Vanity Fair Minus the Ads

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Vanity Fair Minus the Ads

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

Vanity Fair Minus the Ads
New books dissected over email.
May 23 1999 12:01 PM

Kurt Andersen's Turn of the Century

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Dear Marjorie,

Alas this is our final posting on Turn of the Century. There are many topics we did not touch on, and as you point out, politics is one. I was amused, Marjorie, that you mentioned one of two passages on Emily's view of Clinton. One in which she was disillusioned about his ignoring George Kennan. The other is where it is mentioned that Emily had once performed oral sex on the President in his limousine. I agree that it is rather sweet that Andersen imbues Emily with an intellectual conscience-even more so in the absence of a moral conscience.
There were a lot of things I liked about Turn of the Century, and as you note, it would leave the wrong impression to end our Book Club discussion on a negative note. Andersen has written an entertaining novel full of satiric pokes at our petty foibles. It is, as you pointed out a swarmy feast of a book, and I think a lot of people will spend a few hours of "high inconsequence" with it.
Last winter I was in Hawaii, and as I approached my hotel pool terrace from a distance I could see dozens of the massive blue covers of Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full around the pool. Some were propped up on greasy tanned chests in the act of being read, others were in temporary hiatus, splayed on chaise lounges. As I plopped down with my own set of books (science mainly) I thought to myself "Dammit, Nathan, you're unfashionable again-you didn't accessorize with Tom Wolfe!"
There seems to be a definite market niche for Big Easy-to-Read Novels as the literary equivalent of a resort-a pleasant way to immerse oneself in an alternative reality for a while. In fact, the world's BETRN seem to fall into the same sort of categories as its physical resorts-Stephen King writes the fantasy theme parks of the BETRN, Tom Clancy does the thrilling roller coasters, and as of last winter, at least Tom Wolfe had the Four Seasons beach resorts niche sewn up. Turn of the Century is a BETRN of this ilk, written to appeal mainly to the sort of people who are fascinated by the tribal customs of technology and media.
And let's not leave out people who love witty observations on those cultures. I'm sure that Andersen would have had George Mactier opine on BETRN in a far more clever way that I just did in the paragraphs above. For this sort of commentary, Turn of the Century is the mother lode, containing more per page than any other source-like a year's worth of Vanity Fair minus the ads. Of course, it weighs about as much, but I think that is a badge of honor among BETRN readers.
Some of those folks will get pulled in by the fake jargon and will think that this is the way the world really is, especially those who do not know the technology world. Nobody asks if cars, dogs, or the like really become possessed after reading Stephen King, but it is a measure of Andersen's skill, and his guile, that many folks will think that he really has captured the essence of the technology world.
I cringe somewhat at the prospect of people asking me at a cocktail party if Seattle, or Microsoft, or start-up companies other venues in the book are really like that? Or worse, assuming it is so and carrying forth with a full head of steam on some attitude based on this novel. Fortunately, I almost never go to cocktail parties (that much, at least, of the nerd stereotype is true).

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).