Monday 3 August 2009
The Couch Surfer: 'Trying to elevate nerds to rock-star levels of cool simply isn't plausible'
The Accidental Billionaires should be easy to spot in the non-fiction section of any good bookstore. The image on the front of the hardcover edition is of two cocktail glasses. In one of them, two pimento olives soak suggestively in a vodka martini like a pair of pale green testicles; the other has been knocked over, its swizzle stick lying prone in a scatter of broken glass. I presume the mishap occurred while the drinks' owners were lost in a passionate embrace, because artfully discarded in the background is an item of red silk ladies' underwear.
The book isn't some mid-80s McInerney novel, however. It's by Ben Mezrich, and it's about Facebook. You know, Facebook: the social networking site created by a set of Harvard computer science majors. The company's CEO Mark Zuckerberg may be a genius, but he's a geek genius. Yet Mezrich's book, the subtitle to which is "Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook", makes him sound like Hugh Hefner.
Mezrich's first bestseller was Bringing Down the House, the story of six MIT maths nerds who beat the Vegas casinos. After it was turned into a film (called 21), the book was exposed by The Boston Globe – which interviewed the real MIT card counters – as "not a work of 'non-fiction' in any meaningful sense of the word" and "embellished beyond recognition." That Zuckerberg refused to grant Mezrich a single interview for The Accidental Millionaires doesn't bode well for that book's accuracy either. Hence, perhaps, its bet-hedging author's note.
Mezrich's project appears to be the elevation of geeks to rock-star levels of cool. I can tell him from bitter personal experience that this simply isn't plausible. Last year, the movie August, about a web company on the cusp of the dot.com bust in 2001, tried the same thing and flopped magnificently – the geek running the company was played by piano-jawed hunk Josh Hartnett. I hope you'll excuse me if I laugh my ass off.
According to Boston magazine, there's little proof for at least one of The Accidental Millionaire's claims: that Facebook was started as a way for Zuckerberg and pals to pick up girls. Moreover, a racy episode in which Zuckerberg leaves a nightclub with an underwear model on his arm not only comes too early in the site's history for there to have been "Facebook groupies" (could "Facebook groupies" really exist, even now?), but sits uneasily with Zuckerberg's relationship status; he's reportedly been dating the same girl for years.
And anyway, everyone has sex in college. Even geeks. Trust me, I know. So why, when it's surely one of the least original things in Facebook's story, is sex the headline on Mezrich's book? Perhaps because, despite a coruscating New York Times review (which called it "obviously dramatized" and "clearly unreliable"), sex has helped The Accidental Millionaires to climb high in the New York Times bestseller list, and be made into a movie by Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing.
Maybe it's just because I'm a geek myself, but I'd rather read a book about how Facebook was actually established, featuring juicy details from the development of social media, than a bunch of apocryphal tales about banging "Asian chicks" in bathroom stalls.
For we happy few who are fans of The Wire – and no, we shan't shut up about it just yet – it's easy to forget that Dominic West, the show's de facto leading man, isn't actually that famous. Jimmy McNulty, his drunk Baltimorean detective, so dominates our cultural lives that we can barely imagine him as anything other than the lead in the next Scorsese movie.
But since McNulty was retired, West has stuck to the small screen, appearing as Cromwell in Channel 4's Civil War drama The Devil's Whore, and as Professor Howard Florey in last week's BBC4 film Breaking the Mould: the Story of Penicillin. Okay, so it's no glamour role, but if he can't be Brad Pitt, it's at least pleasurable to learn that West has range. His Cromwell was calm, calculating and ruthless; his Florey sensitive, uptight and principled. Few of these adjectives could be applied to McNulty.
His versatility doesn't end there, though. McNulty was an Irish-American in Baltimore, with an accent balanced precariously on the Mason-Dixon line. Cromwell was a country squire with an East Anglian burr. Florey was Australian. West-watchers will be aware that he's actually a plummy Old Etonian, born to Irish parents in Sheffield. He can do voices, then. Which is useful, for an actor.
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