-March 1

He has just left an early breakfast meeting--very early--with three men he's never met before. He's never heard of the men, in fact, and he planned to blow off breakfast until his partner told him he should go, because the men are important and potentially useful. He trusts his partner, who used to work for their agency. They are agents, all three of the men at breakfast, but agents who made it very clear that they prefer never to be called agents. He is already confusing and forgetting their names, even though the men's main purpose in coming to town, they strongly suggested, was to meet him and tell him they would love to be in business with him. That's the phrase these people always use: "We would love to be in business with you," said in a breathy, solemn, confidential way that makes it sound profound and salacious. He is walking up the Avenue of the Americas, just south of Forty-seventh Street, now thinking of almost nothing but the morning sunlight pouring over from the right, making the line of proud, gray, dumb, boxy giants on the left--Smith Barney, Time-Life, McGraw-Hill, News Corporation--prettier than they deserve to be.

A pair of mounted police walking past him, about to make the turn onto Forty-seventh Street, snags his attention for an instant, the very instant a signal reaches the tiny device wedged in his left inside jacket pocket. It is forty-two minutes and forty seconds past eight on the twenty-eighth of February.

Between his right thumb and forefinger he grips a huge paper coffee cup, and, with the other three fingers, the handle of his briefcase. As the device's programmed sequence proceeds, there is no noise, not even a click, only a tiny, continuous, hysterical vibration. In the first quarter second, the muscles in his chest tense and his left nipple goes erect. He takes a short, sharp, surprised breath and, without thinking, flings the coffee toward the gutter, then grabs at his left pocket with his right hand. But already the first instant of dumb panic has congealed to dread--two seconds--as he claws to find the device, to punch the button, to shut the thing down before the sound--three seconds . . . four seconds--before it is too late.

It is too late.
"Hey, man," says the young man kneeling and looking up at George Mactier. His eyebrows, George sees, are sculpted into what look like Morse code dots and dashes, each eyebrow a different letter. "What the fuck you, man, you fucking clumsy dick, man! Shit."

The messenger's electronic signature-slate clipboard and his Day-Glo green nylon satchel of envelopes are drenched now in steaming ultra-venti latte, skim milk, extra shot of espresso. His helmet--a glossy magenta with built-in radio mouthpiece, like a fighter pilot's--has been knocked off the handlebars and into the street by George's briefcase. The helmet is now skittering up Sixth like a pinball between the tires of an accelerating Harlem-bound M5--one of the dozen new, clear, vodka-bottle-shaped Absolut Transit buses the city has been given for Christmas. The two men each survey the wreckage. If only the restaurant's espresso machine hadn't been broken, George knows, he wouldn't have stopped at Starbucks; if the espresso machine at the Millennium hadn't been broken and he hadn't stopped at Starbucks, this poor groovy schmo wouldn't despise him, and the chasm between the races and the classes and the generations wouldn't now gape a nanometer wider. Perhaps it was the fluttering of a satyrid's wings in Bhutan that had roiled into a breeze in the South China Sea that blew across the Pacific and became a thunderstorm last week in Oakland, and that delayed the shipment of an espresso-machine valve to the Millennium.

"Maybe the helmet, maybe you can--"
"Maybe I can what, man? My boss is gonna motherfucking criticize my ass so bad, man," the messenger says, looking up at George. "You know that? He's Soviet, man!"
"I'm really--oh, jeez, look at your pants, too. I'm sorry." George leans in to help him up, but then remembers the kid hasn't been knocked down. He was kneeling when George flung the coffee, fiddling with his bike, and so instead, George just quickly touches his sweaty green-and-pink-spandexed shoulder and says again, "Sorry."

"The thing was brand-new, like three hundred dollars, I think. Man." They stare together across the street at the bashed, cracked pink helmet still wobbling crazily. (Stenciled on its side in big teal letters is a phrase George reads as !mom !69. A rap group? A brand of heroin? A lifestyle choice?)
"The coffee cup sort of like . . . collapsed." Sort of.

The silent, five-second-long vibrating alert on the tiny device in George's pocket has given way to the up-and-down do-re-mi-fa-mi-re-do chromatic tweet of the audible alert. His wife, Lizzie, has said it sounds like reveille for pixies, and his stepdaughter, Sarah, has asked him if he cares if it makes strangers think he is gay. But George has stuck with the little tune rather than any standard beeeeeep choice, because it subverts the display of self-importance, he hopes, of getting a cell-phone call on the sidewalk, in an elevator, at a restaurant table. It has finally become possible, for about three years now, to carry on a phone conversation walking down the street and not look like an asshole. It's still not possible in a restaurant, he and Lizzie agree. Yet is consistently looking like an asshole really any different from being an asshole? This they are less sure about.

"My phone," George says to the messenger with a lame, bashful smile. He nods toward the silly electronic noise deedle-de-deeing from his chest and starts to move away. "Sorry." Shrug, step. "Sorry." Five paces later, crucially beyond the latte blast radius, freed again to be just another pedestrian, George puts his briefcase on the sidewalk and finally pulls out the phone.

