If Doree Shafrir’s entertaining debut novel Startup sounds like a familiar story – there’s a reason for that.
This past February, former Uber engineer Susan J. Fowler wrote a blog post that instantly made headlines. Detailing her year at the company, Fowler describes a manager who is continually protected by HR and higher-ups, despite being reported for harassment many times by both Fowler and her fellow female engineers. She alleged that on her first day with a new team, the manager sent Fowler a series of messages saying he was in an open relationship and was looking for women to have sex with.
Of course, Startup had been handed in to Shafrir’s editor long before Fowler’s story came to light, but it wasn’t the first time a story like the engineer’s became public. And sadly, it won’t be the last. Thankfully we have Shafrir to dissect the prosperous, murky, threatening and male-dominated environment of startup culture like an expert because, well, she is one.
Getting her start in journalism after leaving her history Ph.D. program for a job at Philadelphia Weekly, Shafrir joined the staff of Gawker in the site’s early, thrilling days. After a stint with Rolling Stone, she joined BuzzFeed as an editor and culture writer in 2012, and would go on to churn out diligent insights on subjects as diverse as YouTube star Tyler Oakley to the inconvenience of death at the zenith of social media. She’s a seasoned veteran in the world people still refer to as “new media,” and her experience in this culture helps give Startup its legs. Her measured eye and wealth of understanding is clear in the rendering of characters like Isabel, an assistant who casually leaves her phone on a coffee table when she goes to the bathroom because the notion of someone snatching it is unthinkable, and Victor, an out-of-work boyfriend convinced he’s smarter and more important than his employed partner.
Shafrir’s experience is why Startup works in the same way a show such as Silicon Valley does. Except, unlike Mike Judge’s HBO series that takes its name from the Bay Area hub of technology, Startup is set in New York City, a metropolis that in 2017 finds itself playing third fiddle to the current twin hubs of American acceleration, destruction or some combination of both: Washington, D.C. and Silicon Valley. And much like the lauded show, it accurately portrays what a strange and ultimately toxic environment is created when a bunch of men get money thrown at their big ideas by willing venture capitalists.
“Many of the men in the book are either consciously or unconsciously chauvinists,” Shafrir says over coffee at the Gramercy Hotel in New York City.
At first glance, Startup scans as a no-holds-barred crackerjack takedown of the neurotic news junkies who hover on the fringe of group conversations in bars, laughing at stale jokes with one eye still trained on Twitter. It’s funny, speedy reading well-suited for an express subway train commute. “Super….busy….today….can….you…
But as the book unfolds, tracking the downfall of Mack McAllister, the 28-year-old fraternity guy turned founder of a mindfulness app who’s frantic for funding, but even more desperate for Isabel, his employee, to love him. It’s clear that Shafrir seeks to pose broader questions about who, exactly, wields power in the workplace, and of what sort, and to what degree. Say you’re a young woman like Shafrir’s protagonist, upstart journalist Katya Pasternack: trying to make it alone in the dick-laden professional world. How do you deal with trolls spewing death threats if you’re a broke freelancer banging out paragraphs at home in your pajamas? What if there’s no HR to report harassment to?
“I really had to kind of get myself inside [Mack’s] head, and understand that Mack doesn’t think he’s a bad guy. How does that influence the way he moves through the world and the way he thinks about himself and the way he interacts with other people? I had to get that all on the page, while also communicating that he’s kind of a dick.”
What’s guaranteed is that you’re going to make a lot of enemies in the era of late, Internet-based capitalism. A bona fide millennial version of Jane Austen’s Mr. Collins, Shafrir’s Mack spends his days rattling off florid speeches to techies and Snapchatting pictures of his penis to his employee, who he’s hooking up with. He’s a goddamn nightmare convinced he’s hot shit, but to Katya, he’s a golden opportunity.
Katya, too, is a recognizable type. An ambitious reporter at a website called Tech-Scene, Pasternack’s voracious pursuit of a splashy, traffic-driving story is hampered by a depressive boss whose twin passions are ranting about the death of print journalism and smoking cigarettes.
So does Shafrir believe dismantling sexism in the tech world is truly possible? “It’s going to take a lot of work from people in power, who might not be so willing to give up that power,” she thinks. “It also means letting go of this idea that ‘we just hire the best people’ – because ‘the best’ is subjective, and people need to examine their own biases. And tech needs better HR, in general. And pay people equally!”
Strangely, despite its relentlessly relevant political leanings, Startup’s greatest accomplishment is the care and sensitivity with which it adapts app-based communication for a more traditionally novelistic format. By seamlessly threading the needle of her narrative through the particularities of Twitter, Instagram, Slack and Snapchat, Shafrir paints her characters’ complicated need to be seen and understood with the vivid primary colors of TechCrunch Disrupt. As the world hurtles ever onward at a breakneck clip, Startup illustrates the dystopian quality of our destabilizing present by generating nostalgia for it.