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Michael Lewis's hotly anticipated book about the Silicon Valley isn't as new, new as promised

By Jason Gay

NOVEMBER 29, 1999: 

The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis (Norton), 268 pages, $25.95.

With the publication of his latest book, The New New Thing, Michael Lewis becomes perhaps the biggest bigfoot scribe to wander into Silicon Valley's geekscape and try to make sense of the Internet-fueled fantasia that warped the American economy in the mid-to-late 1990s.

Expectations were understandably high for Lewis's book. He has written definitive and hilarious accounts of subjects including the 1980s Wall Street boom (in his bestseller Liar's Poker) and the 1996 race for the Republican presidential nomination (in the less popular but nevertheless stellar Trail Fever). And his deft style has made everyone from low-rung investment brokers to no-chance presidential washouts seem riotously compelling.

Also adding to The New New Thing's big big buzz was the news that Lewis had landed practically unlimited access to one of Silicon Valley's biggest fish: Jim Clark, the Texas-born visionary who launched three billion-dollar tech corporations: Silicon Graphics (which pioneered three-dimensional computer imaging), Netscape (whose user-friendly Internet browser revolutionized Web surfing), and Healtheon (an ambitious, Net-based information system for health-care providers). Writing about the Web by hanging around with a guy like Jim Clark is like covering the NBA by spending an entire season on the road as Michael Jordan's roommate.

Given the Lewis & Clark combo (Lewis makes Clark the hero and centerpiece of his book), it's not surprising that The New New Thing delivers some terrific laughs and spoonfuls of delicious insider detail. What's surprising about The New New Thing is how . . . how dull it is.

Part of Lewis's problem is timing. Few events have been chronicled more comprehensively than the rise of the American Internet economy; the remarkable growth of Jim Clark's most famous enterprise, Netscape, has been already analyzed in deeper detail than the murder of JonBenét Ramsey. Whether it's geekoid gazillionaires who sleep in cubicles or venture-capital firms that blithely toss cash at start-ups with nebulous business plans, much of the territory that Lewis covers has been written about again and again, everywhere from daily newspapers to Web news sites to Wired magazine and beyond, and often in the most breathless tones.

Of course, it's inevitable that a book of this kind would have some dated material. Lewis, to his credit, doesn't spend too much time on things you're likely to know already. What's more disappointing about The New New Thing is that many of Lewis's Big Cosmic Points -- and Lewis has often been good at homing in on the Big Cosmic Point -- feel dated, too. Who hasn't read umpteen times, for example, that the Internet boom has completely upended the American economy? Who hasn't read that the boom has changed not only the distribution of wealth, but its very definition? Lewis is far from the first writer to assert that Silicon Valley junks the buttoned-down, gray-suit-and-tie approach to business in favor of a collarless, seat-of-the-pants attitude. (Nor is he the first Siliconscribe who seems to be obsessed with measuring all successes in terms of stock options and dollar values.) Yes, he does it better and more cleverly than others have -- Lewis's accounts of the acerbic Clark's clashes with venture capitalists and the old Wall Street mentality, for example, are often hilarious -- but a lot of The New New Thing feels old, old.

Lewis must have known this, because he makes the curious decision to set a great deal of his book outside Silicon Valley: on the Hyperion, Clark's 155-foot sailboat. The Hyperion features state-of-the-art technology and a crew seated in front of computer terminals below deck; ideally, it pilots itself through the ocean without needing the services of a captain. The idea here is that the dream yacht is supposed to represent Clark's brilliance uninhibited: in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, away from the trappings of stock options and business plans, it is possible to recognize the true extent of his great vision, technical genius, and unquenchable thirst for the new thing -- that is, to recognize those attributes that have made him one of Silicon Valley's premier power players.

The sailboat metaphor works for a while, but then it loses speed and drifts. By the end, you're praying for the Hyperion to make shore. Clark himself becomes equally frustrating. For all the access he awards Lewis, he doesn't come across as a fully fleshed character; he seems more interested in calculating the worth of his stock options than in revealing any emotional core. (That might be okay if the entire book weren't based around him.) Although Lewis has proved that he can make the least interesting events and individuals seem fascinating -- this is, after all, a writer who once had people in stitches about Phil Gramm -- he can't work similar wonders with the tedium of a transatlantic crossing or a subject who's uninterested in revealing himself. When push comes to shove, a boring sailing trip is just a boring sailing trip, and a self-absorbed billionaire genius is just a self-absorbed billionaire genius.

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