The Short Version: In summer 2015, privately printed copies of Iterating Grace appeared in the mailboxes of several prominent tech reporters, tech workers, and other assorted tech-related folks. Now, FSG has brought it to the masses – this strange, small tome of tweets-as-art and satirical poking at the Silicon Valley way of life.
The Review: I love a good mystery, so this whole “who is Koons Crooks?” thing is exciting to me. Noah Krulwin, over at re/code, thinks that it’s all been an inside job by FSG – but that still doesn’t tell us who the author is. Regardless of who was behind the stunt in a big-picture way (and I think it’s interesting that, immediately, people believed it was a stunt, that it was commissioned by a company as part of some viral marketing), it’s rare to have a truly mysterious author these days. Look what happened to Robert Galbraith, you know?
The story itself, this “introductory essay” by Anonymous (two levels of anonymity, then – Koons and the editor/writer/compiler figure), tells of a man who was “an inexhaustible foot soldier of the first dot-com boom” who has either an awakening or a psychotic break and eventually winds up dead outside a yurt on a volcano in Bolivia. We are given the classic setup of an old friend reaching out with an “interesting” package, the arrival of the package, the piecing together of the story, and ultimately the morals left to be deciphered on our own. In this, Iterating Grace shares a common lineage with stories from the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Joseph Conrad – the passing down of a tale through multiple hands before it reaches the reader’s. In fact, I just read a China Miéville story quite like this, come to think of it… Anyway.
We’re given a brief look into the life of this mysterious Koons and it’s hard not to crack a grin at some of the utterly ridiculous things about his life. There’s something a little Hansel about Koons, not just in his decision to go off-the-grid (albeit with a self-made WiFi hotspot) but in stories of him giving people business cards of others with the names crossed out and a flower paperclipped to the back or of the only song on his iPod being “Even Flow”. And the tiny volume is full of beautifully (if amaturely) calligraphed tweets: Koons, in his time in the yurt, began to take inspirational tweets from venture capitalists and CEOs and treat them, well, like they were wisdom from the gods. I won’t spoil Koons’ ultimate end except to say that it might be the funniest part of this slim volume, the satire landing most potently in the final words.
Even with the obviousness of the satire ringing out as I closed the book, I was left wondering what exactly this was meant to achieve. It seems as though the folks who got the original copies found the satire hilarious and searing – some of them the very people whose tweets had been turned into koans by Koons. But what for the masses? What for those who already roll their eyes at the tweets by the captains of industry, those oblivious moneybags who think that their wisdom (in less than 140 characters) is important enough to share?
Of course, the next step in the line of thought is: what for anyone who thinks their wisdom, in less than 140 characters, is important enough to share? Koons means something to us too, perhaps even more than he might mean to those who originally received the book. For we are both Koons and those that the book aims to satirize, even if we aren’t working in the tech industry or multi-gajillionaires. We are the ones who can’t actually disconnect, who would take a computer and a hotspot to a remote yurt as we try to discover the secrets of the universe… and we’re the ones who believe that our daily lives are infinitely interesting to anyone other than ourselves.
Perhaps Koons’ final act isn’t funny, but rather incredibly tragic – a warning to us all. Or, perhaps, this is all some intricate marketing play by Google or Microsoft or Twitter or Mountain Dew or someone. I don’t know which is scarier.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Utterly surreal and delightful satirical – not to mention a beautiful object (although what does one expect from those fine folks at FSG Originals). Who was Koons Crooks? We will never know, even as we read his story. Tweets and ephemera cannot paint us the entire picture of any person – the real is far more unknowable. And perhaps that is his greatest legacy: a cautionary tale.