The word I bet you will hear used a lot to describe Eric Barnes debut novel Shimmer is “timely.” With the sentencing of Bernie Madoff, and the general climate of the economy in the aftermath of the financial crisis, this seems like the perfect time for a thriller about a high tech mega-corporation that is really a giant ponzi scheme.
Here is the publisher’s blurb to give you a feel for the plot:
In just three years, CEO Robbie Case has grown Core Communications, a data technology company, from 30 people to over 5,000. Now a $20 billion company made legendary by its sudden success, Core is based on a technology no other company can come close to copying, a revolutionary breakthrough known as drawing blood from a mainframe. And Robbie, its 35-year-old CEO, is acclaimed worldwide for his vision, leadership and wealth. Except that all of it is based on a lie. The technology doesn t work, the finances are built on a Ponzi scheme of stock sales and shell corporations, and Robbie is struggling to keep the company alive, to protect the friends who work for him and all that they ve built. Each day, Robbie tries to push the catastrophe back a little further, while his employees believe that they are all moving closer to grace, the day their stock options vest, when they will be made rich for their faith and loyalty and hard work.
In essence what Barnes has attempted is to get inside the mind of high tech con man. What type of person does this sort of thing? What would it be like to be at the center of such a scheme? Robbie Case is his attempt at flushing this out; an answer in the form of a character.
I found Shimmer to be unlike almost any other book I have read. It was interesting and entertaining but there was something about it that didn’t quite click.
The book is a techno thriller in a sense (plot focused on suspense with technology at the heart, etc.) but it is also a deeply psychological book and it lacks the action one usually associates with a thriller. The entire book takes place in one building for the most part and concerns the daily operations of a technology company.
There are basically two intertwined plot threads. One is the central hook of Core Communications being based on technological fraud and Case’s frantic efforts to keep it from collapsing. This is what gives the book its drive and provides the suspense. It also gives what seems like an accurate portrayal of the never ending pressure that prevails at such a company; the never ending stream of communication, meetings, to do lists, crises to avert, etc.
The secondary thread deals with the psychology behind Case or his internal life: his unhealthy relationship with his cousin Trevor; his addiction to high end prostitutes; his relationships with the senior managers at Core; and his own exploration of why he agreed with this giant deception and whether he wants it to end.
The first part is well done. Barnes drops you in on this ticking time bomb and allows the reader to experience the pressure as the con-man tries to play out the con for as long as he can. As the pressure escalates you get almost a claustrophobic feeling as events begin to close in on Case and you wonder how long he can keep his secret.
Barnes adds in to the mix a nice collection of secondary characters at Core. And as noted, it provides an interesting portrait of the high-tech high pressure business world; people who feed off the adrenaline and lure of money that comes from these jobs even as they realize it is eating up their families and preventing them from living a life approaching normalcy.
The second aspect I found more problematic. Perhaps it is just my prudish nature, but I found the sections dealing with Case’s engagement with high end call girls off-putting. Maybe it was Barnes intention but they were creepy and often downright disturbing. Other than further indicating that Case’s life had gone off the rails, I am not sure what they added to the plot.
There is definitely a contrast going on between the hard work, dedication,a nd talent on display at Core and the underlying deception involved and Cases fragile mental state. Case ends up spending four months without leaving the building (he lives on a separate floor at Core headquarters) and sleeps only a few hours at a time; mostly on his office couch. His entire live becomes subsumed into the need to keep the company, and the giant lie at its heart, going.
But the darker side of Case is often hard to reconcile with the friendship, loyalty, and success that seems to be at the heart of Core’s senior managers. Barnes also provides little explanation on how someone as troubled and off-kilter as Case manages to function at such a high level for so long with very little sleep. This stretches belief at times.
The book’s ambiance if you will was creepy and tense. Sometimes this worked others it just felt jarring.
And these two threads come together in the conclusion. From a purely structural stand point the conclusion “works” in that it brings the plot to a resolution. But in light of the larger psychological thrust of the book, I found the ending a bit of a cop-out.
I won’t spoil it for you but, while it wasn’t exactly a happily-ever-after type ending, it was a little too neat for me. Barnes seems to be offering a larger cultural commentary on the nature of business and work but it wasn’t a particularly satisfying character – emotionally or psychologically – resolution for me.
But credit Barnes for taking a creative idea and exploring it in an interesting way. Shimmer is an entertaining suspenseful read and a unique fictional look at the world of high tech bubbles and corporate fraud.