Book review: Online life is a bug in the world of ‘Startup’

Heather Scott Partington

Three stars

Startup By Doree Shafrir, $26.

Doree Shafrir, senior culture writer at Buzzfeed, has written a novel of manners for the digital age. Startup could be called Pride and Prejudice and Tech Bros; Shafrir turns a sharp eye on the culture of techy startups and their unspoken moral codes. Startup follows two couples—Dan, a late-30s editor of a tech website, and his wife Sabrina, who runs the social media for a mindfulness app; and Mack, the CEO of the app, and Isabel, who is Sabrina’s supervisor. Socialization and work are entwined hopelessly in what seems like an accurate portrayal of the many startups that have cropped up on each coast. Employees work in open spaces, and work blends into evenings out, drinks after work and group pole-dancing classes. Shafrir underscores the cultural differences between generations, highlighting how a single decade means the difference between Dan and Sabrina’s experience on the cusp of technology, and that of those younger, who have grown up with the certainty of the Internet.

Startup mostly works, when it’s not being cumbersome listing each technological interruption in its characters’ lives. Shafrir integrates the daily dings and pings that interrupt our days, but at times it feels more like a catalog than a central tenet of the story. Shafrir’s work drips with relevant irony referencing the cultural, racial and sexual politics of companies that bloom and die like wildflowers. She writes that these CEOs “donated money to charities started by their friends [who] taught underprivileged kids how to code but voted against raising taxes to make those kids’ schools better,” and one character tries to bring awareness about identity to the tech industry by using technology to co-opt a different identity. This isn’t bold, defiant satire, but the kind that highlights the thousand natural shocks of human interaction.

Shafrir understands that “people just [want] to feel special. They [want] to feel like you [see] them,” which is our social media addiction in a nutshell. Her characters get themselves into the most trouble when they chase this desire to be seen outside the bounds of their own marriages, good sense and basic workplace norms that are no longer givens. “I wish someone had told me that hooking up with the founder of your company was a bad idea,” one character laments. Shafrir makes it clear that such social entanglements are part of learning on the job.

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