Silicon Valley as Existential Battlefield in ‘The Portable Veblen’ and ‘Private Citizens’

The Gold Rush of 1849 might be to blame for one of the first big surges in California’s population, but it wasn’t until 20 years ago that the number spiked to what it is today, thanks to the place becoming a destination for anyone who speaks the green-on-black language of computers. Silicon Valley became the new Sutter’s Mill, young folks flocking to and from Stanford University and its surrounding suburbs to create an economic dome built on emerging technology and ideas. The ideas in question were sometimes so shoddy that they nearly collapsed the region in the mid-’90s, only to be born again in the oughts in the form of startups, a trend run so rampant that it’s overflown to pop culture, infecting TV, movies, and now, finally, the novel. 

The past few weeks saw the release of two superficially different Silicon Valley novels: Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, and Tony Tulathimutte’s Private Citizens. The first is a naturalistic love story between barely-millennial adults: Veblen, who talks to squirrels, and Paul, who hates squirrels. The second is a bloody-eyed investigation of What It Means to Be Millennial, focusing on four Stanford post-grads — Cory, Henrik, Will, and Linda — who do everything you’d expect of Stanford post-grads (coke, heroin, antidepressants, post-consumerism). Both novels find depth in their characters’ reconciliation with their origins, a struggle echoed in the techno-stampede that has paved the paradises of Silicon Valley and San Francisco to put up some parking lots. And lots of open plan offices.

On the surface, McKenzie’s Palo Alto-based novel cannot easily be pegged as “Silicon Valley,” so removed is it from the world of startups and luxury buses. Veblen’s fiancé, Paul, instead opts to work in the old-money industry of military pharmaceuticals, his transformation into a showboating Shkreli-type forcing Veblen to examine her path in life, which began in a broken home where her mother, Melanie, insisted on upholding manners established by traditionalist folk who would not, let’s say, have a roofless chicken shack in their backyard. (She’s also brainwashed Veblen into admiring Thorstein Veblen, a philosophical critic of capitalism and her supposed namesake.) She doesn’t have a college degree, sometimes types on a typewriter, and works as a temp in a hospital; Veblen is not a Silicon Valley stereotype. And anyway, it’s moot introspection, for, ultimately, Veblen is always quelled by the prospect of spending a happy life with someone, in direct defiance of her mother’s constant refrain of “girls who dreamed only of marriage were doomed.”

Paul, on the other hand, has devoted his life to outright rebellion against his family. (“Good-bye to all he’d escaped,” reads the text.) He grew up on open land, a kind of commune where spiked cider rested on kitchen counters and was later to thank for the loss of Paul’s virginity. His parents were the type that made San Francisco into San Francisco: the type of place he’d never go. So he wants to buy a brand new home, a new car, and a boat — affluenza, Veblen thinks at one point. The pharmaceutical angle, too, pisses off his father Bill, and that’s beside the fact that he’s specifically worked to produce a skull-puncturing military first-aid device called the Pneumatic TURBO Skull Punch, a thing that is later wielded by a child to create one of literature’s most poignantly comic scenes of homicide.

That scene is nearly matched in Private Citizens’ denouement, though the 300 pages that precede it are written in a solipsistic tone so stuffed with empty metaphors that the book practically bleeds out, the sharper-than-life intent of the literary device blunted to a weak technique that, when taken collectively, sucks meaning from the thing. (“Printed words lay inert like bugsplat,” “final climax like a drain clog,” “flannels tied around waists like half kilts,” “a sort of human wing tip,” “she typed like she was using a Ouija board.”) The forgiving approach to Tulathimutte’s prose would be to see it as mimicking the vapidness of his characters; the easier approach is to be annoyed, and give up, just as most stereotypical millennials would. And the players in Private Citizens are stereotypical millennials, though that’s not to say they’re flat.

The most clearly drawn Stanford grad is an asian kid named Will, the only member of the loose collective who’s embraced tech with such comic devotion (he begins editing his own porn collection, and eventually livestreams his life as a part of his girlfriend’s media startup) that he becomes the text’s tech world icon. He is at first the book’s most sympathetic character — a boyfriend who, like Veblen, wants nothing more than to lose himself in someone, to become a “we” — but he turns simply pathetic, so eager to please his girlfriend by becoming a thing he is not that he eventually undergoes horrific surgery to undo his “asian” eyelids — funny, as, technically, this alteration is an effort to look more like a minority in Santa Clara County.

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Characters’ rejection of their selves in these two books lead to different places. In Veblen, compromise occurs, thanks only to a car crash that leads to a mild psychic break and a fondness for talking to squirrels in Paul. In Private Citizens, all four of the major characters fail in their striving: Linda’s archetypal rebellion dissipates into academic longing, Cory’s non-profit ambitions go awry and she boomerangs home, Henrik is too medicated or mentally ill to choose anything other than milquetoast stability, and Will is physically altered out of himself, the horrorshow conclusion of one’s running so fast and so far from home.

Conspicuously absent from both of these novels is any lengthy acknowledgment of the gentrifying world in which they live; there are no bar fights between Glassholes and townies, no protests against tech buses — just general myopiaVeblen even makes a conscious effort to play up the nature of California, such as when Veblen gets engaged at a “mossy escarpment in a ring of eucalyptus,” or, in a passage that maybe hints at Veblen being — gasp! — a hipster (though she is not as much of a hippie as this thought implies):

In April the days warmed fully, demanding new exploits. A thinning scrim of wildlife rustled in the coastal mountains’ hidden gullies and groves. Bobcats, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and possums still foraged the damp forests above the peninsula, between the ocean and the bay.

By contrast, Palo Alto was now a community of unimaginable material wealth and prestige, and traces of old, humble Palo Alto were growing scarce. What others wished to raze, Veblen cherished. What others saw as rundown, Veblen saw as real. 

Not all of the characters in these books participate in tech culture, but all of them benefit from it, directly or indirectly. Veblen, as much as she loves nature, has little monetary concerns, thanks to Paul’s job; in Citizens, rich tech guy Will floats all of his friends at one point or another. Through simple proximity they’ve chosen to live a tech-filled life, though at this point in history it might be impossible to do otherwise.

Early in McKenzie’s book, Veblen asks herself a question: “Could you look at all interactions that way, as a presentation of the self, an advertisement of sorts?” She answers herself, “Oh, cut it out.” This is the brain of someone not on Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, who is uninterested in capitalism but not invested enough to criticize it as heartily as Thorstein. She and Paul are complicit in their inaction. The four protagonists of Private Citizens, on the other hand, relish in the destruction of everything, Cory at one point even willing to destroy the notion of philanthropy for her own gain. She and all of her friends employ slash-and-burn as their prime method of inner growth, 49ers who mine with tweets rather pickaxes. Yet, is that any worse than Veblen and Paul, who enjoy a place but do nothing to conserve it? Are the spaced-out gentrifiers of the world worse than the all-or-nothing post-grad crusaders of Private Citizens? If these two books are any indication, the answer is “maybe,” but there are no winners, and human sustainability is off the table, barring the moment in which all critically thinking, educated people are struck by cars and transformed into wide-eyed squirrel whisperers.