Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Thursday, September 9, 2021

Thursday, September 9, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Anthem

Grand Central Publishing: Anthem by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing: Anthem by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing: Anthem by Noah Hawley

Grand Central Publishing: Anthem by Noah Hawley


by Noah Hawley

High-octane anxiety is the prevailing emotion in Noah Hawley's much-anticipated sixth novel, Anthem. Large-scale catastrophe, both human and environmental, is the backdrop against which its ingenious, action-packed plot lines tangle and merge. With a promise early on that "There is drama. There is catharsis" and characters that brilliantly depict the full moral spectrum of humanity, Anthem is laced with the wickedly dark humor for which Hawley (Before the Fall), the creator, director and producer of the television series Fargo, is celebrated.

Anthem is set in the post-pandemic near future, an apocalyptic American summer in which the forests of Alaska are on fire, a ring of smoke surrounds the Pacific Northwest and ghost sightings are on the increase across the country. A new virus rooted in the United States is raging across the world. Organized into five "Books," Anthem starts "Book 1," Slow Violence, with what is sure to join the canon of iconic opening lines: "The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history." A suicide epidemic among adolescents has led to frantic parents searching for answers and the president's declaration of a national state of emergency. It's far worse than a pandemic because there's no inoculation against "an act of collective surrender" by youngsters who have lost faith in their parents' moral authority and given up on the future.

Liberals blame the suicide epidemic on environmental toxins, while conservative talking heads deny there is a suicide epidemic at all. Civic discourse in Hawley's vividly wrought America has reached a boiling point; dark money and fringe ideologies steadily gain mainstream political influence and revolutionary fervor, fanned by gun-toting vigilantes dressed as clowns hissing across the land. America is having a nervous breakdown.

Meanwhile the stock market still rises; Starbucks introduces a countdown clock not to the end of world but to the return of Pumpkin Spice Latte; and a conservative New York judge, Margot Burr-Nadir, is nominated to the Supreme Court by a liberal, compromise-driven president eager to build coalitions and mend democratic institutions damaged by the destabilizing, rage-fueled actions of the president's predecessor, the God King, who was "banished to Florida to glower and boil."

At the heart of the novel is Simon, a teenager utterly consumed by existential anxiety. His father is CEO of the largest manufacturer of highly addictive prescription opiates. Simon's sister took her own life by overdosing on the pills, a rebuke to her father's greed and moral bankruptcy. The drug hums throughout the background of Anthem, a reminder of its insidious presence in American life.

Simon is on his own drug regime as a patient at the Float Anxiety Abatement Center outside Chicago: "These days when he thinks about happiness and contentment he thinks in terms of milligrams." Simon befriends another patient, Louise, for whom obsessive cleaning helps keep at bay the horrors she experienced at the hands of an evil Jeffrey Epstein-like figure known as the Wizard. The Wizard, a personification of our culture's worst excesses, is kept well supplied with his drug of choice--young girls--by a man known as the Troll.

A third patient, the Prophet, persuades Simon and Louise to escape from the anxiety center and set off on a quest to vanquish the Wizard and build a new city, Utopia, based on a collective system of sharing resources and valuing all life. Adults, power hungry and ignoring the impending destruction of the earth, have lost their way, he preaches. Children must start over and break the cycle of planetary collapse. Simon, the Prophet says, is the one chosen by God to lead the mission, inspiring in the anxious young man an uncertain but hopeful sense of purpose.

Meanwhile in Austin, Tex., Judge Burr-Nadir's estranged daughter, Story, and her boyfriend, Felix, embark on a road trip to rescue Felix's sister, Bathsheba, from the Wizard's compound in West Texas--an expertly crafted parallel plot that will bring readers to the edge of their seats. Story and Felix eventually join forces with Simon, Louise and the Prophet, who have escaped the anxiety center and picked up a curious, but not to be underestimated, cavalry of armed adolescents to help execute the compound attack.

Hawley, a confident and polished writer, has crafted an explosive, multi-genre American novel, offering entertaining cultural commentary as well as intellectually courageous observations on empathy, politics and corruption. At the same time, Anthem is, at its core, a good vs. evil morality tale shedding light on uncomfortable truths about mankind's role in its own erasure. Like the fires raging uncontrolled across the country, Hawley's plot swallows unsavory characters and shifts gears after a thrilling climax, forcefully recalibrating the landscape upon which Simon, Louise, the Prophet and others will have to build their vision of Utopia. The author leaves readers with hope that humankind will, in fact, be rescued from itself. --Shahina Piyarali

Grand Central Publishing, $29, hardcover, 448p., 9781538711514, January 4, 2022

Grand Central Publishing: Anthem by Noah Hawley

Noah Hawley: Making Sense of the World We Live In

(photo: Carolyn Fong)

Noah Hawley is an Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody Award-winning television writer, producer, director, screenwriter, singer and author of five novels. Hawley (Before the Fall) created and is the executive producer, writer and showrunner on FX's award-winning television series Fargo as well as the creator and showrunner on the FX series Legion. Celebrated for his literary thrillers, dynamic plot lines and memorable characters, Hawley's sixth novel, Anthem (Grand Central Publishing, $29), will be released on January 4, 2022.

