Bonfire of the Nerds

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Bonfire of the Nerds

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Bonfire of the Nerds
New books dissected over email.
May 18 1999 2:06 PM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Marjorie,

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Your first missive captures the book extremely well, both its strengths and its weaknesses. I'm not sure what I can add!

Turn of the Century is clearly intended to distill the essence of an age--pressing the canonical aspects of fin de siècle society between pages the way botanists preserve flowers. At times while reading it I wanted to re-title it Bonfire of the Nerds, because Andersen tries very hard to do for technology and entertainment in the late '90s what Tom Wolfe's novel did for the New York of the '80s. Most novels have a setting; Turn of the Century wants to be its setting--not just a novel set at the end of the century, but the novel.

Otherwise, why drag us through more than 600 pages of fairly pointless plot? The answer, of course, is that it gives Andersen an excuse to pile one witty observation on top of another. Why distract the reader with a foreground, when the whole point is the gestalt of the background? Maybe this isn't what Andersen had in mind, but that is the impression I am left with.

He almost succeeds. I shudder a bit at saying that because it is the sort of arrogant put-down that book reviewers love to casually toss off. But I can't help but feel that Andersen misses the mark. His witty observations are first-rate, and at many points had me wincing, laughing, or both. Piecewise, his writing is very good, but on the whole there is something lacking. Marjorie, you put it best by turning Andersen on himself, quoting the line about a swirling feast of high inconsequence--it sums up the book quite nicely.

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By the way, the spell checker in Word 2000 does have inconsequence in it--you clearly don't have the beta.

I can't resist saying this because it's just the sort of exchange that Andersen might have put between two characters in Turn of the Century. That the matter turns on the presence of inconsequence makes it all the better. The dilemmas of contemporary life include the imperfections of our technological infrastructure. Spell checkers omit words. Techier-than-thou assholes will one-up you by saying you're not on the latest version, or don't have the beta. The passages where Andersen pits smart, sensible people against the petty foibles and crazy details of modern life are brilliant.

He clearly did his homework--which must have included innumerable hours in West LA restaurants and Hollywood cocktail parties. It's entirely possible he needed to write a 600-page book as a cathartic exercise just to get over the experience! "Achieve closure on this Kurt. Use your weighty but inconsequential observations!" as the character Timothy Featherstone might say.

Most of his details are dead-on, although just as it is clear to me that you don't have the Word 2000 beta, I am positive that Andersen does not have an Iridium phone. At any rate, the ones in the book seem to work a hell of a lot better than mine does.

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Judging a novel by its accuracy is churlish at best, and rather beside the point. Andersen is very successful at weaving some genuine facts with his own fabrications. The resulting mélange is familiar but at the same time something of his own making.

As one example, George and Lizzy are continually hearing slang terms or acronyms they don't understand. Someone Lizzy is trying to hire refers to his MT-BOO, which she later discovers translates as "mean time between other offers." Who these days hasn't been surprised by a new term in conversation? As far as I know, none of these acronyms or slang actually exist in the real world. Andersen has fabricated plausible slang, which his heroes do not understand despite living in the fast lane. Readers can't help but sympathize with the heroes, since they can't possibly understand them either. And, since Andersen has made selective use of real-world facts, readers will be left with the lingering suspicion that somewhere, in Seattle or Palo Alto or other watering holes of the media elite, they might really talk about their MT-BOOs.

I must confess that I was surprised when I found the passages with my name in it, because it's the first time I have ever found myself name-dropped in a novel. I was shocked. Then flattered. Then taken aback with the paranoid thought that my friends at Slate had sent me a doctored set of galleys with my name inserted! I'm pleased to see your copy reads as mine did.

In a way, dropping my name is emblematic of Andersen's approach. I am, after all, a relatively minor and obscure name to drop. Everybody who reads the book will have heard of Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, and the like. But what percentage of the Turn of the Century readers will know Nathan Myhrvold? Most will think that he is just as much a confabulation as Featherstone or MT-BOO. There can't be more than a fraction of one percent that will know it is a real name. But that is precisely the tiny fraction Andersen wants to impress--showing us he knows his stuff.

At any rate, he did impress one reader--me! It's fair to wonder if I harbor some lingering grudge from being labeled a "merry chatterer" in one place and mildly lampooned elsewhere in the book as an "amateur paleontologist with his own private jet." The answer is that I am very flattered.

Anxious to see your next installment,

Nathan

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Marjorie Williams is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Nathan Myhrvold is the chief technology officer of Microsoft. This week they discuss Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century (click "> here to buy the book).