Happy Tuesday, bibliophiles!
I went on a kick of Noah Hawley’s books in the first half of 2021, and I managed to read all of them. I’d already been exposed to his writing through Fargo and Legion (my two favorite shows), and my experience of his books ranged from just good to masterful. So naturally, I was excited to hear that he had a new book coming our way in 2022! I preordered it and read it last week, and…well, it was hard to read. Great writing, as always, but god, it was heavy.
Enjoy this week’s review!
Our world is in shambles. The political chasm between the American people is widening more with each day, the oceans are rising, and now, teenagers are committing suicide by the thousands each day.
One such teenager was Claire Oliver, the daughter of a reviled pharmaceutical mogul. After her death by an overdose, her parents send Simon, her younger brother, to a rehab center in Chicago to make sense of her passing. There, he meets a strange figure who only goes by The Prophet. The Prophet’s enigmatic visions lead Simon and his fellow patients out of the rehab center and on the road to a shadowy man known only as the Wizard, whose downfall may be their only means of salvation.
TW/CW: suicide (overdosing, hanging, jumping from bridges, etc.), racism, descriptions of rape/sexual assault, graphic violence, anti-semitism, climate change, brief descriptions of genitalia, blood
Anthem, in its essence, is Noah Hawley’s megaphone for existential dread. But given the times, it’s understandable.
Let me be crystal-clear about this: it’s a bad idea to read this book if you’re not in a good headspace. A lot of what Anthem deals with is a worst-case scenario of the future: near anarchy, the political divisions of the U.S. with the volume turned up even more so, mass suicide, climate change, and every other bit of dystopia you can possibly imagine. This is Hawley’s vision of the worst that could possibly be, and he does it well. What’s really scary about it, though, is that some parts were almost plausible. I’m not cynical enough to call it realistic, but I’m scared enough to call it partially feasible. It’s scary. enough that Noah Hawley flat out apologizes for the world he created—like the horrific worst case parenting scenario of The Good Father, it’s the most pessimistic outcome on the spectrum, but it’s well-written.
As always, Noah Hawley has a unique way with words that paints the near-future in a number of ways. There’s the main plot, in which a band of disillusioned, teenage rehab patients go on a cross-country road trip based solely on a 14-year-old who claims to have visions from God and encounter everything from gangs of gun-toting clowns to lions. But interspersed within are anecdotes from a wide cast of characters—most of which are unlikeable, as per Noah Hawley standards—that add to the genuinely disturbing feel of the world he’s created.
However, Hawley’s vivid descriptions often gave way to portions of flat-out rambling—about the state of the world, the nature of the darkest parts of the human species, the possibilities of a world like the one of Anthem. This part was what bogged me down the most; as a young person who would theoretically be maturing into this dystopia, it…well, it freaked me out, to put it plainly. I’d been on a stint of finishing books in a day, but this one took me almost four just because I couldn’t swallow all of the statistics and existential doom at once. Even so, at least it was well-written; Hawley’s talent for spinning words and stories, combined with all manner of allusions, made it slightly easier to palate.
Through it all, Hawley presents a strange, pseudo-fantasy quest throughout a changed America, and every bit of it hooked me. Every little detail made for a landscape that felt tangible enough to touch. I’ll have to go back and read some of his other books to see if this is really a hallmark of his, but in Anthem, at least, all of the sensory details were what made the world seem so frighteningly real: the paintings on the side of the van, the music on the car radio, the interior decor of the Wizard’s sadistic mansion. Without them, a book like Anthem might not have succeeded for me—if you’re going to make commentary on what the future might turn out to be, tell us what this future looks like.
Most of my other problems were more nitpicky; some of the dialogue, especially with the teenaged characters, felt at times very unrealistic. (sir, I’m aware that you have gen z kids but I, also a gen z kid, can assure you that nobody, nobody, says “LOL” out loud.) That part was inexcusable. There were some minor threads that weren’t resolved all the way (ex. the whole “these memes are driving our children to suicide” subplot—the meme is explained, but given that it was the first line of the synopsis, I expected it to play a bigger role), and the ending, although it also was explained, felt rushed. There’s hope in the resolution, but the resolution was so glossed over that it couldn’t be felt all the way.
But through it all, one thing was clear to me—this felt like a pandemic book. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. Anthem just seems like one of the first in a new wave of dystopian novels, books that speak to the fear, chaos, and violence of the past six years. Anthem feels like the kind of book that will be remembered as distinctly “21st century”: post-Trump, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and appropriately frightened for what the future might hold not just for America, but for us as a species.
All in all, a frightening vision of the future from one of my favorite literary masterminds, but not quite coherent enough to his best work. 3.75 stars, rounded up to 4!
Anthem is a standalone novel, but Noah Hawley is also the author of Before the Fall, The Punch, The Good Father, Other People’s Weddings, and A Conspiracy of Tall Men. Hawley has also adapted the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and Marvel Comics’ Legion for TV on FX and Marvel Television.
That’s it for this week’s Book Review Tuesday! Have a wonderful rest of your day, and take care of yourselves!