“One may ride upon a tiger’s back but it is fatal to dismount.”—Ernest Bramah
Ride the tiger. That’s what we used to call working for a technology startup. It was a little like a gambling addiction. Objectively we knew the odds were against us. But we weren’t objective. We gave up sleep and personal lives (and occasionally basic hygiene) to stay on that tiger’s back. Our employee number—who was hired first, who had the best stock options, the most first-name access to the c’founders—was mentally tattooed across our brain, and haunted our dreams of the holy grail, the IPO.
I know, I know… and I have the (worthless) stock options to prove it. I know other serial-startup veterans who have papered their bathrooms with their old options. But like any gambler, we also knew the next Next Thing could be the one. And now and then, it even worked. Sort of. I never became a software millionaire, not even close. But I did get the occasional nice payout that bought a car or kitchen remodel.
And then somehow, I got down from the tiger, reinvented myself as a writer, and settled into a quiet life. But my name is on social media pages of other alums of my various former companies, and last month I got a call from an old colleague. An incredible opportunity, plenty of funding, a sure-fire concept. Did I want in? For a moment, for just that one adrenaline-fuelled breath where I could taste the latte and excitement and junk food in big glass jars in the staff lounge, I wanted to say yes to the tiger.
Instead, I went back to the novel series I’m trying to finish up, back to the overdue book reviews I’ve promised, and back to the chance to take a vicarious tiger ride courtesy of Rich Marcello’s new techno-literary fiction, The Beauty of the Fall.
The Beauty of the Fall by Rich Marcello
A TECHNOLOGY EXECUTIVE CHARTS A HIGH-RISK, UNCONVENTIONAL PATH WHILE GRIEVING THE LOSS OF HIS SON
Dan Underlight, a divorced, workaholic technology executive, suffers lingering grief over the death of his ten-year-old son, Zack. When Dan’s longtime friend and boss fires Dan from RadioRadio, the company that he helped create, he crashes and isolates himself.
Willow, a poet and domestic violence survivor, helps Dan regain his footing. With her support, Dan ventures on a pilgrimage of sorts, visiting Fortune 500 companies to flesh out a software start-up idea. He then recruits three former RadioRadio colleagues and starts Conversationworks, a company he believes will be at the vanguard of social change.
Guided by Dan’s leadership, Conversationworks enjoys some early successes, but its existence is soon threatened on multiple fronts. Will Dan survive the ensuing corporate battles and realize the potential of his company? Or will he be defeated by his enemies and consumed by his grief?
My Review: 5 stars out of 5
Confession. I read The Beauty of the Fall on my Kindle. As I usually do for reviews, there were many pauses to highlight or bookmark or make notes, especially of some particularly beautiful phrase, metaphor, or line of poetry. At least, until my Kindle crashed, and the entire book disappeared into the unforgiving ether. After I downloaded the book again, and finished reading, I realized that my notes didn’t matter.
The reasons I love this book are broader even than the beautiful writing. And they are as precisely narrow as the definition of “fall”—a thing you can name, and a thing you can do:
“fall” defined by Google:
- move from a higher to a lower level, typically rapidly and without control. Dan’s fall really starts when his workaholic lifestyle leads to the collapse of his marriage, followed by the death of his ten-year-old son Zack.
- (of a person) lose one’s balance and collapse. He self-medicates his guilt and loss with scotch and obsession with his work at the software company he built with his best friend and boss Olivia.
- decrease in number, amount, intensity, or quality. But when Olivia fires him, Dan has nothing left to center himself. antonyms:rise With the help of gifted therapist Nessa, with a core group of friends, and especially with his new love Willow, Dan literally climbs a sycamore tree to stop his freefall. He begins to build his relationships into a new company and a new life.
- be captured or defeated, die in battle. Even as his new company is poised for epic success, Dan sabotages his personal life and puts everything he’s built at risk.
- pass into a specified state, situation, or position. Dan’s self-destructive desperation is tempered by his talks with his dead son Zach, and by the love of his friends, and even by The Code—an evolving core set of beliefs for his business and his life.
