Philip Roth, one of the great American novelists, lamented that the American writer “has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally, it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s meager imagination. The actuality is continuously outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Roth wrote that in 1960.
Noah Hawley, showrunner for the FX series Fargo and Legion and author of five previous novels, echoes and magnifies Roth’s complaint. As he said in an interview with Esquire, “My job as a novelist is to reflect the world that I live in. What do I do when the world I live in becomes ridiculous?”
Hawley is thinking about the 1960s as well—specifically, 1967, his birth year. He says so in the Author’s Note that begins his big 2022 novel, Anthem. But the note must be read as a part of, not a preface to, the novel itself. “The year 1967,” he tells us, “must—to most non-53-year-old human beings today…feel like ancient history.”
Then, he lists why:
Before…the Vietnam War, before the Summer of Love and the Manson murders, before Watergate, before the Great Recession of the 1970s, before the Reagan revolution and trickle-down economics, before the personal computer and the internet, before the first George Bush presidency and the second, before globalization, before the ATM, before the Clinton impeachment and the Obama presidency, before the cell phone, the tablet, before Siri and Alexa, before the global financial crash, before the gig economy, before the resurgence of nationalism, before the 45th president, before COVID-19, before Apple, before Google, before Amazon.
His point is that he feels old. But for me, the underlying point reiterates Roth, but more so: how can Hawley hope to compete with, much less add to, the narrative and symbolic weight of this accrued, accelerated history? How can the imagination of the novelist, in a world of viral tweets and viral, well, viruses, of 9/11/01 and 1/6/21, hope to write something that can artistically reflect, much less out-imagine, our own ludicrous reality?
The short answer is: he can’t.
Anthem, in keeping with its title, strives to be a Big Book, a Way We Live Now book, a Great American Novel. The opening line after the Author’s Note reads, “There they are, America’s future”: an elementary school music recital. So the novel creates an appropriately post-virus, quasi-apocalyptic landscape for Hawley to assemble his Avengers—or maybe Dungeons & Dragons-style adventurers: Claire, Simon, Story, Louise, Samson, Bathsheba, a boy called The Prophet, and more, plus a large supporting cast of adults. The kids don’t know each other at first, but chapter by chapter, one by one, they come together by virtue of serendipity, revelation, and maybe a little plot magic. They eventually find themselves on the road for a rescue mission that feels like Jacobean revenge drama but without the consequences. Hawley swings big.
He misses. But the effort is worth analyzing.
Let’s go back.
Having spent a decade thinking about the shape of literature and popular culture after 9/11, culminating in my book, American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror, I read Anthem with great interest. What will the post-COVID novel look like? Will it use COVID as a framing device and narrative springboard, like the Decameron, by Giovanni Boccaccio, after the Black Plague, written around the 1350s? Like Daniel Dafoe’s Journal of the Plague Year in 1772, a mixture of fact and fiction, written after the Great Plague of London? As a metaphor for the illness of encroaching fascism, like Albert Camus’ 1947 The Plague—or at least, I used to read it metaphorically. Now, maybe it’s also about an actual plague.
To outdo reality, Hawley combines three approaches. First, he appropriates reality, but bigger, reality on steroids. His novel opens with a killer virus, but after COVID, it’s not a biological one: it’s a spreading spate of teen suicides: “The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest on record… Why would they do that? Why couldn’t I stop them? What else could we have done? All the fundamental questions of human existence born from a solitary, self-annihilating act.” In Anthem, COVID-19 serves as a harbinger of the social discord that emerged around masking and distancing guidelines; after several references early on as a segue into the suicides, it is jettisoned.
Then, between a large and rotating cast of characters and types, Hawley tries to cover not just the problems ripped from the headlines, since not enough people even read newspapers, but everything that has trended on Twitter for the past two years. For a work of paper and ink, this is an Extremely Online novel. Teen suicide is just the beginning (a sentence I never thought I’d write).
The novel incorporates data on climate catastrophe—the very first sentence, in that Author’s Note, is “This book contains math.” The world, not just Australia and California, is on fire—disaster on steroids. The J6 anuary 2021 insurrection at the US Capitol returns, but more violent, national, and spreading—jingoist violence on steroids. There is a Supreme Court nominee confirmation hearing, but on steroids, leading to much worse than our reality’s televised spectacle and division.
The sprawling cast is a racially diverse, LQBTQIA+ identified rainbow coalition of brave, plucky teens.
We hear descriptions of extreme wealth inequality, extreme police responses, and extreme gun violence. There is a Jeffrey Epstein-based character, and extreme scenes of child abuse, kidnapping, and imprisonment because this version of Epstein is not just a millionaire but a billionaire, who demands several young girls every day—Epstein on steroids. All that, and more, and a Sackler family stand-in and a prescription drug empire—at the risk of a pharmaceutically unsound metaphor, opioids on steroids.
