Growing up, my grandparents’ basement was a wonderland of old Macintosh computers. My grandpa taught computers at the junior high school, which meant he had to be up on the best and latest tech. In his opinion, this meant Macintoshes. He retired in the early 90s, though, so the computers stopped at the Macintosh SE.
I was thinking about my grandparents’ basement a lot while I read LaserWriter II, a book that is a clear and loud homage to the pre-internet era of computers and, more precisely, computer repair before manufacturers made it more difficult for third-party repair companies to exist. Tamara Shopsin’s debut novel follows Claire, a 19-year-old new employee at TekServe, which serves an eclectic cross-section of computer users in New York City. The employees at TekServe are just as varied, but all have found their calling, one way or another, to working with Macs.
Claire finds that same verve when she is promoted to working in printer repair, and even loves working on the notoriously tedious cleanout job that is fixing the titular printer. If she has a nemesis, it is the fickle and surprisingly delicate LaserWriter 8500. Still, time passes quickly until a slightly botched repair job, and the mild but constant hitting on by a coworker, convinces her that it’s time to move on.
LaserWriter II is more of a vibe than a plot, and its vibe is extremely specific, dropping details of life in 1990s New York City like an Ivy-League grad drops names. From soda machines stocked with Kosher, cane-sugar Coke to Steve Buscemi and Samuel L. Jackson needing their computers looked at, Shopsin is clearly drawing specific references to a specific time and place. Unfortunately, it’s not one I’m familiar with whatsoever, and this world feels foreign and filled with inside jokes that I can’t understand. One thing I love about literature is its ability to transport, to educate, outside of the familiar. This was more like a party with an exclusive guest list that I tried to participate in from the wrong side of the glass.
Which is sad, because I can tell that the party is a great one. Shopsin’s characters are, like her worldbuilding, sparse but precisely done. Before and after her time at TekServe, Claire sits in on classes at Columbia University with a student ID card she found on the sidewalk. A super-smart fish named Lisa so enthusiastically swims in her tank that she spills water on, and ruins, an extremely expensive printer. One of TekServe’s owners has devised his company’s location and much of its growth plan based on his refusal to cross the street to go to work. Even the equipment gets characterized in some of the most touching passages in the book, such as this exchange between two printer parts, Transport Chute and Separation Pad:
“Hey, I hear it now, the violin playing. Is that what a car alarm sounds like?”
“No, car alarms are more repetitive.”
“Kind of … like printing?”
“Nothing is like printing.”
“Is this it, are we never going to play another symphony because one of our fifteen sensors quit?”
Separation pad looks at the sad hulk of transport chute who is thirty times his size. “I can’t tell the future, but I do believe parts can change. It is not impossible. It happens all the time.”
I read more, way more, books than I review. About a third to half of the time, I decide not to review something because I don’t feel I have anything to add to the conversation around the book. Some of the time, I don’t know that I have anything to add to the conversation but I review it anyway because I want to gush about it, and it’s my blog and I can do that. (And lately, I haven’t been reviewing some books because, as of Dec. 27, HarperCollins still won’t sit down for a real conversation with its union to negotiate their extremely reasonable demands. Grow a pair, Brian Murray.) I say this because I wasn’t sure I would review LaserWriter II. I could tell from almost the very beginning of this slim novel that I was not even close to the target audience for it. I’ve mentioned before when I feel a book was made for someone who was not me, but LaserWriter II was one of the most dramatic examples of this I’ve encountered in memory, with a gulf between what I was looking forward to and what it offered. But that was ultimately what made me decide I would review it.
One of the great things about literature is that it can transport us to other times and places. It can help us understand people who are not remotely like us and yet are somehow familiar in unexpected ways. Books are the closest things to magic we have, taking bits of dead trees and ink, or some data on a glowing screen, and flinging us across time and space and experience and emotion. There are so many of them that no single person has time in their life to read them all. There are also so many that there’s no way for someone to identify with them all, and that is perhaps the most beautiful part of books. Because there are also more kinds of people than we can ever meet and more perspectives than we can ever imagine, and I want there to be more of that.
For a long time, the powers that be in publishing have more or less had similar backgrounds of class, education, opportunities. That’s changing, but much too slowly. Let’s change that. Let’s have more perspectives we can learn from, and more that we don’t identify with, and accept that not everything is for everyone. The literary world has more room than it or its readers think, and I’m glad to explore more corners of it—even if the stories I find don’t resonate with me personally.