Discussion Questions for TRUE BELIEVERS by Kurt Andersen
“Kurt Andersen’s best yet. The man is operating on some far-out level that bends time and space to his will. True Believers hits all the right notes and reads like a goddamn dream.” — Gary Shteyngart
In True Believers, Kurt Andersen—the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed author of Heyday and Turn of the Century—delivers his most powerful and moving novel yet. Dazzling in its wit and effervescent insight, this kaleidoscopic tour de force of cultural observation and seductive storytelling alternates between the present and the 1960s—and indelibly captures the enduring impact of that time on the ways we live now.
Discussion Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. The epigraph of True Believers contains the following lines from Wordsworth: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven,” which encapsulate the sentiments of empowerment and enthusiasm driving idealistic supporters at the dawn of the French Revolution. How does Karen’s own Vietnam-era experience — one distinguished by a widespread dissatisfaction and social unrest among youth — mirror the emotions fueling these words?
2. The blurring of fiction and reality is a major theme throughout the novel, both in terms of how the characters define themselves and how they interpret the world around them. Karen makes an interesting point that the emergence of modern entertainment and its obsession with turning events of the recent past into salable media commodities created a phenomenon in which “the people who lived through the events were tricked into believing they had experienced the fictions and docudramas.” In what ways has this manipulation and glamorization of the facts influenced the characters and period that Andersen explores? How does this continue to be an issue today?
3. Alex, Chuck and Karen’s infatuation with the works of Ian Fleming led them to believe that the extreme and outrageous happenings in the world of government and at large meant that life was imitating — and even anticipating — art. Do you think this made it easier for them to justify their own extreme behaviors, perhaps by creating a dissociation between the severity of their actions and a world they began to see as phantasmagorical?
4. Waverly says of her involvement as a twenty-first century Occupy activist that “most protests seem like cover versions of old songs. Like we’re all in a sixties tribute band.” Does this seem accurate? In what ways have the circumstances and impetus for change either altered or remained the same from half a century ago to the present day?
5. How does Karen’s view of her father change after learning that he cooperated with the Nazis by providing the names of several Communists to avoid being sent to an internment camp? Do you think she should have more empathy for his predicament given her own late-1960s experiences? Based on the observation that “People in extreme circumstances make choices they don’t expect to make,” what does the novel seem to be implying about the accountability of those forced to act in impossible situations? How have Karen and her father similarly managed to cope and assimilate back into normal life in the aftermath of their guilt and blame?
6. After the conversation Karen has with Alex in which he speaks almost entirely in borrowed phrases from The Third Man, she comes to see him as a “walking, talking real-time remix of fictional midcentury villains.” She asks, “Is his entire life a nonstop work of performance art that only he fully appreciates?” Later, she observes the tendency for twenty-first century dwellers likewise to adopt personas and pseudonyms through alternate realities and cosmetic surgery, or by referring to themselves in the third person. Do you think that unlike Alex and unlike Waverly’s friend Sophie, Karen has succeeded, as she claims, in abandoning her inner Bond girl and living entirely as herself? Is it possible to assume an identity that is completely independent of pre-existing stories and metaphors and fictional characters?
7. Having abandoned the Roman Catholic religion of her childhood, Karen instead places her faith in the “unholy power of chance, good luck and bad luck, in governing human affairs. Luck became my subject, the animating mystery of my life,” she says. Did this make her more prone to engage in risky behavior? What do you make of her need to confess and spend years of her life — both personal and professional — repenting for her perceived sins?
8. Looking back on the tragedies of the 1960s — the slaughter in Vietnam, the televised killings, the civil rights battles being fought at home — Karen admits that there were certain misrepresentations and misinterpretations of facts that fueled the fire of American upheaval, which is why she has been “allergic ever since to groups of people with single-minded visionary passion and without any doubt that they possess the one truth.” How does this type of tunnel vision — the blind and unshakable devotion to a single cause with imperfect or incomplete knowledge — seem to manifest itself throughout the novel, as well as in the present day, and what are the consequences?
9. Examining the spirit behind Operation Lima Bravo Juliet, Karen says that “For those first three months of 1968, we embodied the part of the American character that has troubled and scared me ever since”; that is, the America that promotes visionary risk-taking, dogged determination, and fearlessness in the name of freedom and justice. “For better or worse, in 1968, I think we were very American. Terribly American,” she says. Do you agree that the motivation driving Lima Bravo Juliet epitomizes a version of what it means to be American? In what ways is that mindset dangerous and in what ways is it inevitable or necessary?
10. Andersen has said he chose to tell the story from a woman’s point of view because the changes in women’s lives during the last half century have been consequential and dramatic. How did making True Believers one woman’s story as opposed to a man’s shape it?
11. After Chuck’s death, Karen refers to the Bible story in which God ordered Abraham to murder his son, Isaac, in a test of faith, but ultimately sent an angel to prevent the sacrifice from taking place. She questions whether in the madness leading up to Operation LBJ, she acted as Abraham or God, and whether Chuck fulfilled the role of Isaac or Abraham. What do you think?
12. On writing True Believers, Andersen said he opted for a first person account because he “wanted the characters to walk away from their conspiracy scot-free and keep the secret for decades. In order to convey the unnerving impact of living such a lie, I decided that one of the co-conspirators had to tell the tale.” Did you find Karen to be a credible narrator? How was your reading affected by the idea of her writing a work of nonfiction, and how did this contribute to the sense of anxiety and inexorability that Andersen was driving toward?
Based on Karen’s recounting of her teenage years in the late 1960s and her grand-daughter’s experience of being a teenager today, in which era is it easier or harder to be young? Forty or fifty years from now, how will today’s teenagers have been shaped by their youth?
13. After reading, how would you characterize a “true believer?”