"George? Honey--"
"Yeah?" He hears nothing. "Lizzie?" Nothing. "Hello?" He punches end. He will wait for her to call back. Holding the phone a foot from his face, he leans against the sandstone of Rockefeller Center, the real Rockefeller Center, staring distractedly through the mists of his own winter breath at new Rockefeller Center, the stolid late-fifties and early-sixties addendum across the avenue. The sunlight has diffused now. But the buildings still look strangely, unaccountably handsome. Have they been steam-cleaned? Is it the new outdoor sculpture (Torqued Mousetrap with Logo, three blocks long, by Richard Serra) that Disney installed on the sidewalk? Or is it because Lizzie announced this morning as he said goodbye and she spat out toothpaste that she is desperate for him to fuck her? Where has his contempt gone? Then he realizes: the skyscrapers that looked atrocious in 1980 and 1990 now, in 2000, look quaint, elegant, swingy. He isn't aware of having revised his opinion; his opinion has been changed for him, updated automatically, gradually, by sensibility osmosis, leeching from glossy magazines and newspaper style sections into George's brain. First Frank Sinatra, cocktails, Palm Springs, rayon garments, plastic furniture, and all kinds of Cold War bibelots were resuscitated, even the words VIP and chick--and now, as of this morning, these buildings, which George has spent a few seconds every week of his adulthood loathing actively, are looking kind of cool. He doesn't know whether to feel pathetic or liberated by the insight.

The phone jiggles.
"Yeeeesss?" he says joshingly.
"Oh, George."
"What is it?"
"Your mother died last night."
"Ohhhhh . . ." He feels like he's been shot in the face at close range. With blanks, but it's still loud and sickening. "Oh, Christ."
"I'm so sorry, darling."
"How? I mean . . ."

"She told me a couple of weeks ago her doctor said she probably has years."
"It wasn't the cancer. She was in a car accident, honey. She was driving home on the interstate from her line-dancing class, and she slowed way down for some animal, a weasel, and a giant semi rammed into her."

"Which car?"
"Which car? The Yugo."

"Your sister says she, you know, she didn't--it all happened so fast, she died instantly."
George watches the messenger he victimized pedal west toward Times Square. With the helmet now right side up, he sees that the odd legend, on the satchel as well as the helmet, isn't !mom !69, but go! now! It's the name of a messenger service; the same company operates the car service Lizzie uses at work.

"So," Lizzie says, "I'll go home and pack."
"You don't have to. We can fly out in the morning."
"Why not tonight?"
"We're presenting the shows to Mose at six-thirty, which means I'm out of here at seven. At the earliest. This is the meeting, Lizzie. I guess we could try to reschedule, but Emily's flying in from L.A. for it, and she needs to be in Washington at some Kennedy Center Al Gore thing tomorrow." He knows he's babbling. "But, I guess, if we could maybe get in to Mose tomorrow . . . No, shit, tomorrow is, he's--Mose and the rest of them are going--are in, uh, Washington State? . . . Maybe Vancouver. Someplace out there, I'm not sure, for something." He coughs; so lame. "I think I really ought to be here this afternoon."

His mother was killed hours earlier; he and his partner are to have an audience with the chairman of the network to pitch two new shows; now he's concealing a business secret probably not worth concealing from his wife, and doing it clumsily. He isn't even sure what he's dissembling about. He's only heard snippets, glancing references, roundabout allusions, all equally plausible and implausible, all equally reliable and unreliable. Asian video-game programming? An agreement to earmark MBC's extra digital channels for data transmission in return for putting the network's two-a.m.-to-five-a.m. home-shopping show Booty! on Microsoft's WebTV? Some grander plot to ally with Microsoft against Intel, or to make life a little unpleasant for NBC vis-à-vis MSNBC? Computers and the internet, so radiant with revolutionary promise and terror, change everyone's business strategy every other month, so the gossip changes every week to keep up. All he knows definitely is that he shouldn't be frank with Lizzie. The strands of anxiety are too much, each exacerbating the other and making George feel guilty and stupid.

Lizzie saves him. "We'll go to St. Paul in the morning. Sarah's got a sleepover at our house with Penelope tonight, anyway, to work on their video. We can go tomorrow."
"Did you tell the kids?"

She doesn't answer.
"Lizzie, do the kids know about my mom?"
The connection is lost. Taking full advantage of the convenience of the wired era, George finds, can be very difficult.

He dials home, using his thumb, and the voice mail picks up ("Hello--we're not here," his own voice says to him, which always gives him the willies), then calls her office ("This is the office of Elizabeth Zimbalist at Fine Technologies," the recording of Lizzie's assistant Alexi says. "Please leave--"), and finally the phone in the Land Cruiser, which generates a sort of Disney World PA-system announcer: "Welcome to AT&T Wireless Services. The cellular customer you have called is unavailable, or has traveled outside the coverage area." George specifically hates this passive-aggressive record-o-man. The prissy, vague excuse--"unavailable"?--always strikes him as a prevarication meant to keep him from speaking to Lizzie, or his colleagues, or other cellular customers. (Nothing like America Online's digital butler, with his fake-enthusiastic utopian-zombie voice. George continues to find "You've got mail!" entertaining enough, even ten thousand repetitions later, so that he didn't finally deactivate it until around the time the movie came out and he read that the AOL man, whose first name is Elwood, has his own web site.)

What People are Saying About This

Kurt Andersen

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

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Turn of the Century 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.