How was the idea for Anthem born, and how did it evolve?

The evolution of this novel from where it started to where it ended was pretty profound. It started with an idea from an article I read about parents who show up at their daughter's apartment and it's like the Mary Celeste. The table is set, the food is out, bags are packed but no one is there. The parents try texting and get weird messages back. The idea that an adult child had mysteriously disappeared evolved into the quest in Anthem to find the Wizard.

Anthem is a fantasy novel about the real world we live in. There was a moment when it became clear to me that there was going to be this quest and an almost Middle-earth structure to the story, but it is our world and includes language that is part of our world.

Why did you include a teenage suicide epidemic in Anthem?

The suicide epidemic adds urgency to the quest and also a sense of consequence to the behavior of the past decade or two--the idea that what we reap is what we sow. The book talks about how, when a problem gets too big for us to focus on, we shift our attention to what is easy, the soap opera of human drama. That's why when half the world might be flooding and the other half might be on fire, we focus on the latest tweets of the day.

If my job as a novelist is to reflect the world we live in and to make sense of it, what do I do when the world we live in doesn't make sense anymore? It was a journey and I was along for the ride with this book.

As a parent, which aspects of the story most resonate with you?

Anthem, on some level, mirrors my own fears. The more I do this, the more I realize that what I've been writing about, in this latest season of Fargo and in the Legion television show, is about parenting. If you want to know if a character is moral or not, look at their relationship with a child. In the latest season of Fargo, there's one man, Rabbi Milligan, played by Ben Whishaw, for whom children are a priority. That's heroic. He's not concerned with his own enrichment.

One of the things that occurred to me in figuring out how to talk about this book--and it's something I was able to include in the story--was this question of what skills we need to teach our children in order [for them] to prosper in a world where reality is up for debate.

In discussing political parties in Anthem, you refrain from specifically referencing Republicans and Democrats. Why is that?

I removed language that is burned into our brains in order to see something for what it truly is, and tried as hard as I could to write something nonpartisan because, as I say in the book, I am not interested in taking sides. I just want words to mean what they are supposed to mean. However I am under no illusion that a certain percentage of Americans won't be able to read the book without feeling that I am attacking their ideologies.

After releasing Anthem and your characters into the world, do you think about Louise, Simon and others and their prospects for survival?

I do think about them. I think about how they are going to do and I wonder if I did them justice. As the author of a novel, you have no one else to blame for what happens to your characters.

Much of what I went through in the last season of Fargo was about the experience of Black Americans, immigrants and people who have been traumatized through their outsider stories. I didn't want to create new injuries, to craft scenes where I was asking Black actors to be subjected to racism just because it was good for the plot. So it became this dance. I really wanted to protect the dignity of all the characters, but I also wanted to tell the story, and I think that's true here, too.

People carry past trauma with them, so I'm under no illusion that even if Simon, Louise and others manage to miraculously escape, they will be okay immediately. But I also know that if they can get to a place in which they can make the world simple again, that will go a long way. I'm up here in Wyoming and it's amazingly easy to lower one's blood pressure when the world is bigger than your worries and you can walk outside and experience a sense of perspective.

Your writing has been favorably compared with that of Kurt Vonnegut. Can you share this author's influence on your writing of Anthem?

As I was trying to wrap my head around this book, I thought about Kurt Vonnegut and a book like Slaughterhouse-Five and what he did in that book, which was to re-create the true story of his own war experience and a novel about a guy who's unstuck in time and ends up on the planet Tralfamadore. There is so much genre mixed into the book, yet at its heart it is a simple morality [tale] and it's this element that influenced me.

We act like the issues of our world are so complex but it's like what Greta Thunberg said, you're either fixing the problem or you're not. It's not complicated.

Which other writers have influenced you?

The first novel I read that made me realize a story could be so much more than a series of events was White Noise by Don DeLillo. DeLillo in a very profound way had a huge influence on me. I was a New York kid and his is such a New York voice. His writing is poetic, funny and tough all at the same time.

For this book I went back and reread One Hundred Years of Solitude. Gabriel García Márquez's magical realism really factored in my writing. I also reread Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. There's just something about that book.

Haruki Murakami and Milan Kundera have profoundly influenced my writing. Kundera's books are essays as well as novels and made me realize that you could both be telling a story and exploring an idea at the same time.

Ayn Rand wrote a dystopian novel set in the future called Anthem. Is there a connection between these two books with the same title?

I wasn't aware until you said it that she had written a novel called Anthem, so there is no connection. But that doesn't mean the Internet won't connect them and that it won't become true! --Shahina Piyarali

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