Snarky Journalist Writes Snarky Novel
By Timothy Noah

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Turn of the Century By Kurt Andersen Random House, 659 pages

Is it possible for a novel to be brilliant without being especially good? This is the question posed, inadvertently, by Kurt Andersen's 600-pages-plus satire about the convergence of entertainment, journalism, computer technology, and finance.

Andersen's book imagines a future--the once-distant year 2000--that lies mere months away. Perhaps it's a gag: Andersen's dystopia will arrive before the book comes out in paperback. Or does he have something strictly commercial in mind--a scheme to get a big "way we live now" novel into the subsidiary-rights pipeline in time to hit the beaches in the summer of 2000?

These are jaded, media-obsessed metaruminations that would be unfair to entertain about almost any other novel. But Andersen's book, like much of his writing about the media in The New Yorker, works precisely this vein of multilayered irony about perceptions of perceptions of perceptions. The New Yorker pieces can be exhausting even when they occupy a single page. Turn of the Century works better, mainly because fiction provides momentum to carry you from witticism to witticism. (Andersen is so-so at plot, but his dialogue sparkles.) Unfortunately, the machinery doesn't carry the reader through the whole book, which is less a novel than a comic essay padded far beyond its natural length of 200-odd pages.

The book tells the story of George Mactier, a journalist turned TV producer, and his wife, Lizzie Zimbalist, a software entrepreneur. Tart-tongued boomer sophisticates, they live in Manhattan and flit to those other New Economy capitals, L.A. and Seattle, colliding with journalists, show-biz types, media tycoons, computer hackers, and each other. To the extent there's a unifying theme, it's that when technology enables us to keep one another under constant surveillance, we understand one another less and less. Misunderstandings between George and Lizzie eventually turn them into digital versions of Beatrice and Benedick, the lovers divided by rumor and suspicion in Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.

But while George and Lizzie are engagingly drawn characters, Andersen never lets us get to know them well enough; he's too busy marching them from one satirical set piece to the next. The conceits are extremely shrewd and funny (as one would expect from a co-founder of Spy magazine). A media mogul in the book tracks his MPI, or Media Perception Index, tallying the number of times he is described in the press as "visionary" and "brilliant," or "mercurial" and "contrarian." A day-care center posts real-time images of its charges on the Web, so worried parents can get a look at how they're doing. A hip restaurant serves "chicken sashimi."

But even Tom Wolfe, who is clearly a model for Andersen's satire, knows mere cleverness can't sustain a novel of Dickensian length. And by the end, the reader longs for a glimpse of the wider world (even when the setting shifts to Malaysia, the story sticks to rich people in the media bubble). For all its dazzle, Turn of the Century tells us more than we want to know about Info Age absurdity and less than we want to know about the other aspects of soon-to-be contemporary life.

--Timothy Noah

TIMOTHY NOAH writes about politics for Slate