You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.
Welp, looks like we’ve finally found out what happens when two Russian spies and a Chinese American Millennial walk into a bar (or a social media company, as case may be). This was the easiest 4.75 stars I’ve encountered this year, and one of the few 2022 reads I didn’t struggle to rate. I’ve been somewhat lukewarm about my reading this year, but this was one book that I really could not put down, come hell or high water.
Impostor Syndrome is a brutal, hilarious Silicon Valley exposé following several people with connections to a major social media company called Tangerine. Though a few chapters are narrated by more minor characters, the book is primarily narrated by Julia Lerner, Tangerine COO by day and State Protection Bureau (SPB) operative by night; Leonid “Leo” Guskov, her SPB handler; and Alice Lu, daughter of Chinese immigrants, who works in Tangerine’s IT department. When Alice flags a server anomaly caused by Julia, a quiet hunt takes place, and the two find themselves at odd with each other, even though they’ve never met. Meanwhile, Leo pressures Julia to provide more and more intelligence-related favors, but finds that she has settled quite comfortably into her role as a wealthy American and isn’t particularly interested in disrupting her life for a country she doesn’t care about.
If Gmail, Facebook, Pinterest, and WhatsApp had a baby, it would probably look something like Tangerine, a sprawling network with profile page, email, and instant messaging capabilities. This literally is what Google was trying to be when it was still trying to make Google+ a thing. Tangerine started with just the profile pages and Tangerine Mail, but added the instant messaging function when it acquired FreeTalk, an app created by hotshot developers Sean Dara and Johan Frandsen. It also has a proprietary “heart” button, which I’m picturing as something akin to the Pinterest browser extension that lets you pin photos from pretty much anywhere on the internet.
As with every other social media giant, Tangerine’s most sacred tenet is the freedom and privacy of every single user, which Julia regularly violates via a built-in omnipotent tool called God Mode. Though its existence has been firmly and categorically denied in public, God Mode is accessible to both Julia and Pierre Roy, CEO and founder of Tangerine, and can be used to view users’ FreeTalk conversations; follow almost everything they do on the internet, whether they do it on Tangerine or not; and track their location in real time. With the addition of VisionMatch, the pirated facial recognition software Julia used to get her foot in the door at Tangerine, it is a lethal tool mercilessly exploited by the SPB – and, on the sidelines and very quietly, by one Alice Lu, who uses it to track Julia’s after-hours activities and break up the marriage of one of the men who robbed her parents’ laundry business almost thirty years ago. (Question: why did Julia not receive an email notifying her that somebody had logged into her account from another device? This seems like a fairly large oversight for such a clandestine tool.)
And yet, even though the tech is immaculate, the book never forgets about the very human nature of social media. Though it touts itself as the land of the free speech and the home of the best-qualified, Tangerine is still a stuffy bureaucracy owned by a white man and bogged down with middle managers who are not qualified for their jobs and specialists who are not interested in doing their jobs to the best of their abilities. It offers free snacks and in-campus restaurants, but it is, at base, not that different from most large private companies. As COO, Julia is held up by the media as the poster child of women in tech, but she also faces condescension, misogyny, and possible insurrection in her personal and professional lives. She hosts all-female roundtables and regularly gives speeches and interviews in which she offers vague encouragement to the women who want to follow in her footsteps while quietly destroying the career of any woman trying to claw her way up the Tangerine ladder. Despite the liberal values she professes in public, she also makes the conscious decision to take her husband’s name upon marriage in order to court conservative women. She is, in short, a chillingly perfect example of the kind of executive who panders to both sides of the aisle but believes in neither.
At the opposite end of the ladder is Alice, who quit her FreeTalk job for the sake of an ungrateful man and was transferred to the lowest possible tech-related job in Tangerine. Her asshole boyfriend was supposed to marry her and take her along with him when he founded his own start-up, but instead he dumped her and stuck her with the rent for their two-bedroom Cupertino apartment, which she now shares with her cousin Cheri. Broke and depressed, she stocks up on the free snacks at work to save money on groceries and spends most of her free time watching TV. I actually found her uncomfortably relatable, mostly because for the bulk of the book I felt like Wang used God Mode to look straight into my brain and wrote down every thought I’ve ever had as an Asian American Millennial working for a large corporate company. I felt somewhat unsettled, but I also felt seen in a way that I’ve never felt seen before. Towards the end of all things, when Alice is fired by an incompetent manager whose main goal in life seems to be to get Julia to descend upon her from Tangerine Heaven and tell her she’s doing a Good Job, she suffers a total meltdown but still isn’t comfortable acknowledging that her feelings are valid despite her relative privilege.
But once she began Alice found she couldn’t stop: she cried and cried and cried. She cried because she had ruined everything and yet still her life was better than many others and so she shouldn’t be crying…She cried until she thought she had lost interest in crying forever, she couldn’t do it anymore, the act had lost all meaning, and then she cried some more.
And then the next morning the call came, and Alice went back to work.
This was me every time I cried in the bathroom, when I was still a contractor and we were still going into the office. It was me melting down quietly at my desk because I couldn’t control it but I still had drafts that needed to get done. I was on the brink of it when I was abruptly laid off for three weeks in July 2020, when there was no work for me and I went crazy and read sixteen books while I was waiting to see if there would ever be work for me again. (And then, like Alice, I did get the call, and I did go back to work the next day, and now I’m senior-level staff – look, it’s a long story.) It’s a concise summary of every emotion I’ve ever invalidated because it was drummed into me from an early age that I don’t have the right to feel that way. It is at once disquieting and deeply validating. At this point it seems somewhat superfluous to say that Alice is my favorite character because I almost feel like I am Alice, albeit with some key differences.
My other favorite is Julia, which I probably shouldn’t admit because she’s a Russian spy and I can’t get around that, but, fuck it, I don’t care. Julia is brilliant, charismatic, hard-working. She is also a stubborn, petty, petulant child, so it goes without saying that I love her. The destroying-other-women’s-careers thing would be a damn sight more troubling if she didn’t do worse to the men who get in her way. She can be a tad short-sighted and self-centered, but she is only human, and I really have to admire somebody who would deliberately leak dirt on their own colleagues to the press for the sake of revenge. My only problem – and the reason the book lost a quarter of a star – is her idiot husband Charlie, because my girl Julia could have done so much better. I’m sorry, but this dude is really cramping her style. He’s a cardiologist, so he has money and a career of his own, but, since her earnings eclipse his, he happily uses her money to buy stupid fancy cars (around the beginning of the book he has three) and persuades her to buy the house of his dreams, even though it’s not quite what she was looking for. He regularly abandons her and their newborn daughter to play golf and chase at least one younger woman, with whom he has at least one hotel rendezvous. My first question: did he pay for that room with his own money, or did Julia have to pay for that too?
In general, the affair really makes me wonder if Charlie has been feeling emasculated by his wife’s outrageous success in a field he considers beneath him. Is he tired of Julia? Tired of their daughter, with whom he never connects throughout the book? Or is he just looking for someone who makes less money than him and is willing to admire him? Whatever the case, he spends the whole book making me want to run him over with one of those fancy cars. Nor can Julia easily divorce him after she discovers the affair, even though she considers it, because she knows this will cause a media shitstorm that won’t blow over as quickly as she would like. She would also potentially have to pay him alimony, which – if Julia is anything like me – is intolerable. (I understand the purpose of alimony, but this is one of those cases where it doesn’t seem necessary. Who fucking cares if Charlie gets thrown out on his ear? Let his new girlfriend take care of him.)
Ultimately everything seems to work out, because Charlie ghosts his girlfriend and tells Julia that he loves her and their daughter and their life together, which she seemingly accepts. That doesn’t really work for me. Of course he loves their life together, he has a mansion and fancy cars and he didn’t have to pay for any of these things. I need to see some concrete evidence that Charlie is going to stop golfing and buying fancy cars with money that isn’t his and start spending time with his goddamn baby. I need to know that he’s going to put his money where his mouth is and start treating Julia right and stop getting annoyed by the things her body does, such as when she gets mastitis. She foots all the bills, so the least he could do is be there when she needs him.
Charlie’s parents were another irritant because they, too, got used to Julia’s money way too fast, and they needle and provoke her throughout the book – mostly without meaning to, but at the same time they’re the kind of people who think Eastern Europeans aren’t really white, I mean, yikes. Charlie habitually takes their side because apparently none of them have heard the phrase “She who pays the piper calls the tune,” and, even though Julia has sponsored his fabulously wealthy lifestyle, he doesn’t hesitate to call her a bitch when she gets into a fight with his ultra passive aggressive mother. I would be lying if I said Julia didn’t purposely fix the thermostat to make her mother-in-law miserable, but, come on, it’s her house and these people were getting on my nerves too. Though Julia and the MIL share a sweet moment when they bond somewhat over Charlie’s cheating, we don’t see anything more of this moment and I wish there had been some indication that their relationship grew stronger because of it. I would have liked to have seen Julia and her MIL become friends (and gang up on Charlie maybe, but that’s the petty center of my brain talking). I suspect his mother had something to do with the end of Charlie’s affair, but we never see any explanation for it, so we don’t know if he broke it off because of his own conscience or for practicality’s sake, or if his mommy yelled at him. To be perfectly honest, I would accept his mommy yelling at him because Julia is the best fucking thing that ever happened to him and he’d be even stupider than he looks if he drove her away.
However their story ends, I can’t get over the vast imbalance in their relationship. I realize this was the point, and that many successful women are hampered by spouses who are entitled, unappreciative, unsupportive. I know Julia’s story is one of a million, and that housekeeping and baby-tending are traditionally considered “women’s work” even if the woman in question is also the principle breadwinner. I know that a lot of women find their time and labor taken for granted and treated as something that they should have done anyway. (Julia, for instance, takes the time to personally cook a dinner that she knows Charlie will like, even though they have a chef. Does he notice? No.) I know that a lot of men get angry and annoyed when their wives talk about work, and that other men than Charlie start to feel neglected and unappreciated when they’re partnered with a woman who outearns them. I get it, but I don’t like it. I hate that even with all her money and power, Julia still gets sidelined and overriden in her own fucking house. I hate how much she’s tied to Charlie, who doesn’t deserve her even a little bit. I hate how much she has to hide both physical pain and emotional stress to keep precious Charlie from getting annoyed. Again, I get that this was the point, which is why I didn’t file this review under my bad romance tag, but it still irks me.
Anyway. As I was saying before this review spiraled out of control, as they usually do, this is still one of my favorite books of the year, even with Charlie. I personally wouldn’t have objected if Charlie had fallen off a cliff, but, hey, no book is perfect. Overall I found the book sharp, well-written, and relevant. As a portrait of American corporate culture and the people who inhabit it, it is hilarious and damning, and ever so slightly too close to home. Nor does its portrayal of Russian subterfuge fall short; having recently read Bill Browder’s books, I can tell you that nothing in Impostor Syndrome seems far-fetched, and it does make me wonder if Wang has also read these books. Either way, I’m glad I took a chance on this book, and I am interested to see what else Wang publishes.