Monday, May 19, 2014

The Circle - Dave Eggers (2013)

Oeuvre rule: I started paying attention to Dave Eggers right around the time most people did.  That is, the early 2000s, when he published his debut, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a book some may describe as indulgent, but justly lauded for it originality.  I took it with me when I left for my freshman year at NYU, and read it concurrent with the beginning of my classes.  I had already wanted to be a writer, but AHWOSG definitely influenced me in a way that few other modern day authors ever did.  It helped that Eggers was from Lake Forest, IL, the town in which my family was presently residing, and where a fair part of that book took place.  Later came You Shall Know Our Velocity!, his first novel, which I read in Paris and also liked very much.  I felt it was "better edited" than his previous volume, but not quite as unpredictable and compelling.  I got a copy for my older brother, because he had said something like, "Dave Eggers said he was never going to release another book," and I wanted to show him he was wrong.  I picked up a copy of How We Are Hungry, a book of short stories I still have not read, and got both signed by Eggers at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago one year.  He wrote, "Hummus is not good," in my copy, and some other comment critical of hummus in my brother's.  Later I picked up What is the What and got about 1/2 or 3/4 of the way through, but never finished.  It's not that I didn't think it was good--I just remember thinking it was repetitive and gruesome and depressing, though vivid and well done, and liking the present-day scenes more.

I guess I forgot about Eggers in between 2006 and 2013, though he published Zeitoun in 2009, which is apparently a non-fiction book about a Syrian-American's plight after Hurricane Katrina, and the 2012 novel A Hologram for the King, which takes place in Saudi Arabia and is apparently being made into a film starring Tom Hanks.  But when I read about The Circle towards the end of last year as a notable new book, it seemed like a departure for him, and I guess I was interested.

The Circle is not a perfect novel by any stretch, but I do think it has a near perfect opening--maybe the first 100 pages are very excellent.  Then, I think, the mystery and intrigue of what is going on begins to fade, and the action that is supposed to mark the turning point of the plot ends up feeling anticlimactic.  Still, for its great opening, for its inventiveness, and for the interesting philosophical questions it poses, it is definitely worth checking out.

The story opens with Mae Holland walking onto the campus of the the Circle, which is somewhere in Silicon Valley, and seems like a hyper-driven version of the stories one hears about Google's or Facebook's headquarters.  Yes, there are great perks to working there, but then it appears to take over its employees lives completely.  Mae is 24 and had been working at a utility company as an administrative assistant or something or other until she gets up the guts to ask her college roommate, Annie, who has a high-ranking job at the Circle, if she can hook her up.  She does, and is overjoyed by the prospect of working there.  This makes the opening of the book very exciting.  And it is when Eggers is stretching his imagination to guess at what could be the next big internet thing that the book is at its best.  The Circle is essentially a social media network, but taken to a new extreme.  It is laid out during the tour by Annie, particularly when she is talking about a corny painting of the three Wise Men, who run the company:

"Ty had devised the initial system, the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy--users' social media profiles, their payment system, their various passwords, their e-mail accounts, user names, preferences, every last tool and manifestation of their interests.  The old way--a new transaction, a new system, for every site, for every purchase--it was like getting into a different car to run any one kind of errand.  'You shouldn't have to have eighty-seven different cars,' he'd said, later, after his system had overtaken the web and the world.
Instead, he put all of it, all of every user's needs and tools, into one pot and invented TruYou--one account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person.  There were no more passwords, no more multiple identities.  Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity--the TruYou, unbendable and unmaskable--was the person paying, signing up, responding, viewing and reviewing, seeing and being seen.  You had to use your real name, and this was tied to your credit cards, your bank, and thus paying for anything was simple.  One button for the rest of your life online.
To use any of the Circle's tools, and they were the best tools, the most dominant and ubiquitous and free, you had to do so as yourself, as your actual self, as your TruYou.  The era of false identities, identity theft, multiple user names, complicated passwords and payment systems was over.  Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal.  Once you had a single account, it carried you through every corner of the web, every portal, every pay site, everything you wanted to do.
TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year.  Though some sites were resistant at first, and free-internet advocates shouted about the right to be anonymous online, the TruYou wave was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition.  It started with the commerce sites.  Why would any non-porn site want anonymous users when they could know exactly had come through the door?  Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable.  The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness."  (21-22)


It seems clear that Eggers is presenting a modern update on Orwell's 1984.  Of course, The Circle cannot touch 1984, but in one respect it prevails: the potential for our world to mirror that of the Circle's is maybe two steps away.  The societies depicted in both can also be readily defined as "surveillance states," and Mae even creates her own slogan redolent of War is Peace/Freedom is Slavery/Ignorance is Strength: Secrets are Lies/Sharing is Caring/Privacy is Theft.

