- True Believers
- Random House, 448 pp.
Kurt Andersen’s first novel, Turn of the Century, described life in the United States at the dawn of the twenty-first century – which was then a year away. His second novel, Heyday, was a historical novel set in 1848. His most recent, True Believers, is both a historical novel about coming of age in the 1960s, and a speculative novel set in the very near future. According to the novel’s premise, a year or so from now, well-known lawyer Karen Hollander sits down to write a memoir revealing why she removed herself from consideration as a possible Supreme Court justice. Chapters of her memoir alternate with chapters in which she reflects on its writing and on life in these United States in the years 2013-2014. It’s an odd mix, if a lively one. Not only do we learn the secrets of her early flirtation with radicalism, we also get to hear about England defeating Germany in the final game of the 2014 World Cup (clearly, no penalty shootout in that one).
Andersen is unabashedly a novelist of the old school, the pre-Modernist nineteenth-century school which saw the novel as “a large loose bag into which anything would fit,” in the words of Mary McCarthy. As a writer he is far closer in spirit to Charles Dickens than to Henry James or Virginia Woolf. Among more contemporary writers, his exuberant style and broad historical canvas perhaps most recall Tom Wolfe.
Andersen’s enthusiasm for moments of invention just on the edge of plausibility serves both his speculative and satirical impulses. We learn in passing about “the Danish mezuzot botulin murders” and how since the Boca Raton yacht bomb “we’ve all learned of a new acronym (RDD, for radiation dispersal device) and a new radioactive element (californium).” One of the main characters is remaking The Third Man in Kabul with Daniel Craig and Philip Seymour Hoffman. A little closer to the present, Karen Hollander’s son-in-law, the curiously named Jungo Dixit, has urged her 17-year-old granddaughter to join the fencing team and learn to play the theremin “as college admission ploys”; Jungo himself is the founder of an organization called Life Coaches Without Borders, which is exactly what it sounds like.
Andersen has a weakness for lists, or collections, and can’t give us the acronym for a single age-related memory disorder, or secret government agency, without sharing them all. The sections of the novel set in the sixties are a bit more restrained in this sense, but Andersen and his publishers were willing to pay for the rights to the lyrics of “Be My Baby” and “I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire.” However, there’s a rather metafictional moment later on when Karen Hollander notes that it would be far too expensive for her to put Dylan’s “Forever Young” in her memoir.
Andersen also has a weakness for that chestnut of the historical novel, the celebrity cameo. Of course the bespectacled teenager campaigning for Goldwater whom Karen and her friends confront in the streets of Kenilworth, Illinois turns out to be Hillary Rodham Clinton. And of course the “terribly cute” Southerner who asks if Karen’s all right, that day at Yale Law School when the professor brings up FBI infiltration of radical groups and she starts to hyperventilate, turns out to be Bill. The hunky football player her gay friend has a secret crush on while they’re all at Harvard is Tommy Lee Jones (though his roommate Al doesn’t get a mention). Vaclav Havel helps make Karen Hollander’s professional name, but Faye Dunaway only gets a walk-on.
There’s another metafictional moment about three-quarters of the way through, when Karen reflects that she seriously considered writing, not a memoir, but “a novel in which some college students succeed in assassinating Lyndon Johnson in 1968, which triggers a full-scale American police-state crackdown for a decade, like in Chile and Argentina.” Coming across this passage, it was hard to avoid the feeling that here Andersen was perhaps speaking through Karen Hollander; such a work would be right up his alley.
If there’s a downside to this giddy imaginative abundance, it’s that the emotional impact of Karen’s experiences, especially the deaths in her former circle of friends, can seem a bit muted. It’s a little hard to feel that Karen has been much damaged or haunted by her past, when her older self speaks to us with such confidence and self-possession.
The sections of the novel that come most powerfully to life are those in which the teenaged Karen and her two closest friends – future first love Chuck Levy and future nemesis Alex McAllister – run elaborate espionage missions in the suburbs of Chicago, acting out the plots of the James Bond novels they’ve all read and reread. Their adolescent obsession with Bond feels more organic to their future lives, and to the novels’ concerns, than many of the other pop cultural references. Andersen, speaking through the older Karen Hollander, speculates on the ways in which the Bond stories might have functioned as a kind of preview of, or training for, aspects of our lives now. It would be interesting to contrast Andersen’s reading of Bond to that proposed by British writer Simon Winder in his very funny nonfictional study of Bond, The Man Who Saved Britain. Winder sees the Bond books as an exercise not in futurism but in nostlagia, specifically for the British Empire but more generally for a world in which a lone agent could save the day by virtue of knowing which drink to order, and that a gentleman never cheats at cards. (The use of James Bond imagery as a kind of shorthand for Englishness during the London Olympics seems to bear out Winder’s thesis.)
The momentum of the historical narrative sometimes suffers from the constant shifts between past and present (or rather, past and future). Nevertheless, Andersen’s willingness to digress, to reflect in Karen’s voice on the implications of her experiences and perceptions, to cram in yet another observation, yet another illustration of The Way We Live Now (or The Way We Lived Then), ultimately emerges as the novel’s strength. Readers get an ingredient list for home-cooked artisanal tonic water, and learn what it’s like to fly a small plane into a rainbow. (Of course, there’s also an awkward moment when Karen takes a copy of “the London Guardian” along on a Bond mission; UK connections assure me the only prominent paper of that name is the one which had “Manchester” as the front half of its name until 1959.) True Believers may well be described as a “large loose bag”: not, perhaps, the shapeliest thing, but you never know what the author is going to pull out next.