The Startup Wife by Tahmima Anam review – trouble in Utopia | fiction
IIt’s easy to remember a time when Tahmima Anam’s new novel, a pacy satire set in a secret tech “incubator”, might have passed for science fiction. No longer. From the all-consuming social media platform taking center stage to the deadly pandemic threatening its end, The startup woman impulses with last minute news. Real-world parallels can be found for even its most bizarre notions. Software that channels the voice of a deceased loved one? Microsoft patented something very similar earlier this year (note to IT managers: Anam’s version goes horribly wrong).
Look beyond high tech and doomsday anxieties, however, and you’ll find an uplifting tale as old as time: A woman invents something, a man takes the credit. True to her backdrop credo (“Change is Everything”), Anam seeks to disrupt this narrative, integrating her efforts into a quest for love and self-determination, and sliding as she goes. is heading towards an industry in which innovation has far surpassed regulation, leaving ethics in the dust. The end result may not be entirely philosophically convincing, but as high octane entertainment that hits poignant and fiercely witty notes, it skyrockets.
It all starts when Asha Ray, an MIT coding whiz and daughter of immigrant pharmacists, meets her teenage crush, Cyrus Jones. The distant hottie who ignored her throughout high school is now a traveling “humanist spirit guide,” crafting personalized rituals that allow non-religious to significantly mark life’s milestones. A whirlwind romance ensues, and suddenly, it’s like everything that once seemed impossible is within Asha’s grasp. In love, she has an idea. What if she ditched her PhD and wrote an algorithm to channel Cyrus’ Shard, offering bespoke rituals and allowing Adepts to connect with like-minded soul seekers?
The couple got down to business on a whim and their startup was born. They call the WAI platform, pronounced “why” and meaning “We Are Infinite”. Cyrus’ best friend, a damaged wasp named Jules, signs up for the ride and they move to New York City, where they have an office in Utopia, an exclusive tech incubator. Sleepless nights, multi-million dollar investments, and cult-like worship ensue, along with sudden – if not unforeseen – setbacks in both business and marital life.
Anam herself is the wife of a startup founder and her detailed postings are all the more fun to feel so plausible. A meeting room is accessible only via a trampoline; nudist networking events feature “hug puddles”; and cat baptisms abound.
Asha’s coding, meanwhile, is portrayed in much the same way handwriting is shown in the movies – lots of tap-tap-tapping fueled by hemp “mylkshakes”. That’s fair enough, but other features of the novel are also weathered, including the supposedly charismatic Cyrus, who is initially described as “mostly human, a little bit cartoonish, a little bit ghostly”, and doesn’t move much forward. afterwards, just becoming more obnoxious.
To some extent, this reinforces the novel’s criticism of the tech scene, and yet glimpses of Asha’s family – the sister who “rocks” a hijab, their Bangladeshi mother who would rather she put on a bikini (“C ‘This is what America is for’) – are so vivid in their usability that they may leave the reader to languish over the immersive intricacies of Anam’s Bengal trilogy.
At the end of the novel, a different mood prevails. Asha can’t decide if she was betrayed or just sidelined at WAI; all she knows is that she’s not about to let Cyrus take the credit for it. “I gave him power over me,” she fumed. “I gave him all the privileges in the world so he could turn around and mess me up.”
This is an interesting answer. While it doesn’t quite fit how the story unfolds, and it certainly won’t help tech solve its chronic and very real problem with women (not necessarily work of fiction anyway) This disrupts the familiar feeling of helplessness that comes with victimization. It also seems true that for Asha, amid the brilliant allure of utopia, any level of unvarnished authenticity feels downright subversive.