What makes The Circle more than just your typical dystopian thriller is its ambiguity.  For almost the entire book, while there is certainly a dark edge to the technological innovations introduced, the reader will need to check themselves and think about whether the world imagined might actually be improved by a similar system.  This is probably why I liked the first 100 pages so much.  It functions as a fantasy, and you can really feel the excitement of obtaining a dream job.  This mood carries over into the first "Dream Friday" presentation by Eamon Bailey, one of the Wise Men.  This is for the product SeeChange, which is essentially a very small camera that runs on a battery for two years and will transmit high-quality streaming video via satellite to the Circle, which allows them to see any location in the world in real time.

"Bailey continued.  'Instead of searching the web, only to find some edited video with terrible quality, now you go to SeeChange, you type in Myanmar.  Or you type in your high school boyfriend's name.  Chances are there's someone who's set up a camera nearby, right?  Why shouldn't your curiosity about the world be rewarded?  You want to see Fiji but can't get there?  SeeChange.  You want to check on your kid at school?  SeeChange.  This is ultimate transparency.  No filter.  See everything.  Always.'" (69)

SeeChange brings the promise of instant accountability, and soon politicians opt to start wearing cameras so that anyone may watch their "backroom dealings."  There are no chapters in this book--it is separated around page 300 as "book one" and "book two."  I'm wary of spoiling the plot, but I don't think there's really much you can spoil except for a couple of events and a revelation in the last fifty pages.  These moments also feel underwhelming for some reason.  I will just say that Mae is a "newbie" at the beginning of the novel and eventually becomes one of the most important members of the company.

Along the way, The Circle does tend to run over the same ground more than a few times: what value do we attach to our privacy?  What is the endgame of true transparency?  There is also plenty of human drama: Mae's pseudo-relationship with her co-worker Francis, her mysterious lover Kalden, her parents dealing with her father's debilitating MS, her ex-boyfriend Mercer who recognizes the sinister elements in the Circle, and kayaking.  At one point Mae commits a very minor crime, and the effect it has on her professional life is not difficult to believe, but does not ring true.  Finally, one other annoying aspect of this book: the people on the internet have just become a bunch of nerdy losers who have exhaustively positive outlooks.  There isn't debate on any topic.  There is little counterpoint, except for Mae before she becomes a "convert," and Mercer, who cannot be considered a major character--though he is quite important in the plot of the novel, he only appears a handful of times.

The novel seems to hit its climax when Mae comes up with the idea of DeMoxie, which would automatically register users to vote, and result in approximately two hundred billion dollars savings in government spending:

"The night was cold and the winds were lacerating but Mae didn't notice.  Everything felt good, clean and right.  To have the validation of the Wise Men, to have perhaps pivoted the entire company in a new direction, to have, perhaps, perhaps, ensured a new level of participatory democracy--could it be that the Circle, with her new idea, might really perfect democracy?  Could she have conceived of the solution to a thousand-year-old problem?
There had been some concern, just after the meeting, about a private company taking over a very public act like voting.  But the logic of it, the savings inherent, was winning the day.  What if the schools had two hundred billion?  What if the health care system had two hundred billion?  Any number of the country's ills would be addressed or solved with that kind of savings--savings not just every four years, but some semblance of them every year.  To eliminate all costly elections, replaced by instantaneous ones, all of them nearly cost-free?" (392)


My third time sitting down to write this review, and I've felt strangely unsure of what to say about it.  I guess that this has been a hard review to write, because I think this book consists of genuinely interesting subject matter, but have found it difficult to highlight passages from the text, or portions of the novel I found particularly compelling.  I've written about the first 100 pages of course, but my interest began to wane and occasionally rise around page 200.  I read on for two reasons: (1) keeping my blog the way I do, I strongly dislike leaving books reviewed as "(incomplete)" and would not have put down What is the What after April 2008; (2) I wanted to know how it would end.  As I've mentioned, the ending feels a bit underwhelming.  But I'm not sure what would have been more satisfying.  Maybe the aftermath of what happens?  Like, if Mercer's imagined society, with Circlers on the one hand and rebels on the other, actually manifested themselves?  I feel the book could have been shortened and maybe added to its ending, but maybe that ending could be tough to write:

"I will always wish all good things for you, Mae.  I also hope, though I realize how unlikely it is, that somewhere down the line, when the triumphalism of you and your peers--the unrestrained Manifest Destiny of it all--goes too far and collapses into itself, that you'll regain your sense of perspective, and your humanity.  Hell, what am I saying?  It's already gone too far.  What I should say is that I await the day when some vocal minority finally rises up to say it's gone too far, and that this tool, which is far more insidious than any human invention that's come before it, must be checked, regulated, turned back, and that, most of all, we need options for opting out.  We are living in a tyrannical state now, where we are not allowed to--"(368)

That's not even the passage I was thinking about.  I guess maybe part of my problem with the book was the lack of chapters.  Basically, because The Social Network was popular, The Circle should also be made into a movie.  I think it's the type of thing that is meant to translate to film, and could lend itself to interesting interpretations (it would certainly come with visual challenges--but that's also what can make for more interesting films) that might possibly outdo the book.  I also think this isn't really the type of movie to make a lot of money, but perhaps could be marketed pretty easily to do well.

Now I want to go read AHWOSG again.