Noah Hawley is angry and a little bit scared of the future, especially on behalf of his children. Those familiar with his previous book Before the Fall could not fail to miss its takedown of the 24-hour news cycle and the power and influence of Fox News.
In Anthem Hawley goes further, exploring the fear and division that has taken over America, and the impact that is having particularly on the young and on the world. And just in case readers are not sure about his views, Anthem contains a couple of fourth-wall breaking authorial comments where he justifies the extreme but totally possible future that he has imagined:
In summation your author would like to apologise for the world he has created. He knows it is ridiculous. He is simply doing his best to re-create reality as he has experienced it.
That ridiculous and painful world is one suffering an unstoppable global epidemic of teenage suicide.
One of the first ‘victims’ of this epidemic is Claire Oliver, daughter of an obscenely wealthy family whic made its fortune selling opioids. Claire’s younger brother, Simon, himself on a cocktail of anxiety and anti-depressant drugs, has been sent to a retreat with other teens in the hope that they can be ‘cured’ or at least protected. There Simon meets Paul, who calls himself ‘the prophet’, and together with another inmate, goes on a quest across the country to rescue a young woman from the clutches of another obscenely wealthy and powerful man known as ‘the Wizard’.
At the same time, Judge Margot Nadir is being put forward for a place on the US Supreme Court by a president of the opposite political stripe as a display of bipartisanship. Judge Nadir’s daughter is missing, but she presses on with the confirmation hearings; in the background the shadowy forces that supported her rise to this position wait patiently.
There is plenty more going on in Anthem, and a number of other archetypes, including characters called ‘the Troll’ and ‘the Witch’, give the whole enterprise a fairytale feel. As climate change-fuelled fires rage, there is an uprising of gun-wielding groups seeking freedom (but with very little else in common as it turns out) and the country descends into anarchy.
Around all of this Hawley builds a coincidence-filled but propulsive plot around the almost mythic quest of Simon and his friends. Their plight and their journey gives plenty of opportunity for polemic about the evils of the modern world, usually from the mouth of the Prophet, Paul:
‘We became the commodity. Our data. This is the secret of modern life. We went from being citizens to consumers and now commodities. Our personality profiles, our social and financial history, our likes and dislikes, all used to accurately predict future behaviour.’
‘There are two great motivators,’ [Paul] says. ‘Love, and fear … In the 1990s politicians began to harness the power of fear to create a different kind of America. A nation of perpetual fear … They warned us that everything we believed in and everyone we loved was in constant danger … In 2016 that fear brought us the God King and his troll army, the great plague and the fear of literal death …
‘And so Us against Them became the world. But the more fear is used to motivate people, the more afraid they will become, the more fear will come to define their lives.’
And when there is no opportunity for his characters to observe the irony of their situation, Hawley’s authorial voice is there to explain:
When the author’s son steals a cookie and then says he has not stolen a cookie even though there is chocolate covering 60 percent of his face, well, in the old days, this would be called a lie. But in the Age of Inverted Reality, the stolen-cookie-that-was-never-stolen is known as an alternative fact. Proof is irrelevant. Reality has become a personal choice, denial of reality a weapon …
Reality itself seems to break down. And with it the mental health of your author and his neighbours.
While Hawley imagines the same situations arising globally, he can really only tackle what is happening in America. This is both a strength of and weakness of the overall narrative as Hawley deeply understand the problems confronting his country. When he makes observations about gun ownership and the narrative of the country being driven by guns, he is talking about America. When he talks about the two different tribes of political thought (who he calls ‘cooks’ and ‘drinkers’), he is talking mainly about American politics. But it is timely to look at these issues – climate change, the rise of nationalism, the increasing divide between rich and poor – as many of them are prevalent and growing in other, particularly Western and Westernised countries.
Hawley’s fear has led him to present a fairly bleak future in which lonely teenagers commit suicide and the world is burning. He is certainly not the first to go down this dystopian road but the novel feels anchored by some very recent events both in America and elsewhere. And while there is plenty of polemic, the spoonful of sugar is following a ragtag group of teenagers battle seemingly impossible odds in a quest that involves, if nothing else, a better vision of the future. This close focus though, leaves the question of the futures of millions of other teenagers around the world, many experiencing very different social milieus (both better and worse), unresolved.
Anthem is a very American-centric cry for help, or at least for understanding. But it is one that others, particularly here in Australia, should heed given that many of the ills the novel considers were developed in – and are now widely exported by – America. So maybe those of us in other countries could see it less as our reality or possible future and more as a cautionary tale of what happens if we keep looking to America as some sort of light on the hill. Hawley would not be the first to observe that were there any light at all, it went out a long time ago.
This review first appeared on Newtown Review of Books.