Book Review: ‘LaserWriter II,’ by Tamara Shopsin

By Tamara Shopsin

Long before the first shiny Apple Store arrived in Manhattan, there was Tekserve, the independent Macintosh computer repair shop open on West 23rd Street from 1987 to 2016. For those of us who were customers, it provided reliable service in a funky space decorated with vintage Macs, a hanging porch swing and an old-fashioned glass-bottle Coke machine. If your PowerBook 1400 ground to a halt or your printer became constipated with paper jams, Tekserve was there to help.

Tamara Shopsin sets “LaserWriter II,” her first novel, at Tekserve around the late 1990s, before smartphones and social media became ubiquitous. It’s the story of 19-year-old Claire, who’s searching for purpose and spending her free time illicitly auditing philosophy classes using someone else’s lost Columbia student ID. She’s a quiet idealist: “Claire was drawn to the type of anarchy that believed in small communities and held the promise of a just society. Everyone had said, ‘life is not fair,’ but maybe it could be.”

She also loves Macs. A help-wanted ad on a message board brings her to a Tekserve job interview and then into an eccentric new work family, which includes audio engineers, theater people and a Bulgarian electronics wizard. They’re all supervised by the company’s unorthodox founders, David Lerner and Dick Demenus.

Despite her lack of experience, Claire is soon drafted into the printer department, where one of her first tasks is to fix the formidable LaserWriter II, a 45-pound hunk of hardware. It has just one design flaw, her trainer, Joel, tells her, and it takes 10 years to surface. “Joel pauses for breath,” Shopsin writes. “Claire is on the edge of her seat. He concludes, ‘The fan blades warp over time and suck in dust. This dust eventually gets into the optics and causes pages to ghost.’”

Shopsin, wary of making her novel read like an engineering manual, even with the riveting drama of industrial design hitches, takes a creative approach, anthropomorphizing the machine’s innards in reaction to an invasive repair: “Octagonal mirror’s voice wavers in reply, ‘As Susan Sontag said, “Courage is as contagious as fear.”’”

Inside a LaserWriter II, Claire finds that “the universe makes sense.” Shopsin — also an illustrator, cook, restaurant co-owner and a former printer technician — is clearly on comfortable ground, ambling through Claire’s existential quest in short sentences and choppy paragraphs, which create a tense rhythm, even when describing the activity around the office fish tank. (Shopsin credits her prose style to her work as an artist, telling the Los Angeles Review of Books, “My illustrations are spare; they tend to leave gaps that the viewer fills in. These gaps are also a part of my writing.”)

Along with her protagonist’s talking printer parts, Shopsin also weaves the real corporate histories of both Tekserve and Apple into the book. These side trips down geek memory lane will delight many an elder-nerd pining for the days when Apple was still a feisty little outlier punching up in a Windows PC world, and not the $2 trillion Big Tech Bigfoot it is today. Readers wanting a more linear narrative (or those never indoctrinated into the Cult of Mac) may get fidgety with the diversions, even as context for Claire’s story.

As she demonstrated in “Stupid Arbitrary Goal,” her 2017 Greenwich Village memoir, Shopsin has a gift for capturing the minute details of a specific era in ever-evolving New York City, much like Paule Marshall’s 1950s immigrant Brooklyn or Joseph Mitchell’s midcentury character studies around the five boroughs. “LaserWriter II” is a screenshot of a less gentrified East Village in the 20th century’s final decade, with punk rockers squatting in an Avenue B apartment, a broke intern reselling CDs to Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks Place and well-honed observations about Tekserve and its people. It’s a crisp redraw of a time when Apple Computer was the rebellious choice, poor rebels could afford to live in the Big Apple and — in more ways than one — people found themselves offline.