For those who enjoyed Kurt Andersen’s Turn of the Century, with its picture of New York City around the year 2000, his historical novel set in 1848 isn’t that much of a change. Someone wanting a charming, evenly-paced novel is in for a shock. The narrative flits at music-video pace from New York to London to Paris and points beyond, skipping ahead and back, taxing a reader who would occasionally like to know just what is going on. The pace seems more suited to our own age of the mousepad, rather than one of mousetraps.
Which is probably Andersen’s point. In the midst of revolution in Europe and gold rushes in America, Benjamin Knowles falls for Polly Lucking, a prostitute who poses as an actress, or vice versa (so to speak). Along the way we become acquainted with Duff Lucking, Polly’s brother, and various other characters of dubious morality and story value, all the while learning as much marginalia about the world as Andersen wishes to cram between his covers. A trip through utopian communities on our way out west gives us a diversion on our way to a diversion.
This makes for entertaining moments of happenstance, such as when Frederick Engels wanders onto the stage, or Darwin, or Stephen Foster, or other showy celebrities for the benefit of the reader. However, that same reader often finds himself scrambling toward some perceived point in the story hoping that there is a point. The novel’s mad ushering of ideas on and off for our amusement is enough to recommend this busy novel, but surely there is more here than that most familiar theme of the historical novel: that things are more like they are now than they’ve ever been before.