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Musk the messiah (or a very naughty boy?)

What’s worse: working for him, living with him or simply being him? You’ll find the (at times disturbing) answers in this mesmerising new biography of the Monty Python-obsessed Elon Musk, writes Sean O’Grady

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 14 September 2023 17:21 BST
Brought to book: copies of Walter Isaacson’s unauthorised biography ‘Elon Musk' at a Barnes & Noble in Glendale, California
Brought to book: copies of Walter Isaacson’s unauthorised biography ‘Elon Musk' at a Barnes & Noble in Glendale, California (EPA)

Elon Musk, as is widely acknowledged, is not a very nice man. But I’m not quite sure which of the experiences mesmerisingly portrayed in Walter Isaacson’s superb biography is worse: working for Elon Musk; being related to, or in a relationship with Musk; or actually being Musk, who makes being the richest person in the world (worth about $300bn) much less fun than it might be.

Getting employed by Musk is certainly incompatible with the pursuit of human happiness, at least if you end up at close quarters with this emotionless slave-driving workaholic. Isaacson was very wise to break his meaty 616-page work into 95 chapters, plus a prologue (“Muse of Fire”, which hints at Isaacson’s very occasional slides into idolatry). Such is the complexity of Musk’s personality, business dealings and personal life that they can only be digested in the form of anecdotal, often first-hand vignettes; in effect, 96 glimpses of Musk. The author was allowed to bum around with “the most controversial innovator of our era” for two years, read his texts and emails, interview his friends and enemies, his family and associates. He forms his own conclusions, which are mostly admirably balanced and mature. It’s not an “authorised” biography – at least, not in the worst sense of the term – and given Musk’s tendency to control, it is remarkable Musk didn’t even read the manuscript pre-publication. At any rate, it’s the best we’re going to get for a while.

Even so, sometimes the narrative does get repetitive. Once you have vicariously witnessed Musk bullying some hapless executive with impossible demands, you don’t really want many encores, but it is such a central feature of the Musk way of doing things that it does take up quite a bit of the book. It’s how he got the biggest rocket in history into orbit, I suppose, though I’m not convinced that is essential. It is always the same routine. Fixing them in his sci-fi laser-style stare, Musk will tell someone to put a chip into a pig’s brain that will transmit thoughts to a laptop, and complete it by the weekend. If they are stupid enough to “push back”, Elon tells them to do it anyway or their “resignation will be accepted”. I exaggerate only slightly. There’s a lot of that in the book, and the demanding deadlines are dished out to friends, relatives and strangers with equal indifference to personal circumstances. Isaacson, in his quest for a comprehensive audit of the Musk phenomenon, errs slightly on the side of the voyeur in these encounters, but I can’t blame him. It’s quite the spectacle.

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