Anthem by Noah Hawley

Review by David Starkey

Noah Hawley’s new novel Anthem is set in a near, scarcely alternative future. The United States is riven by partisan divide, with the Alt Right on the verge of civil war, while global climate catastrophe looms like an approaching superstorm. So far, so familiar. The first twist is that young people, teens mostly, have begun committing suicide by the tens of thousands. Naturally, no one can agree on the cause: “Those who believed in original sin saw our children’s suicides as a sign of secular corrosion. They blamed the war on Christmas, the separation of church and state. Gun control advocates saw our children’s suicides as a form of PTSD. They called them the Mass Murder Generation, raised on active-shooter drills.”

The other variation on our current reality is that the civil war actually breaks out. Imagine the January 6 clowns organizing an effective and coordinated nationwide uprising, and you’ll have some sense of the spinechilling setting Hawley has created. At its best, Anthem feels more like reportage than fiction writing. Indeed, so convincing is his portrayal of doom that I spent a couple of mopey days believing Hawley’s future was all but inevitable.

The novel also draws heavily on tropes from fantasy and video games. There’s teenaged Paul (no surname), aka “the Prophet,” who guides the book’s young heroes through the complex and thoroughly dystopian world created by adults. His nemesis is E. L. Mobley, aka “the Wizard,” a cross between Jeffrey Epstein, Elon Musk, and whoever happens to be the most evil billionaire in the world. Like Epstein, Mobley has a hardworking female pimp, Astrid, who pretends to be the friend of the young girls she brings into his orbit; he also employs young men like Evan, aka “the Troll,” to help sate his insatiable appetite for nonconsensual sex. Among his victims is Louise, who, with the other discarded children in the book, turns out to have a daunting inner core of strength. Perhaps the scariest character is “the Witch,” though she seems to have drifted in from a horror film and doesn’t always feel like she’s in the right book.

As the novel picks up speed, it does begin to seem more like the script for an action-adventure TV show and somewhat less like the literary novel it began as, but it would be silly to blame Hawley, the Emmy award-winning showrunner for Fargo, for making his novel exciting: that’s just what he does.

Among the writers Hawley cites as influences in the Acknowledgements are Don DeLillo and Kurt Vonnegut, and when Anthem is really humming along, the prose is reminiscent of DeLillo at his best, in White Noise, Libra and Underworld. When the novel falters, as when Hawley steps back to talk to the reader about the book he is writing, Vonnegut may be partly responsible. (Hawley even has a Vonnegutesque catchphrase, Boo Phooey, which basically means, “Life is unfair.”) Still, whatever minor flaws it may have, Anthem is frightening, funny and far-seeing—certainly a strong contender for one of the best novels of 2022.