What does a spy look like? Rather than drawing attention to himself by being flashy, like James Bond, a good secret agent traditionally mutes his presence. “Obscurity was his nature, as well as his profession,” John le Carré wrote of his spy hero George Smiley, whose poorly cut suits allowed him to sidle through Europe’s capitals unnoticed. “The byways of espionage are not,” he continued, “populated by the brash and colorful adventurers of fiction.”
But that was a gendered axiom, it turns out, for those were the old days in intelligence aesthetics, when men fiddled with radios and women, to the extent they got to do anything, served as lovely secretaries or glamorous decoys (think of the skillful helpmeet Molly Meakin or the femme fatale Liese Worth in The Honourable Schoolboy). In 2021, by contrast, anyone with the usual array of social media accounts can live out multiple “real” identities online (one for work, one for family, one for the YouTube slime community, perhaps) without appearing even suspicious, and complex practices like catfishing have taken the place of manila-envelope blackmail.
Women and the content they create are at the center of this strange new information economy, and in her new novel, Impostor Syndrome, Kathy Wang proposes a new type of spy to reflect the new times we live in—an inspirational girlboss whose blonde locks and feminist rhetoric give her the cover to conduct a surveillance operation at the behest of Russian intelligence services. There is a security hole in the West at the precise spot where femininity and war overlap, and it looks like a Gwyneth Paltrow–esque executive. After all, to be a successful professional woman, Wang proposes, one has to act like a secret agent.
Our antihero is an agent named Julia working as COO of “Tangerine,” a megacorp resembling a certain fruity real-life tech enterprise. Julia has studied how to be relatable, and commodified her feminine looks into a better disguise for an SPB (Wang’s tweak of Russia’s FSB, the Federal Security Service) agent than anonymity could ever be. “While publicly railing against gender inequality,” Wang writes, Julia banjaxes the prospects of every woman who crosses her path, “the same as any man would have done to his own competition.” She’s Smiley’s inverse: She performs an extraordinary persona, camouflaging herself in duplicates of her own image, like Rita Hayworth in the hall of mirrors shootout in The Lady From Shanghai.
Although she has been trained extensively for the life ahead of her, Julia comes to feel entitled to the success she has built at Tangerine, at just the same time she gets pregnant. Satisfyingly, her awareness of operational security falters in the early months of her baby’s life, because she’s tired and surprised by her own feelings. She has a vague sense of gender politics, but purely from her own tactical materials. When she begins breastfeeding regularly at work (a nanny looks after her daughter between feeds), she is “informed of some resistance from the greater workforce about her childcare arrangements.” The behavior of other executives, she notices, doesn’t seem to draw the same criticism. “Tangerine’s F1 sponsorship (Ferrari), or Pierre’s private meditation rooms on each campus; the Boeing 787 on order, another Gulfstream G650, eight of Pierre’s college buddies currently drawing Tangerine salaries to fuck with the product and tell him he was right about everything”—all are tolerated. Only Julia’s baby enrages Tangerine’s employees. “A symbol, they called it.”
At the very other end of the food chain is Alice Wu. Alice appears in the story like an antagonist, although she rapidly transforms into a plucky underdog who trips and falls into international espionage. She works in tech support and security, and she ends up stumbling on some clues to the international intrigue through sheer ordinary competence.
When Julia first meets her in person, she thinks, “There was really nothing remarkable about the girl, she saw. Merely one of the zillion Asian nerds who dotted Tangerine’s landscape but were rarely sighted at her level, the dark-haired grunts who made the wheels turn.” Race is key in Impostor Syndrome, but it’s seldom mentioned out loud at work; instead, like money in Wang’s first novel, Family Trust, Alice’s Asianness and Julia’s whiteness are sometimes made very obvious but most of the time are taken for granted, as if aspects of their identity that the system has already taken into account and optimized for.
