The New New Thing
BY MICHAEL LEWIS
W. W. Norton & Company; 269 pages; $25.95
No literary genre needs metaphor more than the nonfiction business book. From Liar’s Poker to Barbarians at the Gate, successful stories of markets and investors have come to depend on simple, striking imagery as a way of bringing down to earth the ethereal workings of high finance. Find your metaphor, you’ve found your book. And that’s the wonder of The New New Thing, Michael Lewis’s tale of billionaire Jim Clark, the founder of Netscape and the pair of lungs behind the still-inflating Internet stock bubble: The book’s big metaphor supplied itself, and Lewis was wise enough to let it be, knowing that it could never be improved on.
Thanks to Lewis, the graph of soaring security prices that has become the outline of the nineties finally has a recognizable shape: that of the world’s tallest sailboat mast and sail. The mast belongs to the Hyperion, Clark’s computer-operated superboat, paid for by the initial public offering that turned a profitless, blue-sky Internet start-up into one of the decade’s greatest companies and thereby spawned a boom (no pun intended, although it’s an aspect of the metaphor’s beauty that it inspires maritime puns galore) so vast and precarious that it makes the twenties seem like a decade of puritan thrift and prudence. Even scarier, the connection between Clark’s boat and the era of high hopes surrounding it isn’t merely literary but actual. According to Lewis – an instinctive joker who, in this case, isn’t joking, it seems–the primary reason Clark took Netscape public was to raise cash to launch Hyperion. The folly preceded the fortune, in other words. It’s a fantastic, deeply troubling notion: In an economic demonstration of the unlikely workings of chaos theory, one man’s covetousness and eccentricity have ended up transforming global finance, from the exalted halls of Goldman Sachs to your own lowly IRA account.
One trembles to think, and yet The New New Thing is not, on its surface, a cautionary tale about the price of human arrogance. That price – in the form of a crippling market collapse, as AOL goes from 115 to 1 and a million leased Lexuses limp back to the dealerships – has yet to be paid, and perhaps never will be. Lewis makes no predictions, at least no explicit ones; he confines himself to narrating the run-up, the voyage out. It’s an adventure story, full of peril, full of miscalculations and reversals, both at sea and on the stock exchange, but one that stops short of catastrophe. Which makes it all the more suspenseful, finally. Because if Jim Clark’s Hyperion ever goes down, if it ever proves unseaworthy, there aren’t enough lifeboats on the planet to carry all the passengers back to shore.
The New New Thing of Lewis’s title refers, before anything else, to Clark himself, a man so terrifyingly self-made, so ferociously independent and unconventional, that he’s a physical danger to those around him. Married again and again, and a serial hobbyist whose idea of fun is building helicopters in his driveway, Clark begins his entrepreneurial tear by founding Silicon Graphics, a manufacturer of high-end workstations. Clark bails when the firm is taken over by suits and calls together a cadre of engineers to create Netscape, whose greatest innovation – beside its Internet browser, Navigator – is its corporate structure. At Netscape, the engineers are on a par, stock-option- and prestige-wise, with the executives. The scientists take over from the moneymen, loosing a thousand pent-up dreams and schemes and ushering in a manic new regime of technological libertarianism. Following the IPO, which nets him more money in a shorter period than anyone had got before him, Clark becomes both a billionaire and an oracle, capable of turning his napkin scribblings into zillion-dollar paper fortunes.
Lewis stands at just the proper distance from Clark – near enough to see his rages and hear his rants, but far enough away to keep the spittle from flying into his eyes. Joining Clark in his careening helicopter or on his pitching ship, Lewis plays the coward Everyman–a conservative Nick to Clark’s outlandish Gatsby. In the manner of someone who assumes, deep down, that he’ll likely end up attending the great man’s funeral, Lewis is awed by Clark, but mostly amused by him. He feels the same way about Silicon Valley, adopting a vaguely Fitzgeraldian, post-crack-up tone when discussing its excesses and enthusiasms: “The Valley was a little experiment in capitalism with too much capital. For a brief but shining moment capital lost its purchase on its own process. The process took on a momentum all its own.”
The Lost Tycoon style goes too far at times, as though Lewis were already practicing his funeral oration for Internet America, entranced by the speech’s literary possibilities. Then again, the sheer unlikelihood of a sustained bull market that sometimes seems to be built on the prefixes e- and i- may well prove him wise. What’s more, his comic fatalism seems sincere, part of his person, not his bag of tricks, and it contrasts nicely with Clark’s utopian zeal. In one of the book’s hallmark scenes, he goes with Clark to the Bay Area office of a buttoned-up Swiss bank. As part of an obscure vendetta against a European who owes him money, Clark intends to open a modest account (a couple hundred thousand dollars). The banker, a symbol of old-fashioned prudence, quizzes Clark on his tolerance for risk and his investment objectives. Clark just stares. The questioning, Lewis writes, “was a social gaffe, on the order of inviting the fastest gun in the West to court at Versailles.”
Besides the echoes of Fitzgerald, there’s a lot of Tom Wolfe in Lewis’s book – a vintage New Journalism verbal snazziness and a Wolfe-ish profusion of exclamation marks (“The customer was laughing! At the Bank Julius Baer questionnaire! At the Bank Julius Baer!”). Like both of his apparent masters, Lewis seems to want to make a statement about a period, not just a man, and about a general cultural mood. He achieves the effect, but at a cost – a cost only high-tech hardheads will mind paying. By reducing the Internet craze to a grand yarn about one man’s insatiable appetites – for money, for stimulation, for a big sailboat – Lewis has chosen roundness over detail, humor over complexity. More power to him. Troy, no doubt, fell for reasons besides Helen, but Homer would not have been Homer if he’d listed them.