Be warned, fair reader: if you’re looking to escape reality with your next book, Anthem (Grand Central, Jan. 2022) may not be the book for you. Noah Hawley’s novel unfolds in the immediate aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic—in a near future based on imagined consequences of the present’s problems. Its impetus is an epidemic of teenage suicide that take place during a raging climate crisis. Its narrative is interrupted by essayistic asides from the author. And its finger is so firmly on the pulse that even the January 6 Capitol riot sneaks in an appearance.
And yet, as Hawley says over the phone from his home in Austin, Tex., Anthem is fundamentally a fantasy novel—a quest story that he compares to the Lord of the Rings. “I had the realization that, at the moment in which our reality had become fantastical, a novel about the real world had to be a fantasy novel,” the 53-year-old author says. “If my job as a writer is to recreate the real world around me, then what do I do when the real world around me becomes ridiculous?”
In addition to being a successful novelist, Hawley is also a successful screenwriter, best known for developing the FX anthology series Fargo. Weeks after his previous novel, Before the Fall, published in 2016, Hawley sketched out the beginning stages of Anthem—whose premise, initially, involved a young woman’s disappearance. Then he created a new show, Legion, followed by another season of Fargo.
In 2018, in the heat of the Trump era, Hawley committed to writing 100 pages of Anthem and did so. Then he made Fargo’s most recent season and directed his first film, 2019’s Lucy in the Sky (starring Natalie Portman as a version of the American astronaut Lisa Nowak). After all that, when he was finally able to complete Anthem, the world was on lockdown, with the future of humanity seeming more precarious than ever.
“The book takes place in the future,” Hawley says. “So for what we were living through last year, I had to force a level of hindsight to something where the ink wasn’t dry yet. That was more challenging than anything I’d done before. It’s also a somewhat traumatic book to write, in examining the world that we’re leaving to our children.”
The narrative begins with a provocative line that vividly establishes Anthem’s tone: “The summer our children began to kill themselves was the hottest in history.” Hawley wrote this line last spring, at the height of the pandemic, after the idea of “a really powerful stress or anxiety or depression that was generational on some level, and also contagious” came to him, he says.
Indeed, Anthem takes on the cliché that the children are our future, spinning it with a kind of absurdist, fatalistic bravado. The thriller follows Simon Oliver, a wealthy teenager whose older sister has just died by suicide. Mental health issues that result from the grief lead to Simon’s institutionalization, where he meets a peer called the Prophet, who convinces him that if he and other kids flee the hospital and bind together, they can save themselves and humanity. As Hawley conceives this setup, it’s tragic in its naive hopefulness—a bit of childlike innocence brushing up against a harshly unforgiving world.
“Noah spent those years fully realizing his vision, enriching it and expanding it to take in the full tenor and terror of the times,” says Michael Pietsch, CEO of the Hachette Book Group and editor of Anthem. “The novel is a wild adventure set inside a world that feels on fire every way you turn—like the world we’re living in.”
Along the way, Hawley weaves a tapestry of some of the worst crises our society faces, touching on political violence and the opioid epidemic. He was greatly inspired by literature of the 1960s, particularly Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
“Vonnegut managed to balance humor and horror and science fiction in a way in which this really powerful, simple morality came through,” Hawley says. “You could see why that tone of voice really appealed to people in the ’60s. He was in on the joke, he understood the seriousness of the crime, but he also recognized the absurdity of it.”
Hawley believes such an approach is key to writing about contemporary life, too. As Simon, the Prophet, and friends embark on their quest, they work toward a kind of utopia. Hawley dedicates a section of the book to unpacking that notion, calling it a “made-up word” and something that’s “not based on fixing the problems around you. It’s based on running away to start over.” A romantic possibility for teenagers, perhaps—and maybe a necessary one when they have so little hope. “It’s an idea that appeals directly to the child in us,” Hawley adds.
In Anthem, themes like this find room for explanation in the first-person pieces that break up the main action, in which the author addresses the reader directly. This marks an evolution from the way he’s interwoven truth and fiction for years, going back to his 2012 novel The Good Father, and from his first experimentations of the cinematic essay in Legion.
“That idea of mixing nonfiction and fiction and more essayistic fiction went up to 11 on this book,” Hawley says with a laugh. “Part of me felt like the only way to tell this story to people was for me to tell the story to people—for me to say, ‘Look, here I am, I’m 53, I’m a father of two, help me figure this out.’ ”
Hawley ranks among the most prolific and accomplished writers working between page and screen—he has won an Emmy and an Edgar Award, hit the bestseller list, and reached millions of TV viewers. Part of what keeps him going in both mediums is the way they feed one another.
“The key word in screenwriting is economy—it’s really interrogating how much of something you need in a story—that has definitely informed the books,” Hawley says. “Vice versa, as a novelist, you understand that novels are primarily concerned with the internal states of characters. That’s always been compelling to me: how do you show those internal states through behavior and dialogue and cinematography and sound design—all the tools that a filmmaker has?”
Which leads, naturally, to the question of whether Hawley will ever take on that challenge for one of his own books—adapting, say, Anthem for the screen. He believes there’s a movie or a show to be made out of all of the novels he’s written so far. “I haven’t made them yet, because a novel is a really precious form and I like that they exist on that level,” he says. “When you read a novel, you’re making the movie in your head. There’s something special about that. For now, my instinct is to let them have lives of their own.”
David Aaron is a magazine writer and critic.