For Ideologues in Silicon Valley, Everything Is Just Right

KRAFT
By Jonas Lüscher

Fraudulence, in Jonas Lüscher’s world, is a universal. His new novel, “Kraft,” examines the human frailties underlying the Silicon Valley neoliberal order; it follows “Barbarian Spring,” which trained a similarly satirical eye on the arena of high finance and the hubris that led to a global crash.

Richard Kraft is a debt-ridden professor in Germany who cut his teeth as a Reaganite and Thatcherite in the 1980s, when he met his friend and fellow free-marketeer Istvan Panczel, a Hungarian whose dissident legend conceals more shambolic origins. A windy billionaire and tech-optimist named Tobias Erkner invites Kraft to Stanford to take part in a contest of ideological sycophancy: A million dollars will go to the author of the best speech on why, despite all appearances to the contrary, “whatever is, is right.” Kraft eyes a chance at salvation, and perhaps a rekindling of his busted dreams of “an ideal bourgeois family life.”

With a portrait of Donald Rumsfeld looming over his desk in California, Kraft sets to work making a case for Panglossian optimism while his marriage crumbles and his money problems worsen. The verb tenses switch as we alternate between Kraft’s intellectually constipated present and his and Istvan’s back stories. What follows resembles a German free-market ideologue’s “High Fidelity,” with Kraft revisiting in memory the women he has loved — Johanna, Ruth and his wife, Heike — and asking himself what it all meant.

Composed in wry, long sentences agreeably translated from the German by Tess Lewis, “Kraft” serves up a digestible treatise on Europe’s economic and political history of the last few decades, with the laissez-faire duo of Kraft and Istvan as cartoonish vessels for their author’s findings. It’s also an amusing study in how intellectuals become neutered and co-opted through venal self-interest. The scene in which Kraft finally writes a lecture to suit the benefactor’s facile prejudices is a finely handled, comic dramatization of the microcompromises, stifled shame and bad-faith gymnastics of sham writers who tell the Culture whatever it wants to hear. “Now it’s a matter of pointing out why evil isn’t so bad,” he reasons, all too aware that he’s selling his soul.

The novel’s broad satirical strokes limit its emotional heft, and a too-tidy ending fails to convince. But Lüscher is a perceptive commentator on Silicon Valley’s heady and hubristic ideological climate, with its smug boasts of “disruption” and death-denying (or rather “posthuman transtheotechnist”) longings. In between composing his 18-minute spew of pretentious guff, Kraft gets out and about in Northern California — which he conveniently obliterates in an extended fantasy about the Big One.

Lüscher sniffs out the fraudulence in the very roots of his characters’ political stances. Even before Kraft consents to becoming a corporate-fluffing sellout, both his and Istvan’s proudly professed free-market ideals were as cosmetic as the tweets of a phony radical desperate for likes. The fall of Soviet communism was a disaster for Istvan: Overnight, he lost the “erotic attraction” of being — or presenting himself as — the rebel-intellectual in exile. And when Kraft wearied of his hard-line laissez-faire worldview, it wasn’t on account of late capitalism’s insupportable contradictions; rather, “he had come to realize that it only made him attractive to a very small group of women.” As in the work of Michel Houellebecq — a more vicious critic of neoliberalism’s ravages than Lüscher — it all comes back to sex.

Ultimately, Kraft’s views express a shallow and self-aggrandizing contrarianism. “Deep down,” Lüscher writes, “he was an anarchist, a punk, he would say to himself, but with a higher level of hygiene, better taste and good manners.”

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