- be classified in the way specified. Dan’s journey begins as a pilgrimage to Fortune 500 companies, especially the technology giants. Inspired by a collection of small rocks he finds on his son’s grave, Dan begins leaving small pyramids of rocks to mark the stages of his journey. But when he’s robbed by a hitchhiker he’s befriended, Dan decides to abandon the pilgrimage and go back to what he does best—visionary leader. Taking the pyramid as symbol for his new company, Dan shares his dream of a company that could literally empower users to change the world. But even as the new company succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, Dan remains trapped between business success and a personal life spiraling out of control: “…ascension and fall were inextricably linked in my mind.”
- Autumn. Dan’s fall starts and ends with the view through the CEO’s office window, a beautiful view of a fall landscape. But what once seemed to signal the end of growth and onset of winter is actually renewal. “The fall leaves are dotted with rich reds, bright yellows, and burnt oranges, though today I’m drawn to the greens. They’re living fully in the morning sun, aware and unaware of the endless rebirth cycle that lies ahead.”
On one level, The Beauty of the Fall is about one man’s straightforward journey to building a successful company. On another level, it’s almost a metaphor for what love looks like—as a lover, a father, a colleague, a friend.
Dan—who has failed at all those things—is still surrounded by people (mostly women) who love him in different ways. There is the almost maternal care from his therapist Nessa. Wilow’s spiritually romantic love energizes Dan and gives him permission to succeed with his idea for a new company. The frankly sexual physical act from prostitute Katie literally crucifies him even as it provides relief. Dan is left with the realization that his single most successful relationship, at least in terms of time spent together on a daily basis, is with Olivia his oldest friend/enemy. But in a bittersweet act of hope at the end, Dan not only realizes that he’s achieved all his goals, but that success even provides a surrogate daughter figure who seems to combine the best of himself and Willow.
There are a few things that didn’t ring true for me here. Time periods to develop world-changing software, let alone propel new companies into the stratosphere were astonishingly brief. I would have liked to see more actual content in the building of the company, but maybe that’s just my been-there-done-that experience. There were a few times when important information is slipped in as flashbacks or later recollections, taking me out of the story as I tried to figure out what happened and when. For example, I found it annoying to have to wait to find specifics of Zach’s death, or to realize what happened to Willow. And don’t even get me started on passing Equal Rights Amendment—languishing before Congress since the 1920s—in one year with the help of speedy-developed tech.
But all that pales beyond the achievement of this rich and layered novel. Anyone who has ever worked for a tech company will recognize the trappings—the fancy espresso machines, the sense of mission that makes a business into a cult of leader personality, the feeling that sacrifice of time, sleep, and occasionally hygiene will lead to the holiest of grails, the IPO.
And there is the other, darker side of business success in the toll it takes on personal relationships. Dan’s self-awareness is brutally honest: “With each of my lovers I didn’t have the same joy I got from work, or later the joy of being a dad I had with Zack. The truth: my best romantic relationship, if one judges such things by length, was unromantic. I saw Olivia almost every day for sixteen years, and I loved her. Together we were better than we were alone. We had a vision and a purpose; we built something that lasted.”
Author Rich Marcello draws on his own corner office experience to nail so many aspects of this story. I particularly liked his depiction of savage power struggles. Pitted against longtime friend and adversary Olivia, Dan realizes: “This is as much about power as it is about content, and any emotional break in my voice will confirm in front of the whole board that Olivia is the pack leader.” And then…wait for it: “Olivia smiles as if the blood is already on her teeth.”
That kind of spectacular writing, interspersed with actual poetry, business vignettes drawn from life, and development of a deeply flawed, complex, and charismatic main character made this one of the best books I’ve read this year. For anyone with a technology background, The Beauty of the Fall is a must read. For everyone else, it’s a present right now, even as fall’s beauty heads to winter.
***I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***
Book Title: The Beauty of the Fall
Author: Rich Marcello
Genre: Literary Fiction
Length: 283 pages
Publisher: Langdon Street Press (October 25, 2016)
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