Recent narratives surrounding startup culture traffic in the drama of palace intrigue (“The Social Network,” “Jobs”). Usually framed as origin stories, these narratives chronicle a bullish visionary accruing power and fighting to keep that power.
Kevin Nguyen’s debut novel, “New Waves,” upends tropes of this genre and satirizes the self-important culture of “startup bros.” Set in a New York recovering from the 2008 economic recession, the departure begins with the protagonists — Margo, a talented black engineer, and Lucas, an Asian customer relations grunt — and is sharpest when critiquing power dynamics of tech, “an industry that fetishizes failure,” at a systemic level. Technology, as demonstrated by Nguyen, often reproduces and amplifies existing systems of oppression.
After Margo quits Nimbus, she conspires to steal user information from her former employer and coerces Lucas into joining her. “Copying,” she assures him, is not the same as stealing. Told from Lucas’ perspective, the heist goes smoothly, but, shortly after, Margo dies in a car accident, piling onto Lucas’ burdened conscience.
Though the stage is set for a thriller, this is a novel of grievances — social, cultural and personal. Lucas and Margo bond over racism in the workplace. And, while grieving Margo’s death, Lucas befriends Jill, a white writer Margo met online and chatted with daily.
Instead of white-collar crime, Nguyen turns readers’ attention to everyday racial and classist slights as well as larger, social issues like user privacy, companies policing expression, and accountability.
By dramatizing decisionmaking processes of investors and CEOs, Nguyen convincingly shows how technologies considered “neutral” can, in fact, reflect bias. Take, for instance, a facial recognition software built using a data set made up of photos from the creator and his friends’ Facebook accounts. Problem is, the photos are mostly of white folk, so the algorithm, which is sold to a U.S. defense contractor, essentially automates racial profiling.
“New Waves” is textured by multiple modes of writing, including correspondences over e-mail and online forums and “wav” audio files of dark sci-fi stories authored by Margo. One recording features a bloody board meeting, “We’re not just killing more, but we’re killing smarter. That’s what keeps us ahead of our competitors.”
In general, this versatility, like multiple tabs in a web browser, aptly reflects a digital reading experience, but becomes disjointed when, for just one chapter, the perspective shifts from Lucas to Jill in the form of diary entries.
Despite this abundance of modes, the overall style is dry and straightforward. In the absence of style and the red herring of criminal intrigue, what propels the novel forward is its easy readability and cactus-sharp wit. Nguyen is at his best when parroting startup speak, punched up with democratic aspirations, and exposing the Catch-22 logic of tech investors and executives. “This is what investors loved,” writes Nguyen, “people who solve problems. It didn’t matter what the problem was, or who might have created the problem.”
Connor Goodwin is a writer and critic from Lincoln, Neb. His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the Seattle Times, BOMB, Inside Hook and elsewhere.
By: Kevin Nguyen.
Publisher: One World, 306 pages, $27.