Friday, September 26, 2014

Torture Porn in the Boardroom

Matthew Klein, No Way Back: A Novel

Ex-addict Jimmy Thane wants to rebuild the Silicon Valley career he squandered, and South Florida’s Tao Software offers that opportunity. An eminently marketable product marred by mismanagement, Tao Software just needs Thane’s unsympathetic touch to become profitable—if he can make dwindling cash reserves last. But when cops question Thane about his missing predecessor, he realizes, Tao isn’t just suffering. It’s toxic… and contagious.

Former tech startup guru Matthew Klein brings copious hard-won business savvy to this, his second thriller. He doesn’t, however, bring much thrill. Reading this story, I couldn’t help recalling Joseph Finder’s Paranoia, which uses similar themes to much greater effect (the excellent book, not the dismal film adaptation). But Klein doesn’t create a business thriller, like finder; he writes a hard-boiled mystery, to very limited effect.

Jimmy Thane swings his hammer and busts nuts like an Elmore Leonard refugee. Seriously, exactly like a Leonard character: he uses macho swagger and telegraphic language to impose himself on others. Also to block his inner demons. He’s so focused on cracking others’ heads that he avoids using his. Therefore he never asks why Tao’s previous CEO vanished abruptly. At midday. With his car door unlocked and engine running.

Thane, our narrator, spends pages and pages discussing techniques to salvage foundering venture capital investments. So many pages that Klein evidently forgets he promised us a crime thriller. Nothing criminal happens between page 4 and page 77, then it’s only embezzlement. Klein requires longer to reach thrilling crimes than Dashiell Hammett required to write entire novels. Klein, through Thane, thinks everything involved in running business deserves included herein.

Finder’s vastly superior novel delivered complex insights, not into how business run normally, or even under exceptional circumstances; it focused on how inter-business conduct mimics Cold War espionage. He didn’t need bloody violence to twist the psychological knife. Klein, by contrast, recycles boilerplates familiar from countless postwar noir thrillers. Thus, despite its Net-age trappings, this novel feels dated, like reading somebody’s cheap Raymond Chandler knockoff in an MFA workshop.

Rather than integrating the business techniques and the crime narrative, throughout most of the book, Klein keeps them running parallel. Though we suspect the violence has foundations in the business model, they scarcely overlap. Joseph Finder made the business milieu all about duplicity, politics, and scheming. Klein just imposes an unnecessarily violent torture porn narrative onto a business exposé. The noir components never seem to integrate into the story.

Regarding women, Klein’s language is downright appalling. Through Thane, his first-person narrator, he widely characterizes women as “whores” and “dykes” without first getting to know them. Thane calls his receptionist a “loose woman” because she’s beautiful but reads the Bible at her desk. Really, that’s his criteria. Eventually, the sweeping anti-woman slurs become so all-encompassing, I cannot tell whether the ugly language represents Jimmy Thane’s opinion, or Matthew Klein’s.

One woman escapes Thane’s insults: his wife, Libby. Thane praises her persistent loyalty after he descended into alcohol, drugs, gambling, and infidelity. Even after their son drowned in the bathtub, Libby remained faithful, and Thane praises her for her loyalty—while admitting she cries herself to sleep after strikingly joyless sex. In a by-the-numbers noir thriller, I grew bored awaiting the reveal where Thane’s marital illusions come crashing down.

Klein also frustrates readers by using British orthography in an American story. I’m an Anglophile, but having such Yankee-Doodle characters write “cheque,” “centre,” and “neighbourhood” wrenched me outside the narrative. I formerly made this mistake, before my mentor pointed out that if non-British characters write thus, it draws attention to the words, away from the story. If audiences notice the orthography, it divides their attention away from the narrative.

Finally, there’s nothing South Florida about Klein’s South Florida setting. Florida has a culture so distinct that even CNN has shrugged at shocking behavior and mumbled: “Eh, that’s Florida.” Novelists like Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have written popular, energetic thrillers utilizing Florida’s incomparable culture, but Klein’s novel could’ve been set anywhere. Positioning it in Manhattan, Houston, Santa Clara, or Singapore would’ve changed little, except the humidity Thane deplores.

This story runs so predictable, so tediously banal, that I’m convinced any MBA with my review and a dog-eared copy of Mickey Spillane’s Kiss Me Deadly could’ve written this book. Despite intermittent moments of shocking violence and hard-boiled suspense, the real motors in Klein’s narrative live too far apart to maintain momentum. This novel reads like a sophomore writing exercise, not a grown-up thriller from a major American publisher.

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