Home / Technology / An Anonymous Satire of Silicon Valley Now Has a Publisher

An Anonymous Satire of Silicon Valley Now Has a Publisher

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The cover of “Iterating Grace.” Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

This past June, mysterious packages containing copies of a slim, anonymously written book were sent to dozens of people who work in or write about the technology industry.

The story, titled “Iterating Grace,” was a satire about a Silicon Valley programmer named Koons Crooks, who has a spiritual awakening that leads him on a pilgrimage to a volcano in Bolivia. Living in a yurt, he spends his days pondering the transcendent wisdom of tweets by top venture capitalists before apparently being trampled to death by vicuñas.

He leaves behind scattered writing, including lovingly handwritten reproductions of tweets from the real feeds of some of Silicon Valley’s most powerful investors, including Brad Feld (“Reminder to self: Not happy with game? Change the game”) and Paul Graham (“If you try to outlaw the future it will just happen somewhere else”).

Recipients of the book, including venture capitalists and prominent journalists who cover the technology industry, were baffled. Was this a brilliant viral marketing scheme, a literary treasure hunt orchestrated by some corporation angling for free publicity to promote a new energy drink or video game? Or was it a purely artistic endeavor, aimed at stimulating a discussion about how the tech boom has altered our culture, economy and society?

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The book contains handwritten reproductions of Twitter posts. Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

Months later, the mystery remains unsolved. But the question of who wrote the book, and why, is still eating away at some tech industry insiders and could soon be confounding a much wider audience. On Tuesday, Farrar, Straus & Giroux is publishing a small paperback edition of “Iterating Grace,” with a 10,000-copy print run.

“Everyone assumed it must be corporate hackery, because who does this just for fun?” said Alexis Madrigal, the editor in chief of the news organization Fusion and one of the recipients. “It’s so weird in this day and age to just do an art project.”

Theories and accusations ricocheted around social media as readers debated who was behind the elaborate stunt. Prime suspects included the novelists Dave Eggers and Joshua Cohen, who have both written sharply satirical novels about Silicon Valley, as well as Po Bronson, Susan Orlean and Robin Sloan.

“I wish I had done it,” said Mr. Sloan, author of “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.” “It pains me to deny authorship, because it’s so cool.”

“Iterating Grace,” which amounts to an extended inside joke for techies, may not find many converts outside Silicon Valley. Its antihero, Koons Crooks, is a parody of a burned-out programmer, “an inexhaustible foot soldier of the first dot-com boom.” He shouts commands at his dog in Unix, an early computer operating system, and is “fully post-meal,” subsisting on endless snacks like frozen dumplings. His trampled, decomposing body is discovered near a tattered fleece vest that says Pixelon, a reference to a failed start-up from the first dot-com boom and bust.

After consulting Koons’s mad scribblings in the margins of books, an unidentified narrator pieces together the story of his journey to Bolivia, and his growing obsession with the Twitter feeds of venture capitalists. “He contemplated individual tweets for days, sometimes weeks,” the anonymous narrator writes. “The answers he’d been searching for had been there, in the Bay Area’s innovation economy, all along — articulated, unwittingly, by an elite class of entrepreneurial high priests.”

The brief, tragicomic tale is just 18 pages long, interspersed with reproductions of handwritten tweets. The paperback costs $ 8, and the e-book is $ 5.

Even with the backing of a major publishing house, the authors — there are two of them — have insisted on hiding their identities. Not even their editor, Sean McDonald, knows who they are. Only one person at the publishing house, a person who works in the contracts department, knows their real names, Mr. McDonald said.

“They don’t see any point to being identified,” said Mr. McDonald, who spoke to the authors on the phone and exchanged emails with them. “It sounds kind of goofy to say it, but there’s a purity in people paying attention to the book itself, and putting a name on that might deflate that.”

Mr. McDonald said he first learned about the book over the summer after speculation arose that Mr. Sloan, one of the authors he works with, was the mastermind behind the project. He was instantly intrigued. So was Mr. Sloan’s literary agent, Sarah Burnes, who also asked Mr. Sloan if he was the author. He denied it, but told her he was a fan of the work and urged her to reach out to the author through an email address listed on the booklet.

She sent an email, and about three weeks later, got a reply. After several conversations, the authors agreed to publish “Iterating Grace,” as long as their identities were not revealed. Farrar, Straus & Giroux paid a low five-figure sum for the book. Through the publisher, the authors declined an interview request.

“We kept talking about how obviously it was impossible to publish this kind of thing at a major publishing house, but it seemed crazy enough and fun enough to try to make it possible,” Mr. McDonald said.

To reproduce the Twitter messages, Farrar, Straus & Giroux sought permission from the venture capitalists who wrote them, among them Mr. Feld and Mr. Graham as well as Chris Sacca and Andrew Parker, whose cryptic tweet, “the decentralization of everything,” already sounds like a parody.

Not everyone agrees the story succeeds as satire.

Casey Newton, the Silicon Valley editor for the technology news site The Verge, who was one of the first recipients, said he still suspected that the book was part of some viral marketing scheme.

“When it comes to any sort of stunt that gets a lot of attention on social media, all roads lead back to Taco Bell or Mountain Dew,” Mr. Newton said. “The mystery would be more interesting if the book was good.”

Others argue that the book perfectly captures the profound and growing influence that venture capitalists wield in today’s start-up culture.

“V.C.s have become San Francisco’s de facto philosopher kings, doling out financial, political and spiritual advice while amassing enormous cultural sway,” said Nellie Bowles, a former writer for the tech blog Recode, who has a cameo in “Iterating Grace” and is working on a TV show about start-ups for Fox. “It’s high time people take the whole thing to task.”

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