NEW WAVES by Kevin Nguyen (One World, 302 pp., $27)
Kevin Nguyen’s affecting, enlightening and cutting-edge debut novel, "New Waves," is set in the tech industry workplace in New York City circa 2009. It revolves around the friendship between two appealing malcontents in their mid-20s, Lucas and Margo. They work at a successful messaging service start-up called Nimbus. Their office sounds exactly like the millennial playpens Anna Weiner describes in her recent Silicon Valley memoir “Uncanny Valley” featuring action figures, Nerf guns, a beer tap and a foosball table.
“Apparently investors loved these things,” Lucas observes. “They’d tour the office every few months and take stock of the ways Nimbus embodied the tired notion that everyone could work hard and play hard, even if that meant the office looked like an 8-year-old’s playroom.”
Neither Lucas nor Margo plays foosball. Lucas, the narrator, is a bright, sensitive, self-aware young man. Everyone assumes he’s an engineer because he’s Asian, but since his parents could only afford to send him to community college, he works in customer service, the very bottom of the tech totem pole. There he is expected to operate “like the engine of a Prius,” humming along.
Margo also defeats people’s assumptions. Black, female and brilliant, she’s a gifted programmer and a science fiction maven. As the book opens, she is slugging back drinks in a bar: her angry comments at a meeting about the racial makeup of the Nimbus user base confirmed that she is not a good "culture fit" for the company, and she’s been let go. When Lucas shows up to join her, she shares her plan to get revenge by copying the user database. Even if she doesn’t pass the information to a competitor, the mere fact of the security breach will be a publicity nightmare.
At first, Lucas is against it. “We’re taking something that doesn’t belong to us,” he argues.
“Nothing belongs to us,” Margo replies.
Not long after their office friendship began, Lucas and Margo discovered that they met previously as members of “an exclusive online community dedicated to the distribution of pirated materials." She was afronaut3000; he was lucas_pollution. At Nimbus, she became the closest friend Lucas has ever had; she might have been more than that, but as we learn at the end of the first chapter, she was hit by a car and killed a few months after the opening scene.
Lucas’s life from that point is shaped by his loss, by his memories and all he learns after her death. He meets Margo’s mother at the funeral; she asks him to shut down her daughter's Facebook account. Once he’s on her laptop, he discovers a science fiction forum where Margo was in a multiyear chat with an author whom she was helping with a book. How did she never talk about this? Lucas connects with the writer, discovers a trove of Margot’s own writing, floats in the ocean of his grief.
Nguyen, a former digital editor for GQ and a veteran of Google and Amazon, continually lightens the atmosphere with his wry humor, such as the inspirational posters on the wall of a guidance counselor’s visits: “as if Martin Luther King had a dream to apply for an unpaid internship.” Lucas’s father, who is Vietnamese, once worked as a chef at a Japanese steakhouse under the ridiculous alias “Sony.” This caused patrons to effuse to him about their televisions.
Funny and sad, smart and wise, completely of the moment, this is a book you want to read.