Desperately seeking superiority, and other elitist machinations

July 04, 1999|By GEORGE F. WILL

NEW YORK -- Manhattanite Lizzie Zimbalist, a high-tech entrepreneur, and her husband George Mactier, a television producer making do on $16,575 a week, drive a Toyota Land Cruiser. He wanted a Land Rover "but Lizzie vetoed it -- her Anglophilia phobia."

This sample of Lizzie's absorption with herself, a wispy self consisting of a bundle of attitudes about attitudes, comes 276 pages into Kurt Andersen's novel "Turn of the Century." Readers who persevere to reach page 542 -- still 117 pages from the end -- find George "in a Barcalounger covered in lush, ocher leather -- an ironic Barcalounger, no doubt, although the impeccable upholstery muddles the irony."

Oh, there is some doubt.

Lizzie remembers when the term "postmodern," sprinkled through conversation, was "the smartness-helper," infusing an appearance of gravitas. "Irony" does that for Mr. Andersen, who thinks every incongruity, however banal, such as an elegant Barcalounger, is ironic.

In this city, where "buzz" -- chatter among, and about the chattering classes -- validates, Andersen's novel has succeeded by not succeeding. Here at publishing's epicenter, people are wondering why the novel is not selling better. Their puzzlement, like the book itself, reveals the provincialism of those who most condescend to the provinces, understood as America outside of a few New York and Los Angeles ZIP codes.

"Turn of the Century" is a Seinfeldean novel, long-running hut not about much. There are many episodes, involving high finance, high technology and low culture, and the plot, such as it is, is lubricated by constant japes -- some of them quite witty -- masquerading as social criticism.

There is the "scorched-earth pleasantness" of waiters in the mind of restaurants that serve $9 bottles of granite-filtered Montana microbrewery beer. And an elementary school named Wee Winners. And a Chopper Channel broadcasting nothing hut car chases and other shots from news helicopters. But such stuff amounts to a lounge act for people who want to become intellectuals by listening to lounge acts.

The story is a vehicle for Mr. Andersen's observations that would seem more acidic ff he seemed to actually disapprove of George and Lizzie's world. So the book becomes a cold, coagulating stew of brand names (carpacclo from Balducei's, the couch from Biedermeier, the coffee table a Corbu) and trendy patois ("focus group" and "calendar" are verbs, "deliverable" is a noun).

The book is a protracted display of knowingness. Mr. Andersen is not disapproving when he says George "cannot abide dumb snobbery, easy snobbery, snobbery 10 or 20 years behind the curve." But the book is the unthinking person's guide to slothful snobbery.

That is, snobbery not even redeemed by the snob's sincerity. It is the snobbery of those who, desperate for a sense of superiority, embrace oxymoronic standards --standards that confer exclusivity only because they are so evanes: cent that only the nimblest status-seekers can keep up wlth them.

Perhaps "Turn of the Century" was supposed to flatter readers by admitting them to the club of the especially aware. But aware of what?

Nearing the novel's halfway point (page 302), Lizzie "has begun to see all the Bel Air and Park Avenue wanting as a perverse romanticism, vanity and self-advancement pursued so monom-niacally that they turn inside out and become a kind of naivete, the naivete of children." But Lizzie never outgrows the infantilism of unassuageable status anxiety.

Mr. Anderson's task was to get large numbers of adults to read a novel that does not have a true grown-up among its characters only permanent adolescents fixated on fashion, the permanent impermanence. In politics, polls measure fashions, but Mr. Andersen's hook arrives too late, as the Clinton era, of which it is symptomatic, fades.

Novels often succeed because of word-of-mouth enthusiasm among the small but talkative minority of Americans who buy hard-back books. It seems not many among that minority care to read about the tiny universe of Mr. Andersen's characters, who think like this:

"Among people who consort with the powerful and the celebrated, the flattering standard introduction is Do you know, never I'd like you to meet. We are all members of the international fraternal order of the somewhat famous. We've met before, haven't we, in some green room or at some gala dinner?"

Readers this summer are curling up with someone they've met before.

The book atop bestseller lists is Thomas Harris' "Hannibal," a reprise of Harris' character Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter from "Silence of the Lambs."

Lecter is an aberration. George and Lizzie embody some persons' aspirations. Which makes them more disturbing than he.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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