Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
Turn of the Century
Kurt Andersen
Random House, 659 pages

Turn of the Century
Kurt Andersen
Kurt Andersen is a columnist for The New Yorker. He was co-founder and editor of Spy magazine, and editor in chief of New York magazine. At Time, he was an award-winning writer on crime and politics, and for 8 years the magazine's architecture and design critic. He has also created and produced several network television programs, and he co-wrote Loose Lips, a satirical stage revue that has had productions in New York and Los Angeles. Turn of the Century is his first novel. ISFDB Bibliography
An Interview with Kurt Andersen
Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

One of the more radical conjectures of Kurt Andersen's brilliantly funny, semi-speculative millennial novel, Turn of the Century, is that nothing terrible happens on January 1, 2000. Set in the high-powered world of media, finance, and computer technology (sectors that current disaster theorizing expects to be hard hit), Turn of the Century assumes a completely uneventful transition. Unlike the novel's other futurisms, this premise is so underplayed that it's almost possible to miss it. The only real reference to millennial madness is a piece of software developed by a company owned by one of the novel's protagonists: Y2KRx, a program which cleans up the messes resulting from bad Y2K fixes.

This is not to say, however, that Turn of the Century doesn't deal with breakdowns and disasters -- they're just of a more universal nature. It's failures of communication Andersen is concerned with, and the havoc that results from the age-old human tendency to confuse fact and fiction. And the way that modern technology, with the power to place the whole world at our fingertips and invade the most intimate corners of our lives, not only doesn't clarify things, but blurs the lines still further.

George Mactier is a hot new television producer for the emerging Mose Broadcasting Company. He's married to Lizzie Zimbalist, entrepreneurial owner of Fine Technologies, a software development company. George and Lizzie have three alarmingly precocious children, a host of eccentric friends and co-workers, a huge Manhattan home, scads of possessions, and an impossibly over-scheduled lifestyle. They're venal enough to enjoy being rich and want to be richer, and socially conscious enough to feel a little guilty about it. Unlike the capitalist over-achievers of former generations, they have no sense of entitlement to their success: they sometimes find it hard, in fact, to take themselves seriously.

Things begin to go awry when George's controversial new show, Real Time, goes into production, and Microsoft makes an offer for Lizzie's company. The offer is based on a misunderstanding of Lizzie's future R&D plans; when the Microsoft execs finally realize this, the offer is seriously downsized. At this vulnerable moment (Lizzie was already counting her millions), George's boss, media mogul Harold Mose, makes Lizzie an offer she can't refuse: he'll buy Fine Technologies as part of a market diversification strategy, and Lizzie will go to work for him -- at a corporate level considerably higher than George's. Just about this time, George's new show, deemed too radical by both audiences and TV network functionaries, is cancelled. George becomes convinced that Lizzie is responsible, and also that she's having an affair with Mose. Missed phone calls, stray e-mails, accidentally deleted computer files, and bad personal choices compound the confusion.

This only begins to summarize the wildly complex plot, which also involves insider stock trading, cyber-porn, old-fashioned blackmail, experiments in cat telepathy, and a plot to fake the death of Bill Gates. Nearly everything that happens hinges on miscommunication, and the ease with which people mistake the invented for the real (and vice versa). George makes up an elaborate story about Lizzie (Lizzie, to a lesser extent, does the same about George), which, based on various facts, has no relationship whatever to the truth. George's cancelled TV show combines fictional episodes about the life and adventures of a news crew with a hour-long real news broadcast; when the show scoops a sensational story (the granting of Charles Manson's parole), it's variously thought that the story was faked for the show, or that the show somehow was responsible for the truth of the story. Lizzie's father receives an emergency transplant of a pig's liver, vaulting Lizzie and George into the midst of a news magazine feeding frenzy; in the end the operation turns out to have been a placebo (for which George and Lizzie are, obscurely, blamed). A plot by a group of hackers to virtually kill Bill Gates mixes fact (a scuba expedition in the Caribbean) with fiction (a tragic accident), precipitating a series of events in which real life, briefly and eerily, winds up mimicking the hoax.

An unending flow of satirical details fleshes out Andersen's near-future world: BarbieWorld, a Las Vegas theme casino; E-squared, an offshoot of the E! channel, which broadcasts nothing but footage of celebrity events; a talk show hosted by Al Roker and Monica Lewinsky ("maybe they cast Al to make her look slim by comparison," George muses); Finales, a program composed entirely of obituaries; a company that uses bleeding-edge special effects technology to update religious ceremonies; the "Adam Sandler Koyaanisqatsi remake" (my personal favourite).

These clever fictions, all completely plausible but just outrageous enough to be recognizable as invention (although one never quite knows: maybe there really is a Chopper Channel) are seamlessly blended with our own real present, allowing Andersen to illuminate with hilarious, dead-on accuracy the absurdities of modern times. It's a virtuoso comic performance, all the more impressive because it's sustained without flagging over the full course of a very long -- but not over-long -- novel.

Because it's fat, complicated, ironic, and shows rich people coming to grief, Turn of the Century has been widely compared with Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities. It's not a totally accurate comparison, for Wolfe's novel is a savage social satire, while Andersen's is a far gentler comedy of manners, with, at its centre, benign values such as love, fidelity, loyalty, and trust (and much more stylishly written and structured than Wolfe's rather clunky narrative). But the two books are alike in one important sense: both provide a diamond-sharp snapshot of a particular moment and a particular group of movers and shakers, in a way that distills with absolute precision the essence of a decade (the year may be 2000, but George and Lizzie are still very much a 90s couple).

Turn of the Century is a perfect time capsule, an over-the-top parody, a compulsively readable entertainment, and a dazzling literary accomplishment all in one. By any standard, it's an extraordinary debut novel.

Copyright © 1999 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel, The Arm of the Stone, is currently available from Avon Eos. For an excerpt, visit her website.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide