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Review of Kurt Andersen’s True Believers

If someone you don’t know tells you that you can trust them, you probably can’t. Trust is earned by repetition of experience or through a defining act that reveals some essential human characteristic. Yet, as Kurt Andersen’s latest novel True Believers opens, his narrator, Karen Hollander, announces that she is “[A] reliable narrator. Unusually reliable. Trust me.” This is an important statement for any memoirist to make these days — True Believers is posed as both Hollander’s memoir and the investigation she makes into her own life, in alternating chapters — what with the spate of largely fictitious memoirs we’ve encountered.

The problem is that while that sentiment might make for an essential part of an actual memoir — though, woe be the memoirist who actually stated this out front, as he or she would immediately be deemed questionable — Andersen has written a novel in which he uses the truth about Hollander to tease the reader for several hundred pages, all while continually reminding the reader that what they are reading is unvarnished honesty.

What we know about Hollander is that, for all present appearances, she is a model American. One of the foremost legal minds of her time, Hollander, now in her mid-sixties, has slipped into a kind of exalted twilight after doing time in both the White House and as one of those people you see on CNN telling you what the Constitution means. She’s now the dean of UCLA’s law school, a noted author (of both fiction and nonfiction) and, recently, under consideration for the Supreme Court. But what troubles Hollander is her past, the nagging sense that something she did in 1968 will grab her from behind.

Hollander grew up outside of Chicago and, along with her friends Alex and Chuck, became obsessed with James Bond, to the point that the three young friends staged elaborate Bond-like scenarios in the city, average citizens unknowingly playing pivotal roles in their espionage plots (or, as Hollander’s granddaughter tells her, “[Y]ou guys invented LARPing, huh?”). But as the kids aged, their fascination with Bond dissipated as their view of the world became wider than Ian Fleming’s. With trouble brewing in Southeast Asia, their desire to be secret agents morphed into the buds of activism: “Practically overnight we and everything we thought and did — our new music, the new ways we dressed and talked, our libertine sensibilities, our real and fake idealism — became Topic A among the grownups.”

True as it may be, this sort of rhapsodizing about the Sixties feels well-worn, though not for lack of skill on Andersen’s part, as his writing is as entertaining as ever (few writers of fiction are able to seamlessly weave historical fact into the fabric of fiction as well as Andersen, and here he is in full cultural-reference mode, hitting everything from Dr. Martin Luther King to The Monkees), but because the actual reporting from that period still resonates so vividly. When Hollander reaches college and her and her friends’ activism turns far more fervent, there is a certain Forest Gump-ian familiarity to the world (and to the astonishing level of defining historical happenstance, as well), to the point that one might instead reach for Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem to relive the actuality of the time, when it became clear the center could not hold.

It’s no spoiler to report that what Hollander and her friends did in 1968 ended tragically, as it’s noted very early on and repeated at length, but how Andersen reveals the action and its aftermath is a fine decision: Essentially, Hollander’s forward drama is an investigation into her own past, in which she employs an ex-lover (who happens to be a spy) to help her unearth clandestine government files, to find out precisely why her secret has never come out, even as she was being considered for America’s highest court. Though not as gutting as, say, David Carr’s actual investigative report into his own life in The Night of the Gun, Andersen’s take here turns the somewhat rote retelling of Hollander’s early years into the stuff of political theater, revealing surprises to Hollander along the way, so that she feels like “one of those people who leap from a bridge but miraculously survive, who say they realized midair, as soon as they jumped, that they had made a terrible mistake.”

The result is that the novel feels like two distinct pieces, which may have been Andersen’s intent all along. The consequence, however, is that one side feels yellowed by time and the circumstances of our own history, while the other is vivid, harried and emotionally defined, which may be the truest sign of Hollander’s reliability after all: Not even a fictional memoirist knows how tomorrow will end up.

TRUE BELIEVERS, by Kurt Andersen, Random House, 431 pages