For all the topic stuffing and hyperbole, Anthem still can’t compete with a social media scroll for any day of 2020 to the present. That leads to Hawley’s second tack, which is to incorporate not just current events, but popular culture. Unlike the characters in many novels, his cast is book- and film-savvy: one renames himself Randall Flagg, the most frequently recurring character throughout the Stephen King connected universe. A group of domestic terrorists refers to themselves as the Tyler Durdens, of Fight Club. Another character calls herself Katniss; another, Cyclops; yet another, Legolas.
Even characters that don’t directly and consciously appropriate their names have the heavy hand of an author who wants us to see quest and fantasy parallels. One character called the Troll, whose chapter prominently features emojis, is, naturally, a troll of the online variety, but worse—he helps procure victims for the Epstein surrogate. Another is Gabe Lin, who forms an amoral security company, and refers to himself on his vanity license plate as G0bl1n; two others are the Orci twins, recalling Tolkien’s orcs. They guard the E.L. Mobley, the Epstein character, who is nearly always referred to as The Wizard.
But Hawley’s final tack to outdo reality is to include his self-aware “I” of the Author’s Note at several points throughout Anthem. Halfway through, he practically quotes Philip Roth, in almost the same language as in his interview: “Your author would like to apologize for the world he created. He knows it is ridiculous. He is simply doing his best to re-create reality as he has experienced it.”
As Hawley continues in that same interview,
I started to think about Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is a fictionalized version of his own World War II experience in which he, the author, was a character. The main character had become unstuck in time, so it was a science fiction book. At one point, Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped and taken to another planet. These elements shouldn’t work together, but they do. The book has this simple but powerful morality to it—and humor, as well.
Anthem also borrows Slaughterhouse-Five’s conceit in its subtitle, “The Children’s Crusade”. The aspiration is fair and apt. But Anthem, for all its heft, can’t pull off Slaughterhouse-Five’s mixture, and metaphor, for trauma. After serving in the army and surviving the firebombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut wrote and rewrote Slaughterhouse-Five for the next two decades, amassing thousands of draft pages, before he was ready to publish it. By the time he did, it was a small book, less than half of Anthem’s size, and Vonnegut, or at least his semi-autobiographical surrogate narrator, calls it a failure, “because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre.”
How could it succeed, if his goal—published as it was during the Vietnam War—was to put an end to war? As one character laments, “‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?’ What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.”
But Slaughterhouse-Five is also a masterpiece. Vonnegut needed a way to write a war story, his war story, without inadvertently, inevitably, glorifying war, creating heroes where he felt none should be. To do it, Slaughterhouse-Five takes apart its own story, through its narrative intrusion and nonlinear—as the subtitle puts it, “schizophrenic”—narrative.
Hawley does no such thing. He interrupts the story occasionally, sure. He throws the phrase “Boo phooey” into its opening and closing, a seeming tip to Vonnegut’s “So it goes.” Yet “Boo phooey” does nothing but express futility, while “So it goes”, repeated after anyone or anything dies, reminds the reader of the book’s terrible death toll. Anthem is mostly cinematic and, in keeping with its title, rousing: it features escapes, shootouts, mistaken and changed identities, jaunty dialogue, suspense, and intrigue. It’s a nail-biter; it has cliff-hangers; it’s a page-turner. It reads its pop-culture antecedents like The Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games reverently.
For almost any other book, these would be compliments. But here, it’s where Hawley goes wrong. By building up his heroes and quest narrative, he defangs the novel’s latent critique: all the social problems of his world become literal obstacles for our young heroes to overcome, the building blocks of an exciting adventure rather than political problems that individuals can’t solve by wisecracking, speeding, and shooting.
Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim isn’t a hero or an antihero. He’s sometimes ridiculous, often sympathetic, mostly powerless, and always human. Vonnegut spoils his own story’s arc and momentum through his digressions, stylistic tics, and time travel conceit so that there are no stakes, no reveals, and no real narrative arc, by design. He gives away the whole story in the first proper chapter, down to the last line. To dismantle the War Story, Vonnegut is willing to dismantle the story itself. Its failure is its triumph.
Story looms large in Anthem as well, so much so that one of the major characters is even named Story. But why? For all of the fourth-wall breakage, for all of the topicality, for all of the pop-culture smarts, for all the obvious, showy intelligence, for all its heft, for a book titled Anthem, the message seems small: the children… are the future? But we knew that. Whitney Houston told us, in 1986.
In the end, Kurt Vonnegut didn’t try to outdo reality. Neither, despite his commentary, did Philip Roth. Noah Hawley is still trying. Novelists should not have to compete with reality, as Roth in fact understood. After the world’s experience with the 2020 pandemic and beyond, how can they? Interestingly, Hawley’s FX series Legion, with its forays into the unreal and impossible, its slippage between reality and illusion, actually grasps this. Maybe his next novel will as well.
Kavadlo, Jesse. American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures. ABC Clio. September 2015.
Roth, Philip. “Writing American Fiction”. (1961). Reading Myself and Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. New York: Bantam, 1969.
Westenfeld, Adrienne. “Noah Hawley Is Venturing Into the Absurd With Anthem”. Esquire. 4 January 2022.