A Very Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley: a Memoir. Anna Wiener. Farrer, Straus and Giroux. New York, 2020.

I’ve been trawling through the world of memoir for several years now, with degrees of determination. I’ve written a lot about it in various posts on this blog. I have issues around “truth”, pretence and ethics. So many novels are memoirs in disguise. I love the sense of unvarnished, or at least only once coated, reality that comes with an honest-to-goodness memoir, as far as that can ever really exist. This feels like one. So unexpected, so immediate, so funny, so intelligent, so scary. Yes, sure, names have been changed … places disguised … the usual drill. But the feeling is real.

It’s strange how some books seem to get a buzz right away, you don’t know where it comes from or how it has reached you but there it is, and my favourite New York literary magazine says to click if you want a special deal so you click and a very short time later in the Blue Mountains near Sydney (late ravaged with fire, flood, storm, power and phone outages – we struggle to survive as if in some archaic era) you open a parcel and there is this book, so beautifully produced in pale blue hardback, a sensational cover with raised embossing, you can’t stop touching it, title and author’s name look as if they have been stuck on with labelling tape and you open it and you CANNOT PUT IT DOWN. (Note however there is a hardback edition with a truly horrible cover, don’t bother buying that one! See below)

This is even stranger when you realize what it is about. OK, it’s a memoir about a woman living her life today, right now, she is in her twenties and young and  gorgeous, she should be having it all but it turns out her world is every bit as bizarre as the neo-Jurassic which seems to be enfolding us at an ever- increasing rate. And although you would think someone like me would have nothing in common with her, in fact she conveys so wonderfully what it is like to be in a world which itself does not exist, the same fantasmagoria I and thousands, millions, of others have been experiencing for some time and suspect might be one of the main reasons why everything is so decisively ****** up.

So she starts her story as a publishing assistant in New York, a familiar territory even if you have never been there. If you watch a lot of streaming TV you will recognize it from Younger, the show about an “old woman” of forty who tries to pass herself off as a groovy literary publishing assistant in her twenties. I loved that show, at least until it got unbearably soppy, but I love this book a lot more and it would make a far better TV series. Although turns out there is a TV series called Silicon Valley, but I haven’t seen it so don’t know how the two would compare. It was released in 2014, a comedy about a bunch of young guys who go into a tech start-up. Sound familiar?

She likes her New York publishing life just fine, but the writing (“ha-ha”) is on the wall, the wheels are coming off, and the entity she refers to as an online superstore is, by the early 2010s, destroying the existing publishing industry. She avoids ever mentioning a “brand name” throughout this book. I guess that’s to avoid being sued. But we know exactly who she is talking about. Anyway, like all humanist literary types she loathes the very thought of that entity as well as the anonymous other tech giants which have taken over our lives and expresses indignation about it to all her right-on friends like everyone in Australia still does.  Meanwhile many of her former friends and schoolmates were making their first millions, hiring wealth advisers and taking out time-shares in Bali.

Something happened to her, mainly being broke. So, hopeful but ignorant, she joined a new e-book start-up based in a loft in NYC. With woefully little knowledge or experience, she became a “techie”. It didn’t work out. It was 2015. Various people told her to go to San Francisco, where she had friends. She didn’t know they too were struggling with the late-capitalist hellscape, rents were spiking, dating websites were flooded with business-management guides and heterosexual digital marketers shared their existential philosophies. Strangely, she was hired by a data-analytics start-up in a customer-support position even thought she had absolutely no background in data-analytics. The main reason they hired her seems to be that she read books, which none of them ever did

This is an auto-ethnography of start-up culture through the brilliant, funny, candid, intelligent gaze of a remarkable young woman. You don’t need to hear the whole story. Well, you do, but buy the book.  You can get it on Kindle and in paperback from the US but this is one book I think is really worth buying in hard-back, it just feels so nice to touch and the print is lovely too. It’s what a book used to be. Try to find it in the original cover. The other cover, all red and purple squiggles, is unredeemably naff, which is what you get from the Amazon Australia site (see below).

Check out the various offers. Book Depository seems the best. Angus and Robertson for some unknown reason wants $47.75 for it. I will never understand the logic of book pricing in Australia these days or how it is that international publishing has reverted to an almost identical version of everything the tech revolution was supposed to disrupt. [‘Disruption’ is a big thing in Anna Wiener’s book, everything is supposed to be directed toward it, including camp-ground booking arrangements in US national parks].

This is a gripping tale of a young woman’s adventures in employment, twenty-first century style.  It’s not just her story, it’s the story of a generation, of a cultural shift, of the tentacles of invisible industries we can hardly imagine spreading out across the cyberworld and dragging everything into their maw. Of a lifestyle with no people in it, or hardly any. A world where young women earn spectacular salaries and bonuses but spend an awful lot of their time drinking tequila shots and wondering about the current Insta algorithms.  

Anna Wiener is a contributing writer for The New Yorker. She has also written for n+1, my favourite magazine, as well as The Atlantic. She still lives in San Francisco. I long to know what she is doing now. I hope she is writing more books. I don’t care if they are memoirs, biographies, essays, short stories. This is a voice so worth hearing and here is a writer engaging with what books can should and ought to be as she drags us with power and humour into the rest of this zany crazy probably insane and possibly terminal century.

Visit her website for more:

https://www.annawiener.com/writing

and read the Guardian review of her book:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/jan/06/anna-wiener-uncanny-valley-silicon-technology-political-surveillance