The Accidental Billionaires, Ben Mezrich

Doubleday, 2009, 260 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-52937-2

I suppose that The Accidental Billionaires was inevitable: In his previous non-fiction work, Ben Mezrich has shown how much he loves to write about Boston-area young men who go on to make a lot of money, and so one could only count down the minutes until he turned to the Harvard-educated founders of Facebook.  As the book’s sub-title proudly announces, what’s not to like about “A tale of sex, money, genius and betrayal”?  That’s as good a shorthand as any to describe Mezrich’s chosen specialization.

As usual, it’s best to approach Mezrich’s non-fiction novels without any expectations of journalistic rigor.  Even though The Accidental Billionaires may be better-documented than any of Mezrich’s non-fiction so far, it’s still largely told from the perspective of a single primary source, that is Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook co-founder who was shut out of the company as it grew to become today’s behemoth.  Mezrich acknowledges this connection up-front, as well as the fact that the better-known Mark Zuckerberg “declined to speak with me for this book despite numerous requests.” [P.2] The Accidental Billionaires may rely on court documents, newspapers articles and public records, but it remains Saverin’s story –the truth, if ever it comes out, will no doubt be considerably less colourful than what’s presented here.

If this story sounds very familiar, you may have seen David Fincher’s The Social Network, a 2010 movie reviewer’s darling partly due to a snappy screenplay penned by Aaron Sorkin.  While the film is officially adapted from the book, a number of clues suggest that Sorkin used Mezrich’s sources and storyline, then went in his own direction –indeed, even a cursory read of the book after seeing the film will reveal a number of differences: The film is tighter, uses a convenient framing device, and is filled with symbolism that reality (or even the book’s version thereof) would be hard-pressed to provide.  For instance, the book suggests that Saverin’s then-girlfriend did set one of his gifts on fire… although not quite in the way the film presents it: Saverin wasn’t there speaking on the phone as his room nearly went up in flames.

If nothing else, The Accidental Billionaires is quite a bit more up-front than Mezrich’s other books in acknowledging its loose connection with reality, beginning with an author’s note that admits up-front that a portion of what we’re about to read is fantasy.  But questions of veracity eventually take a back seat to pure entertainment.  Anyone who has read Mezrich’s other works of docu-fiction can assume that he spiced things up in rewriting the story.  He recasts the events in the form of a quasi-novelistic narrative, providing us with scene-setting, dialogue, inner monologue and poignant scene endings.  The only question becomes… is the story interesting to read about?

It does works well in building a compelling narrative: The Accidental Billionaires is readable in a blink.  Saverin’s betrayal as his former friend Zuckerberg allows him to be replaced at the core of Facebook is well-portrayed even though more sceptical readers will want to consider the source and Mezrich’s tendency to favour drama rather than reality.

There’s a debate to be had, I suppose, about what standards of dramatization we’re ready to accept, and whether readers are complicit in accepting fanciful tales if they find their presentation enjoyable.  One of the biggest lies told by fiction is that there are such things as narrative arcs, momentous decisions, good or evil motivations, sharp dialogue and consistent personalities.  The Accidental Billionaires is enhanced reality, not a faithful portrait of history.

Doubts about Mezrich’s work are complicated by a fog of legally binding settlements and greedy motivations: at this time, even solid journalistic work may be unable to reveal the real story.  Considering that Facebook isn’t even ten years old and that all of the principals are still alive, this is both troubling and temporary: Troubling in that we can’t even get a straight answer at this time; temporary because sooner or later, tempers will cool down and we may then finally understand the complex web of motivations behind Facebook’s foundation.  In the meantime, there’s at least an entertaining book to attempt making sense of it.

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