Reviewed by Rod McLary
Essentially, Anthem is a tale of a quest undertaken by the fourteen-year-old protagonist Simon Oliver. Quests exist in the folklore of all cultures and ethnic groups – and usually require great exertion by the hero as s/he confronts many moral and physical obstacles through the journey. In fact, one section of the book is entitled ‘Quest’ and within it, Simon is told ‘this is your journey’ .
But Simon’s quest has another dimension. As he and his friends traverse the country, the chaotic nature of American culture as it descends into street violence, social and environmental collapse and rampant drug addiction is laid bare. Set in what alarmingly seems to be the very-near future, Anthem also exposes the ubiquity of social media, the expanding culture of grievance, and, perhaps referencing a current civil matter before the courts, the use of excessive wealth to buy sexual gratification from under-age women.
Across the world, and particularly in Anthem’s United States, there is an epidemic of suicide among the young to the extent that many parents are taking rather extreme steps to ensure their teenage child does not become one of them. Twenty-four hours monitoring, sharing bedrooms, and removing access to the internet are among the strategies undertaken by concerned and fearful parents. Some of the wealthier parents commit their teenagers to institutions. Simon’s parents commit him to an Anxiety Abatement Centre – called Float – a self-sustaining community designed to give its residents the skills necessary to ‘handle the uncertainty and terror of today’s world’ . His father is head of a world-wide pharmaceutical company – Rise Pharmaceuticals ‘the largest single manufacturer of prescription opioids on the planet’  – and is personally worth $4billion.
While a resident of Float, Simon meets the Prophet – also fourteen – who is certain God has a plan for Simon. God’s plan is that Simon ‘will be instrumental in building our new utopia’  because ‘the adults are lost. We, the children, are starting over’ . Thus begins Simon’s journey – or quest – and, as with all such quests, there are challenges ahead and a multiplicity of characters reflecting specific cohorts of American society. One example is the secondary plot involving Judge Margot Burr-Nadir, her husband Remy and their twelve-year-old son Hadrian. Margot has been nominated as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court and through the course of the novel faces the preliminary hearings before her appointment can be confirmed; Remy is a social commentator and one speech he made on YouTube was viewed more than 16 million times; and Hadrian spends much of his time viewing social media on his device.
What links this sub-plot to the primary plot is a simple literary device: the Judge’s daughter Story is in a relationship with Fred [born Samson DeWitt] whose father Avon is a ‘survivalist’ and lives ‘off-the grid’ – no social media presence, no birth records, no Social Security number. Avon is convinced that in his name there is a Treasury Direct Account into which all the monies he earned for the Government is placed – and he can access that account which may have a balance of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Samson – who left his father’s home as soon as he could to avoid the beatings and the hectoring – discovers that his sister is now a victim of the billionaire perpetrator of sexual abuse. Along with Story, he begins his own quest to find and rescue her. His quest and that of Simon’s overlap, then merge and, later, with a denouement which would rival any action film, come to a satisfying conclusion.
Anthem is rich with plots and characters and most of the time these are well-balanced with sufficient tension to maintain the reader’s interest and commitment to the story. Many of the characters – especially Simon and his compatriots – are well-drawn and capture the adolescent dichotomy of uncertainty and bravado.
However, the novel loses its way a little when the author inserts himself into the narrative. Early examples appear on page 71 where the author expounds directly to the reader on possible theories for the increase in children’s suicides; and on page 217 where he begins by saying ‘First of all, the author would like to apologize for the world he has created’ [a world where reality has become a personal choice] and ends on page 219 by reiterating the same words. These insertions and others scattered throughout the novel do not always contribute to the trajectory of the narrative; and may even, at times, present as interruptions.
However, with these quibbles put aside, Noah Hawley has written a broad-sweeping novel which touches on most aspects of American culture today and their effects on the children and young people. The novel’s message is a simple one: ‘With your greed and doublespeak. You’re [the adults] killing our planet’ . By means of Simon’s quest, the author points a way to a utopian future without the adults. A better world? Perhaps, but the journey has been an interesting one.
by Noah Hawley
ISBN 978 14447 7980 6