Anthem: A Novel
- By Noah Hawley
- Grand Central Publishing
- 448 pp.
- Reviewed by Jack McCarthy
- January 27, 2022
An ambitious, strangely soulless commentary on our troubled times.
The lights have been cut off in a room. Someone says, “Now it’s dark in here.” Commenting on the light’s absence merely states the obvious. Noah Hawley’s Anthem, though ambitious, could be accused of doing the same thing. Saturated with purpose, its attempt to Say Something Serious — “to create coherence from incoherence,” as the author puts it — often devolves into didacticism. The result is a novel that feels like having the front-page headlines of the newspaper explained to you.
To keep the didactic element entertaining, Hawley augments the stakes. A few years after the covid-19 pandemic, so many children begin killing themselves that it becomes a global issue. The questions relevant to each individual suicide are ignored. Instead, Hawley diagnoses a universal symptom.
Here, suicide “is an idea” capable of spreading “from person to person.” The kids see the future, one their parents continue to tarnish, as an irresolvable abyss. It is pointless to go on, they think, so they don’t. “Trapped in the pain of becoming,” the youngsters see finitude as preferable to an assured bleak inheritance.
The author’s attempts to articulate the severity of the catastrophe are cartoonish. Emotions become generalizations. “If there were an emoji for this growing crisis, it would be the openmouthed scream,” Hawley writes. “Newspapers filled with photographs of parents falling to their knees, their lips spread in an impossible O.”
The novel gamely captures the exterior energy of the moment without sharing its interior reverberations. Yes, there is mention of the “nail-biting work” of parenting — the time spent “felting costumes for the school play,” the sleepovers, “soccer Saturdays” — but the language is impersonal. There’s nobody there. The faces of agony have been replaced by emojis.
Yet there are faces: children’s faces. Tucked away at the Float Anxiety Abatement Center, a $1,500-a-night psychiatric facility outside Chicago, Simon Oliver and Louise Conklin idle in medicated agitation. Just 15 years old, Simon hyperventilates into a paper bag and thinks in terms of the stark absolutes he’s read about:
“Eighty years from now the world’s oceans will be so hot they will stop producing oxygen”; “there are more than forty-one million opioid users on Planet Earth. Three hundred thousand of them die each year from an opioid overdose.”
Louise, also 15, is jokey-saturnine, quick with a quip that points to her own spoiled lot. Her disclosures are self-lacerating, but they strike with such frequency that their sharpness is dulled. When Simon asks her if she’s depressed, she replies, “Let’s just say I like the feel of a good pair of crafting scissors on my supple Black thighs.”
We read this and imagine the layered sorrow and loathing that might move her to self-harm, the years of negotiations she’s had with herself that allow her to now reveal this so candidly to another person. But depth is not Hawley’s game. He’s prone to reduction and explains Louise’s brazenness in one sentence: “It is a performance, of course, a way to draw attention and approval without having to expose the real Louise inside.”
But can it be so simple? Is self-harm a performance, or is the discussion of self-harm Louise’s performance? Either way, the author doesn’t allow us to ruminate, to take in the sensations of the scene.
One senses that the elements in Anthem are subordinate to generating excitement; they’re set pieces for an action scene. It is in Float where Simon and Louise meet a boy who calls himself the Prophet. At 14, the Prophet is serene, composed. Speaking with the allure of profundity, saying things like, “The world you think is real is a lie,” he has the charm of a cult leader and believes God is calling him to lead Simon, Louise, and a group of other teens on a mission to discover a utopia, a place where they can begin again.
To do this, they break out of Float to find and take down a Jeffery Epstein-like character known as the Wizard. As the group moves from Missouri to Texas to California, there is sedition, half the country burns (noted by an oppressive number of references to an orange sky), and the rules of the world are endlessly reiterated in tedious binaries (e.g., “There are two major political parties in America”).
It seems we’re meant to find in Anthem some sort of deep resonance. Yet Hawley is merely reflecting a world — and reflections are flat. Each character represents an archetype or condition. The Wizard is corpulent wealth; a man who calls himself Randall Flagg (in a nod to Stephen King) survived a school shooting and is now an expert on guns.
Is the author suggesting that it’s because they’re endlessly subjected to impersonal interactions that the characters themselves are impersonal? Or that today’s performative, groupthink politics grinds down (or intimidates) people to such a degree that expressions of selfhood become impossible? Perhaps. But the ring of each character’s theme is too loud and distorts their personal voice.
Ultimately, this grandiloquent novel tries to create an atmosphere where fantasy and reality converge, but its fairytale aspects — characters are referred to as “orcs” and “ogres,” for example, and Donald Trump, while not named, is personified by a figure absurdly called “the God King” — cheapen the dire situations being depicted. The language of the violence verges on the language of nonchalance.
Awash in political and cultural abstractions, Anthem becomes a sort of shadow. There is no visceral commentary at work here, only the light of real life projected onto caricatured cutouts, their dull shapes moving ceaselessly about the page.
Jack McCarthy is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia.