Kurt Andersen’s new novel ‘True Believers’ revisits the 1960s

Heroine’s breaking silence about radical episode invites drama

With his new novel True Believers (Random House) Kurt Andersen takes stock of the roiling 1960s through the eyes of a fictional woman whose coming-of-age then unfolded in predictable and inexplicable ways.

Through his narrator, attorney and law dean Karen Hollander, he explores the psyche and culture of holding secrets and coming clean in the modern era of relativism. This accomplished older woman is writing a tell-all memoir reviewing her own revolutionary life forged from social awakening and feminism.

Andersen, always the sage observer and commentator, analyzes the social-psychological-cultural imperatives of whatever era he writes about. The dawn of the new millennium in Turn of the Century. The mid-19th century in Heyday. The 1960s this time around. His elegant storytelling rises to his witty critique and thorough research. Its warm reception matches that of his previous two novels.

"One of the things I wanted to do I hadn't seen done in novels about the '60s," he says, "is have the long view, have it not entirely set in the '60s but also have like, OK, what do we think about it now? And also see it in all of its thrilling, exciting ways, not just the kind of romantic established ways of seeing it. Seeing it in its problematic ways as well."

Andersen agrees with the general perception of the '60s as a watershed decade.

"I think it was one of those historical inflection points certainly in the United States and in the West generally. Absolutely it was. As I thought about it and really since I've written the book and continued thinking about it, the ways in which it is popularly imagined to have been – as the moment that changed everything – those are true but I think that only tells part of the story. I think we are only now seeing the various impacts and I cant pretend to say them all.

"But certainly in my lifetime there was nothing and probably will be nothing like it."

It marks the first time he's used a first-person narrator and female protagonist. He has Hollander grow up a James Bond nut and his author's conceit uses her adolescent pretend spy romps as primer for a rash act.

A Bond fan himself, Andersen hosts a 7 p.m. Film Streams screening of the first 007 film, Dr. No, on August 17. He's doing a post-screening Q&A and book signing.

Andersen being Andersen, he views vintage Bond through a considered lens.

"The Bond films were version 1.0 of so many of the blockbusters of today," he says. "Obviously the Bourne and Mission Impossible films, but all big, hyper-marketed movies with automatic weapons and explosions and ultra-villains, like the new Batman. Before the Bond films, adults didn't go to comic-book-y movies. And as with Karen Hollander, I think their influence runs deeper and more subtly than their influence on other movies. The way we think about international travel and airports and gadgets and brands and even national security policy."

His book's not an espionage tale but he's winning praise for integrating elements of that genre with others. Animating it is Hollander's disclosure of the high crime she and her accomplices schemed as radicalized college students caught up in '60s' protest fervor. The title proves ironic as she discovers some comrades were not the true believers they appeared. Besides, she and her fellow survivors occupy a far different mental-political space today than four decades before.

Moving back and forth from the near future to the past, the book overlays the reflective nostalgia of her memoir with her angst-ridden investigation into her and her coconspirators' motives. Their impassioned choices had unforeseen consequences then. As she peels back the onion skin 40-plus years later, new consequences arise. Just as the plot she helped devise was fraught with danger, so is breaking the secret's silence. Thus, the story sometimes reads like a thriller.

Her decision to confess, Andersen says, is about "ending cowardice rather than achieving courage, if you get that distinction." It's part assuaging guilt and part taking responsibility. He's often asked if her mea culpa is his way of blasting the in vogue social media impulse to put everything out there.   

"People are revealing lots of information about themselves but I kind of doubt people are keeping fewer secrets today than they did 50 years ago. I don't think for all the sense of transparency and self-exposure that has changed so much."

Memoirs can be something all together different though.

"To the degree this is a tell-all memoir she's definitely in this era of revealing all, yet on the other hand people like Hilary Clinton who write memoirs don't really reveal much, you know. So in some ways this is a dream version of a memoir that a real person of Karen's stature would write and probably never will."

He has Hollander try hard convincing us hers is a reliable voice because "she genuinely considers herself to be reliably truthful and because the novel to come is so much about the inherently fragmentary and incomplete nature of what any of us believe to be true," adding, "Also because it was fun for me to play from the get-go with the idea that all first-person narrators are inherently unreliable."

Understandably, he says "trying to channel this woman for the 2 1/2 years I was writing this was interesting," particularly because he modeled Hollander after real life women he admires. For example, she's pushing 70 but enjoys an active sex life and still gets off keeping alive intrigue.

"There have been feisty, interesting, vital women of a certain age written about in the past God knows but I think probably there are more of them of her age, of this first generation of Baby Boomers. One of the good things the '60s did was allow people not to decide at 30 or 40, OK, I'm old now and therefore I live according to certain protocols of how old people are supposed to live. I wanted to convey that.

"One of the reasons I wanted to tell it through a woman is that, yeah, men's lives have changed in the last 45 years, but not like women's lives and not like ambitious educated women like her. I mean, it's changed dramatically. She's essentially the first generation of women in this new feminist era, and it was really tough."

Andersen says he's partly to blame if some read Hilary Clinton into Hollander, though that wasn't his intent. "Once I finished the book and people asked me what's the book about they would say, 'Oh, like Bernadine Dohrn (Weather Underground terrorist).' and I'd say, 'No, not at all, not like any of these famous radicals.' Then I would say, 'She's more like Hilary Clinton if Hilary hadn't married Bill,' and people got that and that became my shorthand for her."

At least two women did serve as models though.

"Not to drop her name but I was friends with Nora Ephron and when she died a lot of her friends and I got together talking about her and marveling what she was able to do. She was always a hero of mine and indeed when somebody asked me the other day, 'Who inspired you to write Karen?', I realized I had thought of her while I was writing. She's definitely one of the two or three women who inspired me as a figure, as a woman of that generation who's lived this extraordinary life.

"The other person who's lived a very different life is the writer Susanna Moore, a woman of that age who has lived this extraordinary life and done these extraordinary things and is no way a conventional old person. She still is as vital and funny and sometimes outrageous as when I first met her 20 years ago."

Andersen's satisfied he's fully made the transition from journalist to novelist.

"With a third (novel) I feel that I can be legitimately identified as a novelist, and a lot of people have liked all three of these books, so that's good.

"Also there's that now famous 10,000 hours thing where, you know, when you do something for 10,000 hours you achieve mastery. I don't know about mastery but it suddenly occurred to me right before this book came out, Yeah I've spent more than 10,000 hours writing novels at this point, so I hope, I think I'm better at it."

Read more of Leo Adam Biga's work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.

posted at 04:15 pm
on Monday, August 06th, 2012

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