A few years back, an article in The Atlantic explored the parallels between Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The writer hedged his bets, declaring more than once his warm feelings toward the Valley and positioning the article as a cautionary comparison, to prevent the greed and misogyny of the 1980s bankers from taking root in the entrepreneurs of the 21st century.

Would that it were so simple.

In her novel, “Startup,” Doree Shafrir smartly – but lovingly – skewers tech culture, its grandiose leaders and the naivety of thinking that good intentions, lots of money and a mindset of fun will prevent bad behaviors in the workplace.

Mack McAllister embodies much of that thinking. His company is a “startup” in the parlance of the technology sector, meaning basically that they’re operating on good intentions and the saleability of themselves as a future profit-printing-machine. To bear that designation, it’s also key that the company be poised to go big, and quickly – one restaurant isn’t a startup.

Mack’s company, TakeOff, has been developing an app to help workers take breaks and other self-care measures throughout the day. It’s already proving popular, and TakeOff is on the verge of securing a pile of money toward expanding broadly and quickly.

Running parallel to the tech industry are the media that have sprung up around it. It’s as much, if not more, a key element of the story, this look at how the news gets reported. Shafrir knows this well – she’s a senior culture writer at Buzzfeed News. Katya Pasternack is the ambitious young tech reporter in the story, feeling pressure from her website’s managing editor, Dan Blum, to break open a big story. Shafrir writes cuttingly about this industry, where stories are repackaged, retitled and disseminated widely and quickly across social media, while few actual news stories get traction.

On one side of the story is Mack, his company and his employees, who are mostly (and probably intentionally) interchangeable, one-dimensional characters. Two of them, Sabrina and Isabel, have larger roles to play. Isabel had recently been sleeping with Mack, a secret they kept from everybody else in the office. Sabrina is 10 years older and is married to Dan.

Mack, being Mack, is often given to petulant musings about things in life he has been denied. Isabel has moved on to a relationship with somebody else, but Mack wants to continue with her and one night makes the ill-considered decision to send her illicit pictures of himself. Isabel’s phone happens to be on a counter at a get-together when the notification appears, right in front of Katya and Sabrina. Katya sees it and uses her own phone to photograph the picture.

Katya knows she has an explosive scoop, one that needs to be known, and Dan – for reasons both professional and personal – wants to see Katya succeed. Sabrina’s marriage to Dan has been faltering, and work has become the only place she feels valued, and so she doesn’t know what to do with this new information.

Doree Shafrir Photo by Willy Somma

When Isabel asks Sabrina about how sexual harassment has changed over time – Sabrina is 10 years older – she says that harassment used to be more blatant, that guys could get away with more back then. She also acknowledges that the same things are happening today but have become harder to recognize with social media and technology changing the ways we interact.

Shafrir writes from inside the belly of the beast, dropping in commentary on various aspects of Silicon Valley culture, like the Googlers with their dreams of changing the world, their not-actually-revolutionary employment at Google, the “golden handcuffs” of their everything-provided workplaces that keep them from quitting.

The storytelling in “Startup” generates its own momentum, with the characters wrestling with thorny questions of loyalty, justice, consequences and relationships in ways that reject easy answers. It only loses that momentum when Shafrir indulges the characters’ internal monologues – a lengthy inventory of the contents of a handbag don’t serve any essential need – but these are minor bumps in the road.

Shafrir may, in some ways, be reinventing the wheel with “Startup,” but a novel doesn’t necessarily need to be astonishingly different in order to draw the reader in. It’s a familiar and engrossing story populated with people who want to see themselves as the next Mark Zuckerberg, or the next Bob Woodward, but can’t get out of each other’s – and their own – way.

Matt Tiffany is a mental health counselor and writer whose work has appeared in the Star Tribune, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Kansas City Star, Barnes & Noble Book Review and many other publications. He has always lived in Maine. He may be contacted at:

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