STARTUP, by Doree Shafrir. Little, Brown and Co.; 295 pp., $26.
Wait — is there really an app that is Uber for strollers? How about Tinder for rental apartments?
Or a weekly gathering in Brooklyn where 20-somethings start the day with a “clean-living dance party” in a former spice factory? How about a yearly conference in Austin, Texas, that’s the “tech industry’s five-day Super Bowl, prom, Oscars and Coachella all wrapped into one, with breakfast tacos”?
Part of the giddy fun of “Startup,” a sendup of the tech industry by BuzzFeed culture writer Doree Shafrir, is separating the invented from the real. While StrollUp, FindMyPad and MorningRave are products of the author’s satirical genius, the annual boondoggle with breakfast tacos known to initiates as “South By” is quite real.
Deftly and not-so-deftly navigating this fresh-baked cultural landscape are Shafrir’s equally of-the-moment characters. There’s 28-year old CEO William “Mack” McAlister, who’s trying to take his office wellness app, TakeOff, to the next level with an infusion of venture capital. Mack is sleeping with the company’s “Engagement Ninja,” Isabel Taylor, a 26-year old It Girl. So accustomed is this wunderkind to holding the power in a relationship that he just can’t accept it when Isabel moves on before he’s ready. She is at a party at the posh apartment of her new boyfriend when he sends her unwanted photos of his anatomy with the pathetic caption “don’t tell me u don’t miss this.”
Unfortunately, these texts come in while Isabel’s phone is sitting unattended on the coffee table, where they are observed by Sabrina Blum, a 36-year old Korean-American mother who works at Mack’s company, but even worse, by Katya Pasternack, a rising star at the news site TechScene. From that moment, Katya’s pursuit of what she hopes will be a career-making story is on a collision course with Mack’s dream of TakeOff becoming a unicorn, i.e., a startup valued at more than a billion dollars.
If the sexual harassment plot unfolds a bit predictably — men are dopes and liars, women are sisters under the skin — the cleverness of everything else is such that you almost don’t notice.
Shafrir is priceless on topics from millennial office culture to the Russian immigrant lifestyle of Katya’s parents to the vast chasm dividing today’s 20-somethings from 30-somethings (people born before and after AOL). Can’t they be old and tired and not talk about it constantly, wonders Katya, to whom 35 seems “about as far off as fifty, or a hundred.”
The misery of the 30-somethings is represented by Sabrina and her husband, Dan, mired in the drudgery of marriage and children. Sabrina watches in wonder as her colleagues meet up for an endless series of company-sponsored “pole-dancing classes and softball leagues and weekend dumpling crawls.” Since Dan considers his job at TechScene more important than hers at TakeOff, she is permanently stuck home with the kids, her only fun some online shopping.
Which is why Sabrina is now facing tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and why she’s so intrigued by a business idea she finds on a Facebook group for juicy young New York moms. The first few posts are pretty standard — “crafternoon playdates, a humblebrag disguised as a question about a four-year-old who was reading already” — but then there’s a thread about making money by selling one’s used underwear on Craigslist. Instantly, she’s in.
When Dan finds out about Sabrina’s new sideline, he’s not as mad as you might think — in fact, one of his first questions is whether she’d consider writing an essay about it for TechScene: “How Selling My Underwear for Cash Improved My Marriage.” “This is kind of a fascinating way-we-live-now story, right?” he says.
You said it, Dan. It certainly is.