The vapid world of Berlin's start-ups

A fictional satire lacks urgency

December 13, 2020
Graffiti in Berlin Credit: Creative Commons
Graffiti in Berlin Credit: Creative Commons

Matthew Sperling’s debut novel Astroturf, an exploration of modern masculinity, was longlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize in 2019; its steroid-addled protagonist, Ned, has moved from London to Berlin for the follow-up, Viral. Ned and Alice, an ex-actress, have formed a social media marketing agency called The Thing Factory, housed in the Kreuzberg district.

Having established that “the future is in platforms,” Ned and his team set about innovative methods of “harnessing… the products, the encounters, the kinds of connection between people that produce an emotional reaction.” He asks the team if they can “Uberise the homeless?” The idea is soon jettisoned in favour of a peer-reviewed business model for escorts and their clients, a “user-friendly platform for sex work.” And so the app Gliss is born.

Sperling skewers his characters, their conversations and “plenaries”; it’s hard not to cringe at the vapidity of it all, the campaigns and user bases and expansion phases, and the “bone-broth bars” the team heads to after work. The problem is that it doesn’t make for entertaining reading.

The writing lacks urgency, something that becomes apparent when drama—after much early exposition—finally arrives. When a colleague’s flat is burned down, “he knew at once, with a sickening feeling, that it was the people who’d been following him. Had to be. This was their way of escalating.” Moments of emotion—such as when Ned’s father’s ill health coincides with the stresses of his start-up—fail to carry much weight. Opportunities for reflection on sex workers’ rights and gentrification are also missed.

In the novel’s second half, the perspective shifts to include more of Ned’s business partner Alice. Despite a closer narrative focus, she remains opaque, watching the UK’s 2015 general election results from Germany and discussing the possibility of a referendum,  contemplating how “nobody would vote to give up being able to come and live out here.” It’s difficult to understand exactly who this novel is aimed at. It depicts a bleak slice of modern history, but it lacks direction and tension.

Viral by Matthew Sperling (Quercus, £14.99)