There has been a recent surge in smart, entertaining novels that provide insight into Silicon Valley. My favorites in the genre include Startup by Doree Shafrir and Sophia of Silicon Valley by Anna Yen, in which the heroines are navigating their way through an unfamiliar culture saturated by men. Liza Palmer’s new novel, The Nobodies, follows that familiar terrain of a thirtysomething journalist who finds herself to be a fish out of water in the world of start-ups.
Joan Dixon always regarded herself as an accomplished journalist. So when she is laid off and goes job hunting, she experiences a jolting cultural shock at finding that she is barely eligible for employment in the tech-savvy new wave journalism. She realizes that at 36 years old, she is a bona fide fossil in a market saturated with people just out of college, sustaining on energy drinks and notifications. Joan is one of the last remnants of the era of hardcore journalism. She now has to assimilate in a market where journalism no longer entails rigorous research and investigative reporting. Instead, she will be judged by her ability to write listicles based on the trendiest buzzwords and coming up with the best Instagram captions. She doesn’t have enough GIFS to react accurately to anything and “none of the same pop culture markers to make any referential jokes.”
She begrudgingly applies for a job as a junior copywriter at a fledgling and obscure start-up called Bloom, where she is the oldest person on the payroll and her bosses are at least a decade younger than her. In her job interview, she is flummoxed when, rather than her credentials, she is asked which Hogwarts house would she want to be sorted in?
She gets the job but acclimating to her hip new work place takes some getting used to. She takes on her new job with a chip on her shoulder, ready to deride the millennial culture and “snowflake” approach to work –– but she is soon won over by the quiet professionalism and efficient workplace ethics of the people. The ethos of Bloom seems to be fast paced and action oriented, but a question keeps niggling Joan. Does anyone here know exactly what they are doing here? Unable to shake off her journalistic curiosity, she repeatedly tries to get something substantial out of her employers in group meetings but, always a step ahead of her, they answer only in technical doublespeak and vacuous punchlines. From what she gathers, Bloom is like a digital storage unit with its “CAM algorithm” being its backbone.
As a character, Joan ricochets between being complacent about her experience in journalism and feeling inadequate among her geeky colleagues. Besides her workplace issues, she is also worried about finding financial and emotional security for herself, as she does not want to live indefinitely in her parents’ house.
Joan soon realizes that Bloom is hiding something. The tech industry is shrouded in secrecy, as people are hesitant to ask what exactly each start-up does and it is pretty easy to deflect any suspicion since the technical jargon confuses people anyway.
She starts an undercover investigation to get to the bottom of the Blooms founder’s the murky past and their clandestine designs. She is assisted in her probe by her coworkers Elise, Hani and Thornton, who form into a covert group working to bring down Bloom.
The plot hurtles at full speed, perhaps to its own detriment. The way that the investigation culminates in an open and shut case ultimately felt rushed and lacked plausibility. Palmer sketches some interesting characters and I especially loved the eccentric nature of Joan’s parents and brother. These family members appear sporadically throughout the narrative, leaving you wanting for more.
Still, this novel is a sharp and snappy riff on start-up culture and the glaring contrast between the personal and professional lives of Gen Z and millennials. The strongest takeaway from this novel, however, is the story of a woman finding her way a little later in life and on her own terms.
By Liza Palmer
Published Sept. 10, 2019