Friday, November 07, 2008

Best Silicon Valley novel: Pat Dillon's "The Last Best Thing"

Pat Dillon's funny satire The Last Best Thing is by far the best novel about Silicon Valley in the last 20 years. Despite the dot com explosion of the early 21st century when most start-ups went bust, the basic myth of Silicon Valley that any enterprising young person can come to the Valley, work hard in a start-up and make millions young still lingers. In September during the financial crises New York Times magazine even had an article on how Silicon Valley maybe could save the economy, so the newspaper should read Dillon's novel.

Dillon satirizes J.P. McCorwin or J.P., head of a start-up who like many heads of Silicon Valley companies is charismatic and legendary. J.P.s legend began when he headed R & D of Infinity Corporation where he had helped develop many new spiffy products. Dillon quickly punctures the myth: J.P. 's new products "defined both narcissism and overpricing and excited everyone except consumers and financial analysts" so he was fired. Dillon portrays how J.P., who was once a countercultural radical, has changed: the man who once hung out with French anarchists while studying at the Sorbonne has recreated himself after reading Any Rand and wants to serve God and greed at the same time as getting revenge against his former company. The name of J.P.'s French sidekick is priceless: Baba RAM DOS. Dillon is the only novelist of Silicon Valley who satirizes the Bay Area's cultural evolution from 1960s to the 1990s from counterculture to using computers for greed and revenge.

Even better, the novel wonderfully capture's J.P.s '60s rhetoric to his employees and journalists to ring in the suckers. He has no product but boasts to all the product will change the world and get them all rich. It's about time that a novelist skewered the heads of start-ups like J.P. who rushed to get millions of venture capital and were obsessed with stock shares when they had few or no products and no profits. The myth of Silicon Valley is a hard one to puncture but Dillon does so hilariously. A lot of the plot is absurd which wonderfully captures the absurdity of rushing to sell stocks with no profits to back it up as so many did in the Valley. Like Dillion says the J.P.s of Silicon Valley were selling "vapor."

Dillon also satirizes people's escaping into online fantasies. Brad, the head of marketing at J.P.s company, is having an Internet affair with the online sexpot Rose D. rather than deal with his falling apart marriage, his alienated son, or his wife's bullying his daughter. When nearing the climatic online moment with RoseD his laptop catches fires. After another laptop explodes, Brad finds that the second victim Jason, the programmer, was also online hot and heavy with RoseD. Brad is aware that both men are competing for the same virtual woman.

This novel is the first to explore the Valley's geography and history while other Silicon Valley novelists recreate Anywhere U.S.A as they describe mansions, offices, chains, and fast food joints. Dillon uses two characters--Brad the marketing guy and Maria Cisneros, the Mexican-American Executive Assistant--to symbolized all those who grew up in the area but feel like outsiders to explore this geography and history. Brad feels left-out on the day when all his Palo Alto neighbors celebrate their private colleges with banners so he hoists his old San Jose State t-shirt to the gable over the doorway, which provokes put downs from his Yuppie wife.

Maria grew up in as daughter to a vineyard foreman in Santa Clara Valley, the pre-Silicon Valley. She grew up on farmland in the eastern foothills then sold to developers which her retired father always laments, but she went on to get a Stanford MBA. In the job interview with J.P., Maria is seduced by J.P.'s tales of both producing the Last Big Thing to make a bundle of money improving the world so she gives him thousands of both her and her dad's hard earned money as "seed money." She lives now in glitzy new Silicon Valley but left her heart in old rural Santa Clara.

Maria and Brad are the naive ones taken in by financial seductions of the J.P.'s of the world. While the FBI hunts for RoseB, J.P. plans to use publicity to get a "buzz" while he still has no product to sell but still plans a IPO to make a killing in the stock market before he cuts and runs. Both Maria and Brad are like Kafesque characters lost in this absurd world. Brad realizes he's head of marketing but has no idea what the product he's supposed to market while Maria has to write a SEC prospectus for the IPO also without knowing what the product is. Dillon satirizes their naivete as they slowly gain forces to try to understand what J.P. is doing and who RoseD is? Dillon's novel is so good because its the only one to completely step outside of the get-rich-quick myth of Silicon Valley to show us how naive and propesterous this myth is.

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