• U.S.

As The Millennium Turns

3 minute read
John Skow

As the calendar slouches toward the big triple zero, the prudent citizen reviews options: 1) ascend a barren hillside and wait for the world and the millennium hype to end; 2) turn on a computer and watch its date-bollixed software seize up; 3) agree with the grumps who point out that since there was no year zero, the millennium will not crash down on our heads till 2001; or 4) agree with the Chinese, who point out that this year’s date is 4635, so why worry?

But this is shallow thinking. Why not write a millennium novel? Or duct-tape the millennium to a novel you’re already writing? Almost any contemporary fiction, no matter how inconsequential and light-minded, has a fighting chance of taking on weight and portent, perhaps even significance, if shoved 23 months into the future. And if significance is elusive, where’s the harm?

In what will doubtless prove to be a trend, a couple of airy, clever new novels–neither with anything much to say about the year 2000 or whither-Western-civilization or other matters of substance–are set at the edgy moment when the 21st century rumbles into view. A Lover’s Almanac, by Maureen Howard (Viking; 270 pages; $24.95), is a funny, grouchy, madly nonlinear love story that commences in Manhattan after a drunken quarrel at a turn-of-the century party. Artie, a free-lance computer wizard, has behaved badly, and Louise, a gifted painter of enigmatic farm scenes, has kicked him out of their apartment. The novel, of course, must get them back together. But the narration is chaotic, scattered, raisined with fathomless almanac entries (“February 3, 1874–Gertrude Stein born at Allegheny, Pennsylvania”). Coherence rarely proceeds more than a few pages in any direction. This fragmented account, however, fits the fragmented love affair. The result is a brilliant and convincing urban mindscape, despite the irrelevant happenstance of the new year’s numbing zeroes.

Two Guys from Verona, by James Kaplan (Atlantic Monthly Press; 341 pages; $25), is also set at the millennium’s turn, to no symbolic, ironic, metaphysical or literary effect whatsoever. Who cares? It’s a caustic parody of platinum-card pretension in New Jersey’s upper-middle-class ‘burbs. Everyone drives I-got-mine-mobiles, lives in we-got-ours palazzos and connives ceaselessly to trade up for yet grander cars, real estate, spouses and even, Lord love a duck, tennis partners. Was it this way in 1974, when Will and Joel were big-shot seniors at Verona High School? They don’t know.

Joel, an underachiever who lives with his mother and works at the Sub Shop, is intelligent but becalmed, up to his elbows in chopped lettuce and mayonnaise. His friend Will, a decent fellow, is a not-very-good businessman who manages his father’s box factory and hangs on to the glossy life with his fingernails. But it’s all spinning, faster each year: subdivisions, Sub Shop, Joel’s raggedy ’69 Impala, the box factory, the sad, slutty daughter of an old girlfriend so beautiful, so sad, that even then, back in high school, it hurt to look at her. Will and Joel are in their mid-40s, which is when the last leer of youth disappears behind the fog of the bathroom mirror. And when middle-aged guys fumble an answer (“Huh? Um, well…”) to the scary question, “Is this all there is?”

–By John Skow

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