Whatever one may think of Anthem, Noah Hawley’s latest literary thriller, no one could ever accuse the author and award-winning creator of the television series “Fargo” of skimping on plot. His action-stuffed follow-up to Before the Fall is an exciting cautionary tale that addresses just about every social ill facing Western civilization.
The action begins calmly enough: In 2009, a white judge named Margot Nadir and her second husband, a Black man named Remy, are watching their 9-year-old daughter, Story, sing the national anthem at a recital near their Brooklyn home. In a nice bit of foreboding, the Nadirs (one of the novel’s broad touches is their name) say they’re proud to “belong to the party of Lincoln” and feel that “the desire to belong, to be something, doesn’t make that dream come true.” As readers soon discover, their ambition, including Margot’s nomination to the Supreme Court, doesn’t shield them from real-world complexities and tragedies they could not have foreseen.
Hawley shifts the narrative a few years into the future, when a plague afflicts the world. As Hawley, one of the more skilled writers of pithy lines, puts it, “The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history.” Soon the crisis spreads worldwide, with more and more 12- to 25-year-olds taking their lives. Markets tank. Thousands die each day. And every victim scrawls “A11” near the site of their death.
Among them is Claire Oliver, the 17-year-old daughter of a pharmaceutical titan. Her death devastates her younger brother, Simon, who is sent to the Float Anxiety Abatement Center, where he hyperventilates into his omnipresent paper bag and contemplates the meaning of existence.
Hawley has further complications in store for Simon, and for the reader. An enigmatic Float resident who calls himself the Prophet tells Simon that God “has a mission for you”: to help build a new utopia. “The adults are lost. We, their children, are starting over.”
And that’s only the start. Anthem touches on just about every contentious topic one could name, from gun culture and climate change to race relations, extremist politicians and the “yelling box” that is the internet. The novel would have been stronger if Hawley had blended his themes more seamlessly into the narrative rather than letting his characters give speeches, but many of his painstakingly crafted scenes read like an action movie in book form. “We choose our reality,” one character says. Hawley’s novel reminds us to choose wisely.