Smart, amusing, and light as an emoji feather, “Startup” is a coming-of-age novel for these digital times. In an era of Twitter and Instagram, author and former Buzzfeed senior culture writer Doree Shafrir manages to hold our interest for more than 140 characters as she pokes fun at a group of young overachievers in this old-school written form.
The premise of “Startup” is familiar: Young people, on the cusp of their careers, face personal and ethical choices that will define who they are. Start-up founder, Mack McAllister, is at its center. Up for $600 million in funding for his fledgling app TakeOff, Mack believes in his own brilliance, and his supremely self-centered (and self-deluded) internal monologue provides much of the book’s humor. However it is the women who orbit around him who make up the heart of the book. These include the two other point-of view characters, Katya Pasternack and Sabrina Choe Blum, as well as the beautiful Isabel Taylor.
Isabel, who works at TakeOff, has been casually hooking up with Mack, but when the company founder and CEO wants to get serious, she must figure out how she feels about him as well as her responsibility both to the other women at TakeOff and “womanity” (her word) at large. Fledgling digital journalist Katya, the daughter of immigrants, is looking for the scoop that will guarantee her job security and the American dream. Meanwhile, 36-year-old Sabrina, mother of two and failed novelist, is the odd woman out. Desperate to pay off her credit-card debt, she takes a job at TakeOff handling the fledgling firm’s Twitter feed, but she struggles to make her way among child- and carefree colleagues a decade younger and digital light years ahead of her.
The tension and volatility of this insular world are apparent from the start, as characters move like a pack from “MorningRave” to such hot-house jobs as “Engagement Ninja” and “Biz Dev Hero.” The writing is peppered with buzzwords, from subreddit threads and “cucks” to mantras like “Be the change.” It is an easy world to poke fun at, with its insider references and silly-sounding catchphrases and, most of all, its ridiculous amounts of money. As a character notes, without any apparent sense of irony, “It was truly a new Gilded Age.”
The contrivance that gets the plot going — a leaked personal text message revealing Mack and Isabel’s relationship — is fairly believable. And if the repercussions are also predictable — of course, Katya will use the text; of course, it will rebound on Sabrina and Isobel — the social satire is sharp. This is a world run by immature boys and the girls who run in circles to please them. It is then satisfying when the plot resolution skewers the proponents of the bro culture, while the women emerge, after a moral spanking, older and a bit wiser, facing a Brooklyn sunset.
But this is no “Bright Lights Big City.” It’s not even as deep as 2013’s coming-of-age breakthrough, “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.” While it may be coincidence that those books dealt with young people finding themselves in New York’s literary society, what they shared was a more complex worldview — a dawning awareness that the world was larger than the characters’ own social milieu.
That doesn’t really happen in “Startup.” Katya has written one in-depth article by the book’s end, but her commitment to journalism is shaken by a late personal revelation. And while Sabrina laments her unpublished novel and wasted MFA, her creative future is barely mentioned. Only Isabel has had her awareness raised in a somewhat more meaningful way, but what she will do with it is unclear.
Like her heroines, the author came of age in digital media, and the book reads that way: fast, witty, and fun. But, sadly, after turning the last page the story lacks the kind of thoughtful resonance that takes hold and lingers. Instead it all slips away like a Snapchat message.
By Doree Shafrir
Little, Brown, 295 pp., $26Clea Simon, a novelist and freelance writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.