The public intellectual has become a rare creature in America, but Kurt Andersen has helped keep it from going extinct. He co-founded Spy magazine, was editor of New York magazine and now writes pieces like Time’s 2011 person of the year story, the Protester. These days, though, he mostly splits his time between hosting “Studio 360,” broadcast weekly to 160 NPR stations, and writing the occasional bestselling novel. His newest book, “True Believers” (Random House: 447 pages, $27), came out Tuesday.
The novel is about Karen Hollander, a law school dean and former Supreme Court nominee, who sets out to write an autobiography that will reveal her most deeply held secret, a radical 1960s past. Describing Hollander, Andersen jokes that she’s like Hillary Clinton, “if Hillary never met Bill and became a lawyer ... and had this secret in her life that presumably Hillary does not.”
In alternating chapters, the book works its way into that secret from two directions. First, there is Hollander’s Midwestern childhood, in which she and her two closest friends play elaborate James Bond games based on Ian Fleming’s books. Her granddaughter Waverly gleefully tells her that she invented LARPing before explaining that LARP is an acronym for live-action role playing. That’s from the other thread, based in the present-ish 2013. As the secretly radical Hollander unpacks the narrative of her past, her adored teenage granddaughter is openly involved in public protests.
“I finished a draft before Occupy Wall Street existed,” Andersen says. “I basically finished the book, and suddenly, holy cow! There’s this thing called Occupy.” That meant, on the one hand, some rapid revising — Waverly’s radicalism took on a name and shape — and on the other, that Andersen had been one step ahead.
“I felt, dare I say, prescient?” he says. It is, indeed, all but predictive. Andersen is uniquely positioned to write so-close-it-comes-true fiction, drawing on his particular experiences analyzing the political and artistic world around him. “The journalist in me, when he is a fiction writer, gets to be a dowser,” he explains.
The lanky Andersen has a self-effacing humility; perhaps it’s his Nebraska upbringing. He is quick to make sure that what he says doesn’t come across as pretentious, and he’s a lively presence on Twitter. Look closely, though, and his quietly elegant suit jacket and rapid turn of thought point to formative years at Harvard — an editor of the Lampoon, class of ‘76.
Like Andersen, his main character, Hollander, is a baby boomer: She is a little older and notably politically precocious. As a child, she learns about civil rights from her family’s African American maid; as a teenager, she’s reading statements from the Students for a Democratic Society. Off at college, she’s rapidly frustrated by what she sees as ineffective public protest. And she’s not alone — her two closest friends, both male, are with her all the way. Andersen convincingly portrays their interlocked world as an intimate echo chamber. Although an individual, she is also a kind of representative.
“She is an extreme example of a certain part of her generation,” Andersen says. “Fancying themselves as revolutionaries, ‘It’s a new world, we’re the first people to see clearly how terrible it is, this is year one.’ And then in the 1970s and ‘80s, if they didn’t become their parents, they at least became bourgeois bohemians and lived life, had marriages and careers.”
If there’s an implicit criticism in that, it’s not a condemnation. Andersen himself is married and has a family — he thanks his daughters and his wife, writer Anne Kreamer, in the book’s acknowledgments, for helping him see “how the other half thinks.” That’s because “True Believers” is written in the first person, from Karen Hollander’s point of view. It allows for some smart novelistic maneuvering — how much are we to believe her? Is she hiding something? But this may seem an unusual choice for a male writer, who includes her falling in love, her thoughts as a mother and grandmother, and being a sexually active 64-year-old. “It’ll be interesting to see how people will react to her voice and her life,” he says.
“Starting with the baby boomer generation, there was this change: You never have to totally grow up. You can still wear jeans. You can still care about sex. You can still get high. You can do so even if you’re this fancy lawyer,” Andersen says. “That’s a new thing.”
Although he didn’t realize it at first, what intrigues the novelist in Andersen are moments of great cultural shift. “Turn of the Century” was set in 1999, “Heyday” was about the 1840s, and now he’s turned to the 1960s. “I was alive when all this was happening, but I was a little kid as opposed to a bigger kid. I had to remind myself of exactly what songs were playing in 1967,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it nostalgia at all. ... The late 1960s were this we-shall-never-see-their-likes-again moment.”
And yet reflections of that moment are returning, as his early draft of “True Believers” and the subsequent Occupy movement show. Even the book’s cover is an echo, a play on the art for Dalton Trumbo’s antiwar classic “Johnny Got His Gun.” So why not just stick to journalism, to tracking cultural change for the New York Times and Time magazine?
“A fiction writer is trying to reveal lives and minds in a way that journalism never can,” Andersen says. “As people have always said: Through making things up you can get to different kinds of truths. I don’t want to be pretentious and use Truth with a capital T, but I think we all keep all kinds of secrets. And by secret I don’t mean I killed a hobo in Reno, but I’m scared of this. ... When we all look at ourselves honestly, we can all see, even the most straightforward of us — and I pride myself on being pretty straightforward — have all kinds of lies, secrets, dissemblings that we do.”
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