Alice in particular seems to have invisibility superpowers, as when two male execs start bitching about Julia while she is underneath their table looking at wiring. Women with impostor syndrome, wellness accounts teach us, ought to find their voice. But, just as George Smiley’s invisibility in the “byways of espionage” said nothing about him and everything about the people who didn’t see him, the defect is not with the quietness of Alice’s speech but the discernment of everybody else. “Impostor syndrome” is a pop psychological term, the sort that feels rich with accuracy but low on practical solutions. Alice regularly receives feedback from her manager, Tara, that is so personal that it would have felt unprofessional once. “Engineering acumen is valuable. But to thrive on my team, you must also demonstrate what’s referred to as soft skills,” Tara tells Alice. When she asks for specifics, Tara finds the question irrelevant. “‘This isn’t about one thing,’ Tara said crossly. ‘It’s more a question of cultural fit.’”
Tara’s prescription for the problem, which mostly seems to be based on vague and racist assumptions on Tara’s part, is more deracinated female empowerment. Tara herself has been a beneficiary of Tangerine’s “Female Leadership Program (internally referred to as FLIP, as in FLIP! the gender ratios).” The diagnosis she might give Alice in a FLIP meeting—“impostor syndrome”—is in Wang’s novel a very precise misnomer: Julia is the literal impostor, though she navigates the system expertly, while Alice, for all her genuine competence, is told she does not belong. This is a common theme in memoirs of women who have worked in technology, from the corporate honcho (former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao’s Reset: My Fight for Inclusion and Lasting Change) to the literary observer (Anna Wiener’s Uncanny Valley). But rather than dissect the much-analyzed power dynamics of Silicon Valley corporations, Wang capitalizes on the thrill factor. She reimagines the predicament of women in tech as a more gripping problem altogether, one in which the little ways in which women are either rewarded or disregarded are magnified by a plot with geopolitical stakes.
Periodically Julia meets up with her handler, Leo. Their interactions have the intimate sweetness of similar relationships on The Americans, and just like the older Russians on that show, he verges upon the doddery. “Sometimes Julia thought Leo might be losing it,” Wang writes, when he shares “random confidences on various failings of the SPB, like an attempt to implant Scottish fold kittens with listening devices, intended for the daughter of a Japanese executive, only for the cats to disappear into the streets of Osaka (‘Even our animals want to defect’).”
His understanding of intelligence is out of date, and it’s an interesting reminder of how hard it is to write a spy story now that communications are omnipresent and continual. Gone is the clunk and craft of the midcentury dead drop or book code, and in its place is the delicate interpersonal dance that passes these days for informational security. Breaches come from emotional incontinence: P.R. disaster hits Tangerine when a senior executive screams at his wife that he has proof of her texts with her cocaine dealer, inadvertently demonstrating that he has been reading private communications.
It’s such failures of soft skills that can destroy careers, these days, and can also make them, and it’s exactly the right place for Wang to locate her horror. Armed with training and the intention to deceive, Julia ends up with access to more information about American private lives than anyone in history purely on the strength of her interpersonal charm and her ability to turn power dynamics to her advantage. She grows into a cautionary figure who takes hollow, corporate diversity-speak to its logical and most cynical conclusion, but along the way Julia demonstrates that not even a trained operative can successfully manage all the demands made on her time.
This is one of the many satisfying things about Impostor Syndrome, alongside Wang’s willingness to pit women against each other and the book’s blend of Hollywood plot values with unusually intelligent humor. For while it shares certain features with dystopian workplace books, such as Seasonal Associate or Severance, Wang’s novel better recalls the fish-out-of-water mixed-genre screen comedy, like Miss Congeniality or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Private Benjamin, all of which allow their female leads to be funny and likable while competent. Wang uses that flexibility to explore the power tensions inherent to the digitized world, both at the interpersonal level and at the level of international diplomacy, while never straying into didacticism. She restyles Silicon Valley’s famed “toxicity” around gender and race into actual poison and translates workplace politics into a caper of geopolitical consequence. Impostor Syndrome, like its two heroines, wears its greatness lightly.