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‘The Glitch’ leans in

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There are few segments of our current society as ripe for satire as the world of Silicon Valley. There’s a lot to unpack in the high-tech realm – lots of precepts and personalities and perceptions that beg to be looked upon by the satirist’s eye.

The latest author to take a swing at that particular target is Elisabeth Cohen, whose debut novel is “The Glitch” (Doubleday, $26.95). It’s the story of Shelly Stone, a tech CEO whose life is turned upside down by a series of events involving her lost daughter, a product crisis and a mysterious young woman who may or may not be a younger version of Shelly herself.

It’s also an at-times biting look at the stark realities of corporate life and what it means to be a woman in a position of power in a male-dominated industry. It’s about the sacrifices necessary to achieve at that high level … and whether those sacrifices ultimately prove worthwhile.

From the outside, Shelly Stone would appear to epitomize the notion of a woman “having it all.” She’s the CEO of a tech company called Conch, whose wearable interface product is on the verge of achieving mainstream success. She’s married to the ruggedly handsome Rafe, who also happens to be a prominent finance guy, and has two kids – a daughter named Nova and a son named Blazer. Work dominates her life, though she takes pride in finding time with her family whenever possible (which isn’t often).

Oh, and she was struck by lightning as a young woman, an event that she credits with dramatically altering the course of her life.

But when Shelly inadvertently loses track of Nova on an Italian beach, a bizarre sequence of events is set in motion. A strange man named Enrique finds Nova and returns her to Shelly, but there’s something off about his explanation as to how he happened upon the child. Conch is in the midst of negotiating a massive deal with a wireless charging company, but rumors are bubbling up about device malfunctions that are leading to dangerous – and perhaps even deadly – outcomes.

Then, a mystery woman pops into Shelly’s life – a woman who knows an awful lot about Shelly’s past and happens to look an awful lot like Shelly did 20 years ago.

What follows is Shelly’s attempt to navigate the difficult path laid before her. She has to figure out how to placate the board and move forward with the merger while also dealing with the potential fallout of Conch malfunctions becoming part of the larger news cycle. She has to contend with conflicts with Rafe’s job and a weirdly combative relationship with the nanny and the fact that this Enrique guy keeps popping up. And again – there’s a person who might actually be her from the past asking a lot of questions and making a lot of demands that Shelly doesn’t know if she should answer and/or meet.

Maybe the biggest chance taken by “The Glitch” is the sheer unlikability of the protagonist. It’s not easy to craft a compelling narrative around an off-putting central character, but Cohen makes Shelly engaging even as we might find her personality less than palatable. It’s a wonderfully effective parodic take; she’s the vision of what certain unenlightened types perceive when they try to conceptualize a female CEO – particularly a tech CEO.

It is Shelly’s voice that guides us through the story. We’re experiencing things through her eyes – eyes that are unapologetic in their beliefs and somewhat myopic in their ability to perceive flaws. Not that Shelly lacks self-awareness, exactly; it’s more that she’s mastered the ability to subvert her own doubts in service to her drive for success. There’s a clipped, off-center vibe to her, both in terms of her internal narrative and her interactions with those around her. Again – unlikable, yet compelling.

“The Glitch” also offers a delightful cracked-mirror view of Silicon Valley. The scenes and themes presented through Conch are probably the highlights of the story; Cohen does great work in illustrating the facile emptiness of such places even as our hero/narrator celebrates the very same qualities.

One could argue that the various thematic, tonal shifts – we get tech satire, a bit of family drama, possibly some sci-fi, a dash of empowerment – could have proven troublesome. Cohen deliberately keeps the readers off balance, unsure of just what sort of book they are reading. It’s the sort of choice that would likely be disastrous in the wrong hands, but here, it really works. That vague feeling of confusion never gets in the way of the overall story being told – it just adds another layer of enjoyment to the experience.

“The Glitch” is smart satire featuring a protagonist who is both unlikable and unforgettable – think for a second about how hard that is to pull off. And yet Elisabeth Cohen handles it with a deftness that belies the fact that this is a debut novel. When it’s all said and done, you might not like Shelly Stone, but you’ll almost certainly respect her.

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