“No one wants to be married to the guy who thinks he’s going to save the world.”
I bought a book on my Kindle after hearing an interview with the author on NPR, and it may have been the first time I’ve done that. I know nothing about the world of startups, but being one of billions of people hooked up to them, I catch a whiff of that culture all the time. It seeps into anything and everything. Just one passage intrigued me enough to read it through. That book is The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam.
Asha has a promising position in tech when she runs into a high school crush, marries him, and ends up ditching her career to work with him on a shared pipe dream: a social media platform that joins her tech acumen with his leadership and knowledge of human religions. A platform to replace religion with, well, only the rituals and meaning of religion. A buffet of ceremonies cultivated for every user.
Wanna get baptized without the holy spirit? Wanna bury a lover like they do in Game of Thrones? Wanna have a Gatsby wedding and make it feel as spiritual as a Catholic one? Asha and Cyrus come up with a name, WAI (pronounced “way”), reminiscent of Christianity’s first nick name.
After spending time in a famous yet mysterious startup incubator called Utopia, Asha and Cyrus build their company while struggling to gain financing, while also sticking true to their original values, one of which is to make the platform completely free. WAI catches on in an ironically fanatical way:
“Once they’ve asked the platform to give them a ritual, they’re hooked, perpetually asking it more questions, coming back daily and sometimes multiple times a day to see what their friends are doing, posting photos, commenting on other people’s rituals, and in general just hanging around like they have nothing better to do than to sit around not worshiping God.”
Asha slowly watches as all the concentration, all the power, and all the attention falls on Cyrus. The question haunts her: “Is Cyrus a shaman or a priest? Philosopher or prophet? Friend? Charlatan? Cult?” Everyone follows in the man’s wake. He seems too oblivious about it, which makes him irresponsible, not knowing when to say no to the power he allows others to give him.
The prediction that the startup is doomed to some sort of cataclysm, with Asha and Cyrus’s gender dynamic at the heart, is easy to see from the beginning. But how it specifically plays out is still well crafted and eerily realistic. “I’m touched that he thinks I can solve the problem of human degradation with an equation,” Asha says early on, which may or may not be a nod to a point Dostoevsky made back in the 1800s to mock society’s obsession with utopian progress fixing all our problems. But is this a problem because men are in charge? Or because women allow themselves to be too smitten by men in charge?
While the plot direction is straightforward, the thematic applications are more ambiguous. Asha’s obsession with Cyrus as a mate continuously contrasts with her feminism, and their naive and purist statements about who they won’t become make for obvious foreshadowing about who they will become. We’re just not sure exactly how, even when an investor aggressively tells them, metaphorically of course, that in order to succeed they’ll need to “kill everyone.”
We know the story. You have a big idea. You make promises. You falter. You were too lofty. While some of the commentary is nothing original, it’s also hard to argue against, and the vehicle of story and narrative voice itself is unique and freshly relevant. Imagine The Circle with a feminist bent, sharper wit, and less elaborately performative. And this time it’s from the perspective of, not just a woman, but the wife and business partner of the man everyone turns to as the one and only founder.
Whereas Dave Eggers’ The Circle critiques the conceit that tech firms should complete everything they dream of, this novel digs deeper and suggests that tech startups begin wrong with the male gaze, that rapey, possessive assumption that our vision has no limits, and we can control ourselves as we test them. The narrator not-so-subtle stresses that “unthinkable things should sometimes remain in the realm of the imagination: ideas we consider and dream of but resist the urge to bring into being.” For all the loudness of foreshadowing, Anam still leaves some ideas to stew in our minds. While not as detailed and slightly more surreal than The Circle, The Startup Wife is funnier, more specific to issues like gender. She satirizes not just big tech, but acutely how pretentious progressives can be about the good deeds they’re doing in the name of progress, and couldn’t possibly be narcissistic.
As if to say, our new feminist societal change doesn’t mean we won’t embrace male toxicity and call it female progress. Asha asks, “Why did I wed my idea to a man and push him to take center stage when I was the one who stayed up nights making it a reality?”
You’ll understand Asha and sympathize with her as narrator. You’ll want to place the character of Cyrus in someone you know. If you’re a male sharing any of his characteristics, you’re forced to compare yourself to him. At first, it’s flattering. But later, it becomes convicting. Whether you’re the dreamy crush or the coder who has to work twice as hard as him, you end up creating a messiah and his institution, and it leaves a sour taste that nobody wants to admit is a sign that there’s poison in the water.
While the story has no sudden twists, except for the odd insertion of the Covid-19 pandemic (without actually calling it that) as a plot device, some of the lessons are left up to the reader. What are we to make of multi-faceted feminist responses to toxic workplaces? At what point does any meaningful thing become an idol? Can you replace religion? What is the horizon of technology?
We know it will go bad, and we know what’s at the heart of it, but the why is still ephemeral and up for discussion. Is it asking us to be anti-religious? Or asking us not to think we should? Or is it assuming that patriotism is at the heart of all religion? Is it? A woman allowed it. What is the challenge to women? To at least take responsibility for what they help make. That maybe women can’t pretend to be innocent in these creations. Not when they give up control they actually had. All this and being a breeze of a read are what make The Startup Wife a worthy read.
Also, my kindle edition had a couple typos.