The funny and sharp fourth novel by acclaimed Bangladesh-born British author Tahmima Anam, The Startup Wife, exposes the folly of looking for leadership in the startup sector, which reveres disruption in all areas except its own.
In this brilliantly incisive social novel, a quasi-faith community springs from a social media platform called WAI, short for “We Are Infinite.” WAI uses an algorithm to design personalized rituals based on three meaningful elements of a person’s life—and then introduces that person to a like-minded community.
It’s easy to see why WAI would be appealing. Its rituals fill the void many modern-day people feel in the absence of organized religion. The platform's essential concept is that if we treat something as sacred, we believe that it is more than entertainment, that it offers moral rewards and is worthy of rigorous contemplation. (Listeners to the "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text" podcast will find this idea familiar.)
But first, the novel begins with a love story: Thirteen years after high school, Asha Ray reunites with her crush, Cyrus Jones, when they attend a memorial for their late English teacher. Asha is four years into her Ph.D. at Harvard, and Cyrus has become a charismatic spiritual polyglot. He’s traveled the world, collecting bits of philosophy and religion from an endless variety of sources, and distilled them into something people can use in their own lives. “I create rituals,” he says.
Cyrus and Asha’s intellectual connection is intense, and soon, so is their physical relationship. The novel focuses on their all-encompassing, interconnected work-life partnership, which also includes, to a lesser extent, their best friend, Jules. When Asha’s artificial intelligence research hits a roadblock, she draws inspiration from Cyrus’ work and decides “to start a platform that [allows] people without religion to practice a form of faith.” Through Asha’s programming wizardry, WAI becomes a life-changing phenomenon. But it quickly becomes clear that the platform, intended to bring people together, is likely to blow the triad apart.
The Startup Wife is framed as a satirical novel about startup culture, but because Americans revere that culture, its foibles and failings are our failures, too. Tech investors subscribe to the “great man” theory of history as much as the rest of America, and this unavoidable fact begins to spoil Asha’s relationships with her two male partners. Investors are more apt to provide valuable exposure and support to a passion project fronted by a brilliant (usually white) man rather than a geeky brown woman. So even though Asha’s research is the source of the platform’s Empathy Module algorithm, handsome Cyrus becomes the figurehead for WAI. Initially resistant to making his spiritual practice into a business, he is easily seduced into playing CEO and messiah.
While The Startup Wife is full of beautifully messy and enviable characters, Asha’s fierce feminism and candor stand out. Of course, she’s far from innocent. She’s a creative genius who wants her due, just as any man would. But it’s a delight to experience Asha’s first-person perspective of the world and her metamorphosis into a powerful, flawed woman.
Because The Startup Wife is sexy and funny and puts relationships at the forefront, it might be easy to overlook its depth and sophistication. But its priorities are right where they should be. When people create a community with their friends and lovers, it is inevitable that boundaries will dissolve and that friendship, love, ego and identity will become intertwined. The Startup Wife’s insights about modern relationships, gender politics, race, technology and culture are as excellent and vital as its storytelling.