New Waves Is a Funny, Biting Critique of Tech Culture

Kevin Nguyen’s highly anticipated debut novel talks about race and white liberalism within a fictionalized New York company.

At the start of New Waves, a recently fired programmer and underpaid customer service representative rail against the tech company they (used to) work at. They drink, they curse, they plan a heist to steal Nimbus’ data — the ultimate “fuck you.” By the end of the first chapter, Margo, the software engineering genius behind the operation, is dead. Her accomplice, Lucas, is sent slowly sinking into the aftermath of what they’ve done.

This is Kevin Nguyen’s debut novel. You might recognize Nguyen’s name as Verge’s features editor, or from his prolific Twitter that embodies the meme-happy soul of the cynical, self-deprecating millennial generation, or from the legions of Asian fuckboy memes (of which he has no relation to — “gen z asian twitter is going to be the death of me,” he tweeted in discovery of the coincidence). His self-designated theme song is an ’80s city pop tune called “Plastic Love” by Mariya Takeuchi, and his first book has made it on most-anticipated lists at Vulture, Entertainment Weekly, and now here.

Nguyen is funny — I spent half an hour giggling at my desk in our open office space just scrolling through his Twitter (“It’s… research!” I justified to myself). It’s a quality that comes across when Nguyen calmly eviscerates a company’s see-through attempts at creating a “fun” workplace despite its less than moral attitudes. No matter how many nerf guns or free snacks they can try to throw at their employees, it doesn’t change the fact that Margo was fired for not being a good “culture fit,” which Margo and Lucas both know is just coded racism wrapped up in unnerving politeness. 


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New Waves often talks about racism within tech culture and white liberalism. Its first conversation is literally Margo and Lucas airing their grievances about the microaggressions they face as a Black woman and an Asian-American, respectively. But its most graceful discussions about race come as the novel progresses. Nguyen will drop sage revelations with reverbating power, commenting on how workplace racism doesn’t manifest in clearly reportable actions, or how for some reason within Asian cuisine, Japanese food is the only type Americans are willing to pay hefty prices for.

Courtesy of One World

New Waves also contemplates grief with the same kind of clarity. So much of social media is a mess of contradictions: a combination of small legacies through tweets, posts, comments, and private messages that get lost in avalanching content, its sheer mass lending itself ephemerality. Mourning in the internet era requires you to re-evaluate that process. As Lucas sifts through Margo’s old forum posts, messages, and Facebook posts, he has to re-grapple with the fact that Margo is dead, even though her internet presence makes her feel alive. Does digital immortality count if there’s no one to see it? Dealing with loss in the 21st Century is confusion, it’s devastation, and it’s hope. It’s simultaneously painful and illuminating — sometimes unnecessarily so.

New Waves, by Kevin Nguyen, March 10, One World, $27

FIVE OTHER BOOKS WE’RE EXCITED ABOUT

Little Gods, by Meng Jin

Jan. 14, Custom House, $28

Little Gods begins at the end of the Tiananmen Square protests that provided a brutal reminder of a government’s hold on a whole nation. San Franciscan writer Meng Jin’s debut novel talks about memory and grief in this Chinese American diaspora story.

Uncanny Valley, by Anna Wiener

Jan. 14, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14

If you’ve been walking around the city, you might have seen brightly colored posters featuring excerpts from Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley, a memoir about her time in San Francisco and the Silicon Valley bubble. It’s a firsthand look into and critique of the tech industry and its increasingly dangerous actions.

The Resisters, by Gish Jen

Feb. 4, Alfred A. Knopf, $27

Welcome to AutoAmerica, where half the country is below sea level and its people are divided between the Netted and the Surplus. A Surplus girl with a golden arm impresses the people in the most quintessential American game: baseball. Gish Jen, the author of Who’s Irish, pens a story about our worst technological nightmares and survival that Ann Patchett calls a “stone-cold masterpiece.”

So We Can Glow, by Leesa Cross-Smith

March 10, Grand Central Publishing, $27

Leesa Cross-Smith writes 42 short stories about women — brief portraits of desires and hopes told through vignettes, texts, and scripts. There are strong collective declarations and quick glimpses into these characters’ psyches. Flip a few pages forward or back, and you’ll step into a new story.

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich

March 20, Harper, $29

Decades ago, Louise Erdrich’s Patrick Gourneau fought against House Concurrent Resolution 108, a 1953 bill that would terminate five indigenous tribes. In Erdrich’s latest novel, The Night Watchman, Erdrich writes fiction about the real events that threatened tribal sovereignty, set in a reservation in North Dakota.

Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at gli@sfweekly.com.

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