Review: In Tahmima Anam’s New Novel ‘The Startup Wife’, Good Ideas Get Out of Control | Characteristics
THE STARTUP WOMAN. By Tahmima Anam. Simon & Schuster. 304 pages. $ 26.
Can we blame tech superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos for what’s going on on their platforms? What happens when a good idea comes to life? These are the questions at the heart of Tahmima Anam’s latest novel, “The Startup Wife”.
The stars seem to align for protagonist Asha Ray. She is intelligent, out of her delicate phase and pushed to high ambitions. Her Ph.D. project involves artificial intelligence that she says will empathetically make robots more human, but when her work collides with the limits of neurological science, she finds another outlet for her code.
Her world-changing idea comes shortly after regaining her high school crush. In a whirlwind romance, Asha marries Cyrus, a charismatic, spiritual (in the unaffiliated sense) free thinker two months after seeing him again as an adult. He uses the breadth of his global cultural and religious knowledge to create rituals for people, such as weddings and funerals, according to their interests. And berates his rich friend Jules for a roof over his head and food in his stomach. He’s hot and wise, like Brad Pitt after seven years in Tibet, and apparently after a night of passion, Asha knows how to change the world.
“In the morning, I casually suggested to Cyrus that we should launch a platform that would allow people without religion to practice some form of faith. I said I would customize the empathy module algorithm to create rituals around the things people love: their hobbies, their obsessions, their favorite characters in their favorite books. He would draw from history, novels, poetry and witchcraft.
People could form micro-communities around their interests, and in this age of emptiness, that would give them a sort of virtual parish.
” ‘You can do it?’
“’I have magic hands.’ I laughed. ‘Just like you.’ “
Cyrus resists the idea at first because social media and making money aren’t his cool idea. But after Asha and Jules (who becomes the third partner) are invited to join an exclusive and famous tech incubator, Cyrus gives in. And there, the plot begins to thicken.
The incubator may be called Utopia, but the underlying mission is preparing for the apocalypse. They’re funded by tech companies, high net worth individuals, and government pension funds – 1 percent who can afford to survive. Other companies headquartered in the glittering and elegant tower are an Internet obituary service, an app that functions as a consent contract to be used before intimate encounters and producers of manufactured foods.
The tower itself operates off the grid, ready to secure and support them all at the end of time, an arch in the middle of the city. They are eager to bring Asha’s invention because religion and rituals play such a powerful role in humanity, and people might need it when the world crumbles.
From there, Asha, Cyrus, and Jules are sucked into the high-pressure startup world, where their invention needs a team and takes on investors who want a say in the management. As the stakes rise, Asha, despite her own oversized ego, gives up control, sequestering herself with her team of developers as greed and power cloud the decisions her husband and business partners make.
So, of course, the unthinkable happens, in more ways than one.
“The Startup Wife” is an interesting start for Anam, whose three other novels are a multigenerational family saga about Muslim life in Bangladesh, Pakistan and the United States. Religion is a theme she has worked with before. Although the book is better when the characters joke about vegan, nut-free, and gluten-free hemp mylkshakes with additional CBD shots on how they’re going to make the post-apocalypse a better place.
Certainly lighter than his other books, “The Startup Wife” is good. Anam writes with delightful irony about today’s youth, startup culture, and the beginning of the end of the world. It would have been better if readers could see some of the big developments happening on the page, as Asha working to connect the dots of her idea, rather than learning it as a fully formed informal suggestion.
The story sometimes gives the impression of relying too much on the summary. Dramatic moments seem to be skipped over instead of undermined; tension released instead of being built. But, overall, “The Startup Wife” is a fun and intelligent contemporary novel on topical ethical issues.
In the end, there is a reshuffle at Utopia. Millionaires lose their board positions, projects get scrapped and marriage suffers. But readers may wonder if the inventors were ever really held responsible for the damage to their watch, if those at the fancy tower ever really hit rock bottom, which is perhaps part of the book that rings the more faithfully to real life. .
Critical Melinda copp is a freelance writer based in Bluffton.