Merry Shippers and MT-BOOs

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Merry Shippers and MT-BOOs

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Merry Shippers and MT-BOOs
New books dissected over email.
May 18 1999 6:11 PM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Nathan,

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It's worse than you think: I'm using Word 95, because I couldn't stand the leering paper clip that came with Word 97. (God, I love writing for Slate. Trust me, Nathan, more than a fraction of one percent of the kinds of people who read Kurt Andersen have heard of Nathan Myhrvold. And 95 percent of them would love to complain in person to him about the paper clip. There: You took that very nicely.)

Seriously, though, you've raised an interesting point: The fact that Andersen's book is assiduously built to appeal to a very narrow, very well educated, very wealthy demographic. It's a demographic that probably could plausibly be summarized--no offense--as People Who Have Heard of Nathan Myhrvold. (PWHHNMs?) Andersen's describing a very small, self-regarding, self-referential elite, and mostly he's doing it for the amusement of the same small, self-regarding, self-referential elite, which is invited to a smug laugh (a little one) at how small and self-regarding and self-referential it is. It all seems a damn sight too cozy. I'm a PWHHNM too, of course--hell, I work for Graydon Carter, who was Kurt Andersen's former partner in Spy magazine. I write about a lot of media people in Vanity Fair. Still, I was bothered by how airless the book came to seem. Wouldn't you like to think that a biting satirical look at power at the turn of the century would incite a few blood feuds? Or at least a few affronted letters to the editor? When Wolfe satirizes a stratum of society, it stays satirized; when Kurt Andersen does, its response is--according to yesterday's Times--to show up at his book party.

Phew--got that off my chest. I liked your picking up on Andersen's made-up bits of insider jargon. It's one of the things he does beautifully. (True to life, the minor character who comes up with MT-BOO turns out to be an overpriced screw-up.) The resonance of his setting the book less than a year into the future comes from how perfectly apt his inventions are; they're more like precognition than satire. The things he anticipates, include the auctioning of the rights to name hurricanes (Aaron Spelling, he tells us, is the top bidder for the letters A and C), and the debut of a 24-hour, C-SPAN-esque celebrity channel, "raw coverage of celebrity events twenty-four hours a day--movie premieres, Broadway first nights, cocktail party fund-raisers for Los Angeles County supervisors, charity softball games in Westlake, publicists' wedding receptions in East Hampton ..." I especially loved the software Raging Id, "a plain-speech search engine that is supposed to enable people anywhere in the vicinity of their computers to blurt out desires--I want a pound of pancetta overnighted from Umbria and a gift certificate for Pilates training in Sherman Oaks! ... I want to see the Hindenburg blowing up!--and have their wishes fulfilled instantly." Every time we come across one of these, we get a little thrill--ooooh, that's so tacky; yeah, that feels about 8 months tackier than where I'm living today.

The one place where this funhouse resonance didn't work for me was, of course, in the area I don't know much about. All the episodes set in Silicon Alley and Redmond were like introductory courses for me. So I'd love to hear from you: Does Andersen have computer culture down as perfectly as he seems to? Is Seattle really like "an all-male college where everyone is majoring in the same subject"? Kirkland is described as "a suburb [Lizzie] understands to be Pelham crossed with Santa Monica." True? Is Redmond, similarly "White Plains crossed with Encino"? What did you think of Andersen's riff on why Redmond and Santa Clara are the Leeds and Birmingham, rather than the Florence and Venice, of the 21st century?

One of my favorite expressions in the book--wholly new to me--was "shipper." As in, "Bruce didn't tell me you were such a shipper," delivered witheringly to Lizzie by the abstract computer genius she won't hire, since she can't for the life of her see any product coming out of his patents. If this word is one of Andersen's inventions, I don't want to know. ...

Is there such a thing as a Merry Shipper?

Best,
Marjorie

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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).