My friend Rahul Kanakia has published his first novel, and it's fantastic! I grabbed Enter Title Here shortly after its release, and devoured it over the course of a few days. It was really funny, and gripping, with a propulsive plot narrated by a Machiavellian eighteen-year-old over-achiever.
I've enjoyed reading Rahul's short stories for a few years. He's written some terrific science-fiction pieces before, but lately has been veering in a more literary direction. My favorite one is probably a terrific and odd story about ghosts and the East Bay rental market. I wasn't sure what to expect with Enter Title Here, and was glad to go into it cold.
The novel is consistently funny throughout. In one early scene, Aakash asks Reshma out via text message; when she accepts, he writes back "OMG, everyone! She said yes! #CrushedIt #TotalVictory #ThanksForAllTheFish", following it up shortly after with "Um, that was meant for someone else." I actually laughed out loud during the commute on BART - embarrassing, but well deserved!
Aakash in general was one of my favorite parts of the book. He crowd-sources all of his romantic ideas, researches kissing on YouTube, and generally approaches life as a puzzle to be solved. He was funny, but also weirdly relatable, and a couple of times I caught myself thinking, "Dang, I wish I'd thought of doing that." Like many of the characters, he can be a really decent guy and has a lot going on inside his head; but Reshma doesn't care about the aspects that do not directly affect her own ambitions.
The most noteworthy aspect of the novel is probably its fun meta-fictional structure. It's narrated in the first person by Reshma, who is writing a novel. So we're getting her description of events, but also her opinions on those events, and her running commentary on how she can reshape and mold this narrative to (1) cast herself in the best light, and (2) use it as a tool to get into Stanford. That's already great, but it's further elevated in the scenes with her psychologist, who not-so-secretly dreams of publishing his mystery novels. These scenes, with Reshma and her psychologist arguing over whether she should murder someone in order to provide more dramatic tension to the final act of the book, were some of my favorites; besides being funny, though, the self-awareness elevated this (for me) from being "just" a really well-written YA novel into something more literary.
I loved all of the sign-posting and telegraphing, which occur frequently in Reshma's commentary but are densest in those "workshopping" scenes with Dr. Wasserman. They often anticipate upcoming plot developments, or provide commentary on the story we've been reading so far. Near the midpoint of the novel, Reshma is convinced that she's nearing the end (since the Stanford application date is approaching), while Wasserman argues for the need for a complication - the "third option" that will surprise readers but satisfy them as they reach the end of the novel. Of course, we have a ways left to go, and Wasserman (despite being a bad writer) is correct here. There's also really fun ongoing discussion about how likeable/relatable/well-drawn the characters are. Reshma keeps trying to find succinct and clear motivations and actions for the people in her life so they can fulfill their necessary roles. Near the very end of the book, she finally kind of gives up, and acknowledges that the real complexity of people is greater than the simplified version that a novel demands. "Maybe the problem is that I'm trying to slap an ending onto a friendship that only began like six months ago." This stuff can be enjoyed on so many levels: for Reshma herself, for the story Reshma's writing, and for the novel we're reading.
Reshma has been shaped by the hothouse environment of Silicon Valley, and the novel does a great job at grounding itself in the weird environment here. The startup scene is just a background to the main plot, but everything about it feels correct: in particular, "Bombr" is a perfect name for a new social networking platform, right in step with Twitter and Tumblr and Flickr. Las Vacas itself is made up, but is obviously a stand-in for Atherton or Menlo Park or another of those mid-Peninsula wealthy, highly-educated, intensely-competitive cities.
The high school scenes themselves were really engaging and brought me back in mind to my own high-school experiences. I was fortunate enough to have a stronger social circle than Reshma, but I remember being keenly aware of the importance of group connections and social standings. All of the plot about GPA also rang immediately true for me - my high school was fairly similar, in that we had classes that were either "R" (supposedly "Regular" but de-facto "Remedial"), "I" (for "Intermediate", or standard) and "A" (for "Advanced"), with each tier getting 1 point higher in GPA calculations. There were people who, like Reshma, successfully gamed the system and figured out how to get the most "A" and the fewest "I" courses. As with Reshma, those weren't the smartest kids: in my particular class, most of the smartest kids were in band, which hobbled all of them with an extra "I" for a total of 8 semesters. I made out a little better since I wasn't in band, but I did take two computer science courses that, inexplicably, were "I" levels as well. But we all liked the material enough that we were fine being in the top 10 instead of valedictorian. But I also think we, and our parents, were a lot less competitive. Some of that is probably the difference with Silicon Valley, and some of it might be high school and college getting more competitive in general since I attended.
Anyways! I almost never think about high school any more, but Enter Title Here reminded me vividly of how crucial everything felt back then: the grades, the rankings, college admissions, finding a date to Prom, having people to eat lunch with. So much of that seems unimportant now, but I'm sure it helped shape who I am today, and it was cool to reconnect with that part of my past story.
Reshma is, of course, absolutely ruthless in her climb to the top. I was really impressed at just how consistently negatively Reshma is drawn, seeming borderline sociopathic. There were quite a few times during the book when I thought "Okay, this will be the moment when Reshma will acknowledge her hubris and draw back." Nope! Inevitably, she doubles down, placing others or herself at greater risk as she claws towards her goal. These escalations often occur during her interactions with Alex, and are shockingly funny. I just love the absurdity of Reshma wielding her friendship as a sword over Alex, refusing to let her escape even when they both hate one another.
After reading an entire novel painting Reshma as the most cynical and relentless person imaginable, I was even more impressed at how quickly but believably she's "redeemed" at the end. It's still recognizably her, particularly her determination and ambition (which loses focus for a time but never disappears). She hasn't lost her personality, but she's gained empathy. Or, at least, she's gained the ability to recognize when she does not have empathy, which is practically the same thing. There's a moment, late in the book, when she finally realizes that parts of George's life are pretty crappy, and actually cares about that, and not just as a means to improve her own life. It's a wholly satisfying ending that, as Dr. Wasserman promised, we didn't see coming but makes perfect sense once we see it.
I was lucky enough to attend the launch party for the novel, which was a lot of fun - Rahul read from the book and gave a really enlightening and amusing Q&A. As he pointed out, this is a young-adult novel, but exactly zero teenagers were in attendance. I haven't been a teenager in a while, but I think many will get a kick out of this book - either because they relate to the intense competition and ambition, or because they can be grateful they have escaped it. I do know that I, as an adult, thoroughly enjoyed it. From the gripping, charismatic-yet-sometimes-horrifying characters to the really clever story construction and self-commentary, this was a terrific read, and one that I can unhesitatingly recommend to anyone.