Nerd Studies 101

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Nerd Studies 101

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Nerd Studies 101
New books dissected over email.
May 20 1999 4:30 PM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Marjorie,

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Ah, so its out on the table openly. You admit your past prejudice and systematic persecution of my people ;-)!

We nerds used to be the shy, asocial kids that the self-appointed cool kids would tease. We did well in school, but were far less successful in the schoolyard or other social realms. I say we because I absolutely was in this category myself--a prime example of a nerd/geek or whatever other synonym you choose.

Having endured their jeers, it is delightful now to see the comeuppance the cool kids have, some 30 years later, when they open the newspaper and discover what became of us. Whether it is an inexorably fated consequence of technology, or some funny alignment of the stars, the fact is that we are living in the Golden Age for nerds. Shy, socially dysfunctional misfits with sufficient intelligence can not only be multimillionaires, but worse yet (from a grown-up cool-kid perspective), are in positions of status and power. Which is to say that it is a meritocracy--which is a scary thing to entrenched elites. People with good ideas can rise very quickly in the computer industry--it doesn't matter what we wear, or how glib we are with the boss. In fact, the boss is one of us.

And among the grown-up former cool kids who have this reaction, the most extreme cases seem to be big-shot New Yorkers. It doesn't matter which subspecies of big shot New Yorkers--literary, business, society, or Wall Street people--anybody who is a big shot within the tribal groups that roam Manhattan has this reaction. Because these are the folks who not only were the cool kids in their class but then went on to succeed in what they thought was the center of power. They clawed their way to whatever acclaim they have in the most competitive city on earth. And now some geek from the hinterlands has them trumped! Is there no justice?

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Before you fret too much, consider that the old geeks (of which I am a member) who found fame and fortune in software are now seeing much later arrivals do the same to us. The new Internet billionaires are far wealthier, more famous, and more influential than people who have been in the industry for decades. In fact many of my compatriots in the industry whine about the Johnny-come-lately Internet billionaires in the same way that the Eastern intelligentsia has whined about us. And guess what, in a couple years they too will be one-upped.

When I first opened Turn of the Century , I half expected this to be the theme, or at least an undercurrent--after all, Andersen is a card-carrying New York-intelligentsia big shot. Instead, I found that he did a remarkable thing in creating a book that was more complex and interesting. The witty observations are aimed at all comers, lampooning both coasts. Andersen is not transparently or heavy-handedly an old-media, anti-Internet bigot--he is much too sophisticated for that. Instead, he implicitly created a vision of a very anti-Internet world. Which is fair enough--this is after all fiction, and he is for God's sake the author. But in that case don't claim to be a master of verisimilitude or keen of observer of the way the world actually is.

Back to Lizzie. I agree that she is a likable, well-rounded character, whose internal sense of values might make her blush at $31 million, even if it was a small deal by other standards. It is not out of character--in fact, I think that Andersen is at his best with Lizzie. She is smart, sensible, and seems to be the designated adult. Common sense seems to be her forte. As such she makes a great foil for the crazy goings on around her.

George, on the other hand isn't a believable character. On one hand, he is frequently making the brilliant observations that we have both commented on. In fact, Andersen isn't content making him shine on his own--he also has many of the smartest things that Lizzie says be attributed to George. He even has a very smart and sensible woman so in love with him that she overlooks his petty boorishness.

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Which means he's gotta be a smart guy right? In fact, not just smart but wise and insightful. Right? We are told that he was once a serious journalist, and was even martyred in the cause. So why is the guy so empty and unbelievable? Where are his motivations? And why is he such an asshole? He is jealous of everybody--including his own smart wife and his friends. I just didn't get it. George is a master of the bon mot, but a mystery inside. It's as if Andersen didn't have enough energy left to flesh out the character after making all those witty pretense-puncturing observations.

The other weak aspect of the book is the plot, such as it is. First, there really isn't much of a story--as you pointed out in your first posting, but I guess one could argue that the minimal plot lets the backdrop of society gain prominence. Even so, I felt that the final quarter of the book was clumsy and abrupt--characters exit suddenly and the crises that have been brewing for 400 or 500 pages are solved, deus ex machina in a couple pages. You'd think that with more than 650 pages to work with you wouldn't run out of room to do a proper ending.

Damn! After saying that I must confess I've run out of room myself. Over to you, Marjorie.

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).