Fiction's No Stranger: On Doree Shafrir's 'Startup'
Originally published by The Millions on April 26, 2017.
Art imitates life in tech, but novels give us one precious advantage over reality: the time to reflect on what we’re consuming.
Men in power have always tried to insulate themselves from criticism and punishment. Doree Shafrir’s Startup is a sharp-witted debut novel that peels back the layers of those structures, revealing those in power who grasp to maintain their privilege at all costs. The title signals an ordinariness that acts as a preview of what’s to come, a wink and a nod from a friend who asks if we see this, too. At its core, it’s a book about average men doing bad things and the women who take control of the narrative from them.
Startup’s prose channels the youthful energy of a new tech company from the start. We quickly meet Mack McAllister, founder of the fictional startup TakeOff. McAllister serves as an all-purpose stand-in for startup culture’s best and worst elements, and he’s on the verge of securing millions in funding for his business. The book doesn’t hold many surprises, and it’s clear from the onset that his hubris will bring him down. Mack — who compares himself to Steve Jobs because he made a piece of mildly successful software — creates his own problems; like many men in power, he can’t wait to cast those problems as someone else’s fault, so he directs his anger toward Isabel, his subordinate and office attraction.
Still, in a moment when Mack looks around the office, proud of the jobs he’s created with his company, it’s easy to see why people chase the next big idea. It’s intoxicating, and the book doesn’t shy away from this. Likely as a result of her work as a journalist for BuzzFeed, Rolling Stone, and Gawker, Shafrir communicates a lived-in knowledge of these moments, deftly taking the reader to school and back in a few sentences. On the relationships between startups and venture capitalists, she writes:
…VC firms were built to understand and profit from this new world. They knew that it took money to make money. In fact, it was considered a bad sign if your company was profitable too soon; you had to spend the money you were earning to build your business or else your investors would wonder if you were thinking big enough and taking enough risks. That was Startup 101.
Meanwhile, tech blogger Katya Pasternack stumbles upon what might be the story of a lifetime, a scoop that her editor would love to publish to “expose the hypocrisy of the tech world once and for all.” But she hesitates, for the first time questioning whether she has a responsibility as a woman to tell a particular story, or if the search for page views is worth questionable tactics.
Katya’s chase for facts brings her up against her own boss’s wife, Sabrina Choe Blum, one of TakeOff’s older employees, a mom of two in her mid-30s with a secret shopping habit.
Startup may have read as satire a decade ago but feels like historical record today. Shafrir’s precise eye for detail takes stock of the tech industry’s favorite answers for tough questions. “Now it seemed like these guys had all gone to the same school of ‘call women crazy whenever they do something that makes you uncomfortable.’” Mack, the tech-bro CEO, seeks retribution against an employee for his own misdeeds with the veneer that “this is a startup, things are always going to be changing and evolving and iterating.”
The startup world has long been averse to criticism. Those who prod at the edges through journalism risk losing access to information, money, and power. A declarative crescendo comes from Mack’s chief operating officer when he compares sexual harassment allegations to war.
We saw this in real life with Peter Thiel’s quest to destroy Gawker. He delineated his version of truth and pursued it with his incredible wealth. Thiel spent years secretly funding lawsuits against Gawker, telling The New York Times he considered destroying the media company, an employer of hundreds of people, an act of philanthropy. With his support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, some started calling him an aspiring “villain.”
In his book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, Thiel asks, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?” By posing that question, is he challenging readers to understand our own values? Or is he encouraging followers to go against the grain, redefining what qualifies as legitimate, like his offer to pay teenagers to skip college? And at what point does a counterargument become a distorted worldview?
A major element of this distorted worldview is a belief in meritocracy, a concept originating from a satirical essay about a dystopian future by Michael Young. Meritocracy has become a favorite slogan of startups challenged by a lack of diversity, and Thiel stands as both a creator of this system and one of its ultimate beneficiaries. Shafrir’s novel takes aim at this virtual reality, “They thought everyone, including themselves, were where they were entirely because of hard work and innate creativity, and if you weren’t successful, that was because you hadn’t tried hard enough. They didn’t understand people who weren’t just like them.” So it comes as no surprise when Mack attempts to define his own narrative after a series of inappropriate text messages unravel his professional life.
Startup is about more than business. It navigates the rocky foundation of relationships, journalism’s importance, sexual harassment, and digital careerism. It’s about how all those things blend together, particularly as women come into power and the world around them reacts.
“The stakes were just higher for her,” Shafrir writes of Katya. “People like Mack — they could afford to make mistakes. They were forgiven. Young women with immigrant parents who went to college on scholarship and were one paycheck away from not being able to pay rent — they couldn’t.”
Ironically, Isabel, the story’s real catalyst, gets the fewest pages.
The plotlines move with momentum, perhaps because backstory is scarce. While we get to know the main characters by observing their daily lives, we rarely get a glimpse of how they got there. The novel is most relatable when it touches on the inner turmoil of its characters — the fraying edges of Sabrina’s marriage; Katya stumbling through her 20s; Isabel and Mack struggling to reconcile a situation that never should’ve been. At one point, Sabrina recounts an old romance that turns out to be one of the most electrifying moments in the book. Through this we observe people in and around startup culture in a way we don’t often see: flawed, scared, honest.
Shafrir knows that technology can’t fix human nature, and she argues that spending so much time personifying our tech causes us to lose sight of the human beings on the other end. Technology enables messy lives, allowing us to be in a coworker’s pocket or a stranger’s living room. In a world ruled by technology, the lines aren’t simply blurred, Shafrir points out — they’re erased.