By Kevin Nguyen
It can be thrilling, in a novel, to encounter a cautious, observant narrator in proximity to a supporting character who is everything he’s not: charismatic, reckless, alluring, loose with the truth, suspiciously worldly. The fleeting stars from “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” or “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” grab our attention from the start, though they’re long gone by the first page. Thus the plot of the book. The narrators sift through anecdotal evidence of their heroes’ lives, wondering if they were ever who they claimed.
Though it doesn’t quite stick the landing, “New Waves,” the first novel by Kevin Nguyen, an editor at The Verge, cleverly conjures a modern Gatsby-and-Nick-Carraway dynamic between the narrator, Lucas, and his co-worker Margo. Instead of living in adjacent houses, these two owe their proximity to the open floor plan at their internet security start-up in New York City. Margo, the company’s lone black employee, is a computer programming genius and the center of Lucas’s life, as sometimes only a work wife can be. He’s an insecure customer service representative, a young Asian man with a community college degree and few marketable skills. She wields “a vivid, infectious sort of fury — smart, spirited, just the right amount of snarky — aimed at institutions, structures, oppressors.” She drinks a lot. She’s smarter than everyone else in the book. She’s the kind of character who makes you wonder which celebrity would play her in a movie.
Then Margo disappears, leaving Lucas scrambling to uncover the secret life she lived online. Finding out she went there to be untethered from her anger — actualizing the utopic possibilities of the internet many of her peers have forgotten ever existed — he realizes he knew nothing about her. As with any novel featuring a distant object of idolatry, this one succeeds only to the extent that Margo is worth getting to know.
The pitfalls of this paradigm are written into the design; it’s tricky to make your main character a prodigy, because then she has to talk and think like one. But at times Nguyen pulls it off, as in the three perfect pages set in an Irish pub where a drunken Margo distractedly explains her love for Pac-Man while she is playing, against no one. It’s “the illusion of teamwork,” she explains, using the game’s ghosts as a metaphor for the modern workplace. “They’re all programmed in a way that creates the illusion that they’re cooperating.” No matter their individual personalities (“one is aggressive, one is conniving, one is cowardly and one is volatile”), they’re all slaves to the only operational modes they know: Chase Mode and Scatter Mode. “When they’re in danger,” she reasons, “they completely abandon the logic of teamwork.”
Nguyen does not shy away from centering his novel around race discrimination, income insecurity and workplace malfeasance. Margo and Lucas commiserate constantly over the cluelessness of the white men who hire, fire and underpay them at will: “White people often took pride in identifying which kind of Asian I was,” Lucas thinks. “When I told Margo how often this happened, she explained that white people spent an exorbitant amount of their energy saying racist things to prove they weren’t racist.” Their well-deserved frustration pushes them to commit a workplace crime that becomes a linchpin in their friendship, even if it fizzles out plot-wise.
It’s exciting to see the workplace novel making a literary comeback, with more daring examples including Hilary Leichter’s “Temporary” and Helen DeWitt’s “Lightning Rods” treating drudgery with a life-giving drollness. Nguyen’s own attempts to infuse “New Waves” with politics, heart and reality are admirable. He captures beautifully the subtle strains of being disenfranchised, poor and lonely in New York. At a key moment in the book, he thinks: “It felt strange to take the subway home. Couldn’t I, just for once, be entitled to a quiet, clean space, alone?” A question people are asking all over the world.