Friday, January 11, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: True Believers by Kurt Andersen

I decided to post about Kurt Andersen's latest novel True Believers. It is a reflective story about one woman's experiences growing up in 1960s America, and how her decisions back then led her to the life she is living now. One decision in particular will follow her out of the 60s, and lead her to another decision that could once again change everything.

The Situation: Karen Hollander has led in incredible career as a celebrated fact, she is so celebrated and accomplished that she was recently nominated for the Supreme Court. She has even written several successful books, but has just now decided to wrote her memoirs. Her fear is that, as she gets older, the memories will be harder to recall with any real clarity. She is already 64, and has heard that memories can really start deteriorating around the age of 65. She admits (or boasts, it is hard to tell which) that she is reliable and conscientious to a fault, which comes in handy as she has kept years worth of notes she has taken, newspaper articles she has clipped out, and mementos she has been given, all to help her remember exactly what happened in 1968. If she is going to publish a tell-all book about the one moment that changed her life (and a few other lives), - the one main thing that motivated her to turn down the nomination to the Supreme Court - then she wants to get it right. As Karen begins telling the story of her life during the 60s, it all seems innocent enough as she describes herself along with her two best friends playing James Bond and executing fake missions that they came up with themselves during a period of being obsessed with the Ian Fleming books. 

The Problem: At some point, when Karen and her friends are no longer just children, and they have long stopped "just playing," things get very real and very quick. Karen and her two friends are now in college in Boston and have picked up a fourth member, and all four of them are part of the larger group of protesters in the 1960s who were against the Vietnam War. By 1968, the Bond villains they pretended to chase and the Bond girls Karen used to pretend to be seem like a supremely childish fantasy as there is the new villain of LBJ and his refusal to stop this war. So instead of pretending, Karen's little group decides to take real actions that have real consequences. Kind of adds a new twist to that line everyone hears as a kid (and sometimes as adults), "It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt."

Genre, Themes, History: This is a reflective coming of age tale told by someone looking back on their life during a specific decade, and in this case, that decade is the 1960s. It could be argued to be a historical fiction novel because of this, but I would also like to argue for it to possibly be an adventure novel or even a political one. From the time Karen and her friends start reading James Bond novels up until high school, they enjoy acting out fake missions throughout Chicago that they have put together themselves. They only stop doing so because, as everyone seems to do when they hit high school, they grow up and decide that this play acting thing is beneath them and, more importantly, they fear they'll be made fun of if anyone from their high school were to find out. But the book also starts to get more political as Karen talks about her teenage years, because this is when the Vietnam War, the rioting, the protesting, and the all-around craziness of the 60s comes in. General themes of luck, religion, and free will are discussed, as well as how different advancements (TV, the Internet, social media) have shaped how teenagers interact and respond today versus how they did when Karen was growing up.

My Verdict: I have very little to take issue with in this book. I enjoyed it a great deal, and especially appreciate the high attention to detail Andersen seemed to put into the story, specifically with the reflective parts that took place in the 60s. It sometimes read more like a memoir than it did a fiction novel, and for those of us too young to know just how crazy the 60s were, I feel like Andersen gives us a pretty fair representation that shows that while things may be crazy in the new millennium, that craziness isn't all that new to our society. The few things I do take issue with are the same things I take issue with in a lot of contemporary novels, and that is the seemingly trendy and popular literary device of having at least one homosexual character, and another that has turned their back on religion...and sometimes they are the same person. I give Andersen more of a pass because in his novel, these two characters are very well-developed and it does not at all seem like something he just wrote in there because everyone else is doing it. Andersen also puts them in the 1960s backdrop, which immediately gives these characters a different sort of depth than I have seen in other contemporary novels. However, everyone else is doing it, so that makes it hard to look past it either way. Even so, I enjoyed the book immensely and learned way more about the 1960s and James Bond books and movies than I ever thought I wanted to. The additional historical knowledge alone made the book worth it.

My Favorite Moment: When Karen admits that she and her revolution minded friends weren't as revolutionary as they thought themselves to be at the time. In reality, they were teenagers that just happened to grow up in the 1960s. And like every teenager throughout the history of time, they thought they had it all figured out, only to find out they don't, and acting like they did was going to cost them.

My Favorite Character: This was difficult for me since this is a mostly coming of age novel, and pre-teens/teenagers have the capacity to annoy me...especially self-righteous ones who think they're the only ones who truly "get it." So I chose Karen's sometimes boyfriend, Stewart, who is basically able to dig up the most hidden background information on pretty much anyone. He won't even say words and phrases like "FBI" or "CIA" out loud in public, can have what basically amounts to lie-detecting software installed on his phone at any time while having a conversation with you, and is the type to use disposable cell phones for certain types of conversations. Basically, Karen grew up to have a relationship with a very Bond-like person.

Recommended Reading: If I had read any of the Bond novels I would recommend one of them here, but I haven't, so I guess I really can't do that. So instead I will suggest Coming of Age in Mississippi by Anne Moody, an actual memoir written by an African-American woman who participated in sit-ins in the 1960s. I actually had to read this book for an intro history course and ended up enjoying it a great deal. It is a great first-hand account written from the perspective of a black person.

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