The Good Parts

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

The Good Parts

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

The Good Parts
New books dissected over email.
May 21 1999 10:00 AM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Nathan,

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I can see that we're both puzzling over one of those annoying English 101 questions--the kind that's supposed to be too naive for current criticism: Is George the author, or not? How much authorial distance does Andersen have? It seems like a fair question to ask precisely because Andersen is so indulgent about passing along every little quirk of George's sensibilities; he takes his taste so seriously. On the one hand, that satiric name (Mac-tier, get it?) seems calculated to underline the author's ironic distance. But on the other hand, George's limitations so mirror the unintentional limitations of the book. George's entire approach to life is summed up by his meditation on assigned parking spaces at movie studios, which occasion this thought: "Having the perks but preserving (and conveying) a regular-guy indifference to them--that's the trick." Here is our entire generational sensibility, as Andersen sees it, in a nutshell, and you just know that the thought balloon over Andersen's head, when he wrote that line, said, "Good boy, George."

Since this is my last entry, I looked back over the week to see if there were any major topics we missed. I note that we haven't even touched on the complete absence, from these characters' lives, of any concern about politics. Andersen notes, in a quick aside, that "national politics is a dying brand category, like organ meats and typewriters." This strikes me as a very accurate reflection of the media-insider outlook. But scratch a cynic, and you might come up with a real sentimentalist: I was amused--almost touched--by a funny passage about George's partner Emily's becoming disillusioned with Clinton because she went to a White House dinner where "she watched Clinton ignore George Kennan, sitting two people away from him, in favor of Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was across the table talking about Annette Benning and robot mice."

Now, what could be squarer than this young-fogey reverence for one of the last of the living Wise Men? Why should (and how could?) George Kennan somehow transcend the meretricious priorities these young power-mongers bring to everything else? I thought it was sweet that Andersen still bothers to try to score these Serious Guy status points about politics, and in such an old-fashioned way.

Ah, well. I thought I'd close with some kinder words for the book. Looking back, I don't regret any of my judgments about it, but I do think I skipped a few of its virtues. One is that this is the rare novel that concerns itself with work. Despite our generation's famous obsessiveness over work, our offices are almost invisible in American storytelling, unless you count the sitcom form. I do think we should give Andersen points for wading into this, even if we fault him for never coming up for air. And as one reviewer (I can't remember which) noted, he's very good at describing what it's like to be a boss. Or at least, I thought so, despite the fact that I fled bosshood as early as I could. He's especially good at describing the way that for a woman being a boss means you also have to be everyone's mother. (You ask why I fled bosshood early?)

And he did make me laugh. I liked the joke about how there are two boys in George's son's class named Griffin--"called Griffin B. and Griffin L., like bacterial strains." I loved the term "show biz heliotropism," for the unnatural way that conversing people who are being taped for television talk with their faces partially turned toward the camera. And I especially liked the party where George eagerly joins a group of younger, computer-employed people who are discussing UNIX; his eagerness has to do with his mistaken belief that they're having a lively conversation about eunuchs.

But we'll save that for another time. It's been fun, Nathan.

Cheers,
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).