Monday, July 09, 2018

The Glitch by Elisabeth Cohen

I’m going to talk to you today about a book that so irritated me as I was reading it that I almost stopped several times, and I did put it aside for for a couple of days while I read another book. It is a 2018 novel by Elizabeth Cohen, The Glitch, and upon completion I think it one of the funniest books I’ve read all year. 

Shelly Stone is the CEO of a very successful company called Conch, and I can say that she is one of the least likable characters I have ever met. The conch is a very small device that fits just behind the ear, and is in fact a high power computer that can do a multitude of tasks. Shelly says of herself that stress is the airstream in which she flies. She has a husband and two children, but they are laughably incidental to her real life, which is work. In an early passage of the book where Shelly is with Rafa, her husband, in a restaurant, a rose in a vase has the audacity to sag to one side. She tries to adjust it, but it doesn’t work. “I tried to pretend it didn’t bother me,…But I could tell he knew it annoyed my; that’s one of the problems of marriage, the ability to read the truth off each other’s faces. It obviates all the effort you make to hide how you really feel”.

Shelly is only happy when she is at work, but she takes the entire search for happiness to be misguided.
Rafael is a bit pleasure driven…Pleasure doesn’t hold the same pleasure for me. I get bored and irritable. It takes so long, an appetizer’s enough for me to feel like I’ve had the experience at the restaurant, and lying down for five minutes is  enough of a nap, and I like to schedule sex for when we’re changing our clothes anyway. Then I need to get back to work…pleasure is not something I have much time for, the pointlessness of it, the inefficiency and excess.
While in Barcelona to give an inspirational speech to a group of successful women, her conch seems to exhibit a glitch. For one thing, it identifies a young woman who is approaching her as Shelly Stone, and this initiates a wonderfully absurd sequence of events as she tries to determine if the young woman is, in fact, a younger version of herself. Another client in told by his conch to jump off a cliff, and he does as told. Just as they are about to launch a new model, they have to try to deal with this glitch. That part of the story is complicated and in most ways tangential to the main theme of the novel, which I take to be the incredibly high price women have to pay to enter into the highest power positions in corporations. But while that is (I believe) the serious undercurrent of the novel, it is the wildly funny descriptions of the monomania of Shelly that kept this reader’s interest. Rather than trying to paraphrase some of these sections, I think I will quote some passages that will do a better job of conveying the humor.

An interviewer asks Shelly, “Wow, so you get up at 3:30 every morning?
It’s true, you have to be disciplined to lead this kind of life. Discipline is so important. I’m a grateful hostage to my routines and my checklists. But the truth is, and I’m going to give it to you straight, that when anxiety is ripping is ripping our insides to pieces, it is actually a lot easier to get out of bed than to lie there wanting to die. I can’t sleep—it’s not that I don’t want to. But I need the time, so it all works out. Anxiety has replaced caffeine for me…I’m always; asking myself, how can I fit in a little more work: What else can go, so there’s more time to work? Just because it’s 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. our time doesn’t mean things aren’t really rocking in the Malay production facility, so I check in with some of our vendors and retailers. Making that time count allows me to squeeze in a shower, because it’s important to take time for yourself. While I’m in the shower I brainstorm solutions to work problems. Then I get out. I have towels I get from a special place in London, extra soaky. I have a system for drying myself in a quarter of the time.
What’s your secret to balancing it all? 
If I had to laser in on my most key pieces of advice, I would say surround yourself with good help, pick a good spouse (which is basically the same thing), offload everything that is not core, and don’t lose minutes. 
Shelly thinks of herself as a good and capable mother, but reading some of her parenting ideas will surely convince readers otherwise. 
Every day I feel such pride and purpose as I walk into Conch. If I’m not at work, I’m thinking about work, so it’s satisfying when my mind and surroundings sync.
Shelly’s Q score, which measures likability, tops out in the single digits. But she wonders why she is not more likable; she likes herself. “Still, a more likable CEO might help Conch at the margins, and I felt I had in me the potential, even obligation, to become an averagely likable person."

The reader discovers that Shelly was struck by lightning as a teenager, and while suffering through a long and painful recovery, she reckons that the strike made her into the successful overachiever she need to be to run a large corporation. 
I happen to love Mondays—they are my most productive day and my favorite (thank God it’s Monday, I always think when I wake up). It’s not that I dread the weekends per se; I love them differently, like a second child. On Saturday mornings, I feel, despite my efforts, a little down at the prospect of temporarily unplugging, and although I never really do, entirely, there’s something depressing about pinging out emails and knowing it could be an hour or more before anyone replies. The workweek at Conch is joy, so it’s a nice feeling to have as much of it as possible still to come. 
From reading the acknowledgement at the end of the book, it’s obvious Cohen has done her homework re women in high power positions and the toll it takes, and I have to admit once I realized that she is intentionally caricaturing life of a successful CEO, I found the humor of the book more compelling. Shelly says she prioritizes Conch and her children, and wonders if, perhaps, she should have prioritized her marriage more. But "How many things can be the priority? Really just one at a time". ‘Priority’ is not a word that can legitimately be pluralized. And Rafa understands, or I thought he did. He has his own work. Of all of them—Conch, Cullen, kids, Rafa—he needs me the least.

You will have to read the book to discover more about the glitch and about the juggling act of Shelly.

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