Capitalist Tackles Romance

Bryan G. Chen

I took Tom Perkins’ just-released first novel, “Sex and the Single Zillionaire,” on my skiing trip over intersession for a light read. As I sat in the condo reading, my fellow skiers caught the flamboyant title of the novel and asked me what it was about. I started reading part of the novel aloud.

In only a few seconds, a circle of guys formed around me, highly amused—and bemused—by their first exposure to romantic fiction.

“Do people actually read such things?” one asked.

Perhaps the inability for men to understand the genre is why Perkins did not succeed in crafting a quality romance novel—“an oxymoron,” another boy remarked.

In his defense, it was the Harvard Business School alum’s first attempt at writing a novel, after having spent the past few decades building the famous Silicon Valley venture capital firm, Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, & Byers. According to Perkins, all profits will be donated to HBS.

This project is less astonishing in light of the fact that Tom Perkins was briefly married to famed romance novelist Danielle Steel.

Steel’s writing experience and editing did not turn “Sex” into a quality piece of literature by any stretch of the imagination, but it is exactly what it was meant to be: a predictable, easy-to-read novel that gives women a hero who is not quite Mr. Darcy—ok, not even close—but is still rich enough, and with good enough taste in wine, to make things a bit interesting.

The protagonist, Steven Hudson, is a powerful N.Y. investment banker. Like Perkins, Steven receives a letter asking him to be the star in a reality television show called “Trophy Bride” where young, female 20-somethings compete to marry a “zillionaire.” After repeated assertions about the absurdity of the offer, Steven ends up agreeing to do the show—partially because he is lonely after his wife’s passing and partially because he falls in love with the producer of the show, Jessie Jones.

After 280 pages of trials and tribulations—including Steven being conned by a girl pretending to be on the U.S. Olympic ski team, being pursued by a nymphomaniac, and pacifying his extremely conservative colleagues who were outraged by his “sex frolic”—the obligatory happy ending is duly set down.

One does not read romance novels expecting great literature, and fittingly, most of the characters in this book are simplistic and one-dimensional. Steven Hudson is rich, handsome, cultured, nice, and boring. Jessie Jones is beautiful, well-dressed, successful, and confident. They are the obvious “good guys.”

Steven’s children are dull, trust-fund children. His daughter studies art and lives with her erudite, left-wing professor, and his son is a playboy who is initiallly afraid of commitment but finds love—incidentally, with one of the contestants of the show— and is reformed.

The minor characters are similarly superficial, but they are actually quite hilarious. Willard D’Arcy, the British TV producer who comes up with the idea of the reality show, is regularly described as a manic elf, with “spikey hair dyed royal blue on top with a pink tinge around the sides, gold earrings, and royal blue fingernail polish.” He is Perkins’ idea of a TV’s Austin Powers.

While the descriptions are repetitive and rather over-the-top, one conversation Willard has with an elderly female sponsor has a certain poetic brilliance. When the confused woman asks what the word “shag” means, Willard exclaims, “It’s the term we Limeys use. You know, bulls serve, stallions cover, dogs line, chickens tread, sheep tup, foxes clicket, and people shag, Agnes. They fucking shag!”

Another shallow but fun character is the first contestant vying for Steven’s heart, Crystal Style, whose real name is Emma Zarkowski. Perkins cannot get enough of poking fun at her lack of style and culture by noting that her coat was not fur but “the pelt of the rare endangered American Rayon, probably,” and that she called crepes suzette “pancakes.” Amazingly enough, she not only believes in spirit animals, crystal power, and being abducted by aliens, but she also protests anti-globalization: “I’m against killing baby seals and McDonald’s and the CIA and everything that’s wrong with the planet.” The poor girl, apparently, doesn’t have a normal gene in her body.

Gregory, Jessie’s dense but handsome fiancé, encompasses more of what Perkins looks down upon. Gregory is an assistant to a self-help guru who only talks about the “inner child.” When Jessie asks him how he sees their relationship, he says, “I see myself in a mirror of enlightened awareness, which reflects not only me but you and the others impinging upon our resonance....The essence of our relationship is the absolute trust....shaped by knowledge of the inner self dynamic.” One cannot help but laugh at this meaningless declaration, and yet feel a bit horrified that one has actually heard people say similar things before.

One would expect the sex scenes to be particularly great in a romance novel. However, “Sex” is a curious mix of shy and yet lurid descriptions of the subject, like a teenager excited by strange fantasies but too awkward to express himself properly.

Steven frequently thinks about “knowing,” a quaint euphemism for sex that is funny but not very sexy. On the other hand, when he has sex with Eve, one of the contestants with apparently boundless energy, the description gets progressively crazier.

Sean Darling-Hammond ’06 volunteered to read the sex scene aloud for the entertainment of everyone on the ski trip. He did so with great dramatic flare, though he was frequently interrupted by laughter. Everyone lost it when Eve offered Steven some Vitamin V, after a few rounds of rather short-lived lovemaking—the poor guy is in his late sixties after all.

“Vitamin V? What are you talking about? There’s no such thing,” Steven says.

“I know,” Eve replies. “We girls don’t need much more than shopping for shoes to make us feel sexy, but you guys need a little help from time to time. It’s Viagra...I’ll join you and take one as well.”

So much for his prowess in bed.

But even Viagra was not enough. After the pills, “She slipped off the plastic sheath on the end, exposing a very sharp looking needle.”

She tells Steven, “It works much faster than Viagra. You just inject half of the syringe in each side of your penis.”

All the boys’ jaws dropped and they cringed in sympathy. More laughter ensued with the less-than-brilliant simile that followed: “the thought of the sharp needle...hit Steven like a fist.”

“Sex and the Single Zillionaire” is a romance novel, I suppose, but I regret that it was not written as a satire. It has great moments of humor that were more convincing than the supposed love between Steven and Jessie, and better written than the odd obligatory bedroom scene.

In any case, it is great for entertaining friends and is a quick read. Before you can say “At last!”, “The whole thing was over in mere seconds.”

—Staff writer Yan Zhao can be reached at yanzhao@fas.harvard.edu.

Sex and the Single Zillionaire
By Tom Perkins
Harper
Out Now