Review: True Believers, by Kurt Andersen

True Believers
by Kurt Andersen
Random House
July 10, 2012
448 pgs
Kurt Andersen's True Believers, new from Random House last month, is written as the memoir of a woman with a more than colorful past. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, Karen Hollænder (or Hollander, as she's known later in life) had a midwest upbringing and a Cambridge education which led to her work as an attorney, a law school dean and, most recently, a potential nomination to the Supreme Court. But she turns down the latter even before it's truly offered and goes on a campaign to revisit her past all because of a dark secret she's been harboring since the late sixties.

As a teenager, Hollander and her friends were, as I'm sure many teenagers were, obsessed with the dashing mystery that was James Bond. The juxtaposition of her memories of their playacting against the memories of the actual crime they set out to commit later in life is marvelous. But any time the action is supplanted with fact-listing or present-day events, the momentum slows, and the novel suffers.

The problem seems to be the format of the memoir as a whole. Andersen fails to capture the autobiographical style and the story drags. What could be a very relevant picture of innocence as radicalism in today's political climate reads instead like a rather dull un-nuanced picture of the baby-boomer era. The author has, whether intentional or not, set Karen Hollander up as a kind of Briony Tallis. She's done wrong. She knows she's done wrong. So she writes about it and dredges up the past and tries to atone for her mistakes.

But the difference is that, at the end of McEwan's Atonement, you (assuming you have a heart in your body) have your heart wrenched out and Briony, despite her mistakes, is completely sympathetic. But in Karen Hollander's case, she's not written well-enough to sustain any kind of sympathy. And her off-handed good intentions that drive the story aren't enough for the reader to honestly care about what mistakes she made and what they meant.

If we're to take anything from this book, it would seem to be that this picturesque story of youth is dragged down when tied to the present by the loss of idealism: we in the present/future of the novel cling to sarcasm, to realism, to naturalism, to cynicism, and we've forgotten our idealism along the way. We're too content with our lives; technology makes life too easy, keeping us over-medicated and too sane for any real revolution to ever happen again. But that's on a meta level; it doesn't excuse the stylistic failure of the novel nor the lackluster voice that drives it.


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