I once heard a poet say that she could ”tell the truth only by lying”. I thought of that last night, as I finished reading Mona Simpson’s book A Regular Guy. 

In it, we get to know a scattered group of individuals in Silicon Valley of the 90’s.

In spite of the novel’s title, the story is told from the perspective of a young girl, called Jane. She grows up dirt-poor, but when she’s about ten years old her desperate mum sends her away to the glamorous father, who never acknowledged his parenthood, but now gracefully agrees to take Jane under his wing.

The father goes by the name Tom Owens and is the founder and CEO of a wildly successful biotech startup. He’s playing with the idea of running for governor, one day maybe even president. Gorgeous women hang by his every word. Nothing seems impossible.

In stark contrast to the aura of enchantment that surrounds Owens, his childhood friend Noah isn’t just physically bound to his wheelchair, he also volunteered for the monkish and often drab existence of a life dedicated to advancing basic science. 

I wouldn’t have come to this book if it wasn’t for the fact that ”Owens” is a thinly veiled portrait of the author’s brother, Steve Jobs, and the little girl at the center of the narrative is based on Steve’s daughter Lisa. 

(In fact this story comes up in an interesting way in Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ autobiography Small Fry. She recounts how her aunt Mona showed her then teenage niece an early draft of the novel, and how reading it made Brennan-Jobs realize the power of taking control of one’s own narrative.)

After plowing several factual biographies about Steve, the man still felt like a mystery wrapped in an enigma. Utterly enviable in spite of all his flaws. That image finally started to shift as I slowly made my way through Simpson’s book, thanks in large part to Noah. 

Because even though Noah is the one character that is completely made up, he feels supremely real. When against all odds he finally finds love, the reader just want to cheer. And Noah’s immense gratitude for what life has to offer shines a light on the unfillable void which appeared to have been a core personality trait of Steve; the man could simply never be happy.

Or otherwise put: he seems to have been held hostage by the very same exquisite sense of taste for which he gained such notoriety. 

In a professional context, Steve Jobs’ taste was clearly a super-power. It was the sixth sense that allowed him to create so many landmarks of industrial design; he knew perfection when he saw it and was uncompromising in its pursuit.

In private life however, that very same characteristic became a curse. He was obsessed over people’s looks, and could never decide whether the woman he lived with for the moment was pretty enough to marry, or if he should keep waiting for a better specimen.

Likewise, once he did acknowledge his offspring, he couldn’t stop talking about how beautiful Lisa was. To the effect that the people around Steve (including Lisa, and including the reader, too) start wondering what the man would have done if he’d have been gifted with a less than aesthetically pleasing child.

In the end, it’s only when Steve gets ousted from his own company that he starts regaining some measure of humility. It’s sad to think that we need disaster to strike in our lives, in order to sober up and see what’s worth a damn. Sad, but at the same time also somehow hopeful, I guess.

I both liked this book and I didn’t. It’s not a particularly great read, but it does give you a feeling of existential clear-sightedness.