'Laser Writer II' hides a dark corporate fairytale under its rosy nostalgia
Before the days of Apple Genius Bar appointments booked online, when your MacBook finked out in New York City you schlepped it down to Tekserve on West 23rd Street, where you pushed a lever for a numbered ticket, as if you were at Zabar's smoked fish counter. Then, surrounded by other Mac users distressed by coffee spills and un-backed-up data, you settled into a fold-down wooden theater seat until your number flashed on the screen of a re-purposed Macintosh. Sometimes it was a very long wait.
I never thought I'd look back on those lost, scruffy days with nostalgia — until Tamara Shopsin's unusual and oddly moving debut novel, LaserWriter II, brought it all back to me.
Shopsin, a graphic designer, illustrator, writer, and part-time cook, wrote about another New York institution in her refreshingly quirky memoir, Arbritrary Stupid Goal (2017) — her family's eccentric Greenwich Village greasy spoon joint, where customers risked expulsion if they annoyed her father, which wasn't hard to do. Just as that book was an ode to her unconventional upbringing and a community of free spirits, LaserWriter II celebrates another atypical business and the warm, supportive sense of community it spawned.
Shopsin's coming-of-age novel follows a shy, bright 19-year-old New Yorker named Claire, who takes a job at Tekserve in the mid-1990s because she loves Apple products and the repair shop's ethos of fairness to both employees and customers. ("If you are ever in doubt, do the right thing," the company handbook advises.) She has no tech expertise, so she starts by working intake, a.k.a. triage, learning how to efficiently diagnose customers' problems, direct jobs to the right techs (Teks, in the shop's parlance), and write up SROs — Service Repair Orders. Before she knows it, she's being re-trained to fill an opening in printer repairs, a promotion. (Yes, printers on the fritz weren't always considered disposable.)
To her surprise, Claire loves the absorbing, finicky challenge of fixing laser printers. And to our surprise, Shopsin's brief accounts of the never-ending stream of broken machines read like fascinating medical case histories. Among the few that Tekserve refuses to service is a computer infested with cockroaches.
About Claire, Shopsin writes, "She has found her calling. One that draws on her full mind and body. A noble calling that helps people make poetry and do their taxes." Poetry and taxes — with that combination, Shopsin good-humoredly champions practicality and beauty.
Claire also loves the motley assortment of co-workers at Tekserve — electronics whizzes, musicians, teachers, and an archery buff. Alluding to the 10-cent glass bottles of original CocaCola for which the shop was famous, she comments, "At Tekserve, all the employees were made of pure cane sugar, not corn syrup." Claire is amazed that her bosses, who rarely get angry even over costly mistakes, treat employees to lavish Wednesday lunches and Thursday breakfast spreads — on top of more substantial benefits like frequent raises and health insurance. All this long before Google offered free meals and other perks to create a more inviting workplace.
Alongside Claire's story, LaserWriter II features a brief history of Tekserve, which was founded in 1987 by David Lerner and Dick Demenus, two enterprising radio engineers who left WBAI to start Current Designs, a company that made recorders for museum audio tours. When Steve Jobs' "insanely great" early Macintoshes started to overheat because of their lack of fans, they moved into computer repair. Shopsin acknowledges that her history of Tekserve is "pretty true (tho not thorough or complete)." Her history of Apple is even briefer, but sufficient for her purposes.
Like her memoir, Shopsin's novel is a pared down affair with lots of white space on half-filled pages. We come to know Claire through sparse, carefully chosen details: Before working at Tekserve, she gate-crashed an Existentialism class at Columbia using an ID card she found and doctored. ("The professor had a thick accent that made it even harder to comprehend the human condition," she comments wryly.) A broken computer mouse reminds her of some unsavory details of her family's ongoing battle with rodents. We also learn that she volunteers for social justice collectives like Food Not Bombs, doesn't party, and deals with a former printer Tek's advances by avoidance. ("Nathan hovers like a fly. Claire doesn't swat.")
Claire gets so deep into her work that she imagines conversations between printer parts — tiny spring and gray roller, hook and gear. These back-and-forths struck me as tedious, but they do reveal that Claire has more moving parts than her agile fingers. And you have to laugh when an octagonal mirror quotes Sontag — "Courage is as contagious as fear" — and a capacitator tells a diaphragm, "Free will is not just what you do, it is also what you don't. Do you know what I mean?" The diaphragm responds, "No, but I don't really think I need to understand."
LaserWriter II is primarily a charming elegy to a less disposable culture and an enchanted workplace predicated on caring for machines and people. But Shopsin's novel also encompasses a darker corporate fairytale about a giant, fantastically innovative company that makes irresistible products but eventually squashes smaller, auxiliary businesses like Tekserve. She comments that it "commits no crime, save for planned obsolescence." But that's a big one in her book.