Anthem was a gutsy title for Noah Hawley to choose since the original book with that title was written by Ayn Rand. His invocation of the previous book was perhaps done deliberately to stress his similar themes and to point out that threats to the free world now may be as serious as the threat of the rise of Hitler was in 1937 when Rand wrote her book.
Hawley’s book takes place in near-future America. Teens are committing suicide, and no one knows why. Parents are devastated but they don’t seem to blame themselves for their children’s choices. Simon loses his older sister Claire in just such a way. His anxiety disorder soars, his grief for his sister is all-encompassing, and his wealthy parents eventually place him in a center that tries to prevent the inevitable in children who are exhibiting signs that they should not be left alone. At the recovery center Simon is given a program of medications to treat just about every mental ailment that medication has been created for. He meets a young black girl named Louise who has suffered and wants revenge on someone she calls The Wizard, and he meets another teen named Paul, who wants to be called The Prophet.
America is the same mess we see around us right now only the social diseases are further along a scale indicating that collapse and chaos are imminent. Simon’s father makes a pill that is as addictive as opioids and yet he never accepts that his destructive path to personal wealth might have been what upset his daughter, although she papered the bathroom where she bled out with the wrappers that held her father’s pills.
The original trio is joined by others they collect along the way, Felix, aka Samson, son of Avon who lives way off the grid. Felix shares a guilty secret with his father. Story is the girl Felix falls in love with and is hiding out with. Story’s mother is in the process of getting approved as a Supreme Court Justice. Story doesn’t know that Felix has another name, his off-the-grid name. Felix’s sister, Bathsheba has been kidnapped by a billionaire with a taste for sex with very young girls, (parallel with Jeffrey Epstein’s predation scheme right down to the female “friend” who keeps him supplied). Bathsheba, now called Katie, has been impregnated by her keeper, The Wizard, and she is being held as a prisoner in a compound in Texas until she gives birth. Louise was molested by this same billionaire who lives in houses all over the world and never has to suffer any consequences for his horrific behavior.
As the teens make plans to rescue Bathsheba, as they collect weapons and learn to use them, the world explodes around them and complicates their mission. There are militias all over the place, some organized, some not. Why are the teens feeling such despair? Is there any hope for creating a world where money doesn’t rule and any endeavor, no matter how harmful to a healthy society, is fine if it offers material rewards? The Prophet tags along on all the rescues but his true purpose is for this band of unlikely heroes to establish a utopia, to start over and to not make the same mistakes as their parents and ancestors.
Noah Hawley breaks the “rules” of writing fiction by breaking into the story to present commentary about the events of the story and to talk about the questions his daughter asks about what he is writing. It may not be part of usual story structure to sort of “break the frame,” but Hawley also writes for TV and movies which may explain his willingness to use story structure creatively. This is just the sort of dystopian tale that I enjoy, especially because of the social commentary that also tags along for the ride. One more thing – if you get a text message that says “A ll” you had better get a copy of Anthem right away so that you will be able to decode the message.
Is it possible for flawed humans to create a Utopian society? Maybe not, but if it takes a few centuries for a culture to turn bad then starting from scratch every now and then may be the only way to avoid the human capacity for rationalization, for turning our worst traits into self-destructive positives.