Book Review: “The Underwriting” by Michelle Miller

The Underwriting by Michelle Miller

Michelle Miller gives us an entertaining bit of slander and character assassination, slashing away two of my own favorite targets, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. I liked it a lot.

As timely as today’s headlines about Uber-holes, Silicon Valley “diversity” reports, and the most interest-conflicted administration in US history, this fiction hews awfully close to the bone. It’s fiction, but we know it’s too true. Ouch!

The story involves a very peculiar tech IPO from a company not unlike Tindr, handled by a troubled Wall Street bank. From the start, a lot of things make no sense, and we gather that there must be stuff going on behind the scenes. But the young people tapped to implement the deal are drooling at the chance to make it big, however dicey things may be. Fourteen Billion Dollars buys a lot of swallowing hard and looking away.

Much of the story is about the lives of ambitious Stanford kids, and it ain’t pretty. Most of the men are horrid, snooty, egotistical scum, and some are really stupid. Too many of the women put up with it for no good reason, and are all twisted up worrying about being accepted by men. This part of the story is surely written from autobiographical experience.

The workings of the fictional bank and tech company are pulled together from real world events and characters, too. Miller herself (a Stanford grad) worked in this field, so she is writing from solid knowledge. Yes, it really is this bizarrely horrid.

Miller strings us along with one twist, intrigue, and surprise after another. Frankly, I lost track of all the subplots, secret motives, clandestine revenge, and what not. Phew. There is even a murder mystery that is far from wrapped up by the end.

Along the way, Miller delivers some serous spankings that are richly deserved. She savages loony Silicon Valley corporate life, tech CEOs, and venture capitalists. She slaps around location based apps. She also puts the boot into the vicious conflicts of interest and insider dealing of Wall Street and SV VCs.

She has a soft spot for her Alma Mater Stanford, but doesn’t seem impressed with many of its products.  One suspected that these characters contain slices of real people she has known. If so, this book is probably well deserved revenge.

This story is mostly told from the point of view of her generation, and she develops quite a few characters with an acute eye to their confused mess upness. But there is sympathy here. Even the shallowest and obnoxious bros and the most clueless party girls attract our sympathy.

It is also very easy to see Miller herself in these characters, especially the ones who eventually drop out of this awful game. Just like she did.

Miller joins the growing early 21st literature  critiquing the digital generation, both non-fiction (Valley of the Gods, Chaos Monkeys, Hatching TwitterDogfightStraight To Hell) and fiction (Mr. Penumbra’s 24‑Hour Bookstore, The Circle, The Golden Gate, The Assistants, ).

Miller has a bad attitude and deft hand at story telling—a formula for a fun read.  I like it.

  1. Michelle Miller, The Underwriting, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2015.


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