Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Circle by David Eggers

"The Circle" in David Eggers novel of the same name is an unhealthy amalgam of Facebook, Google and Apple with a smidgin of Amazon. It has grown to obliterate previous social media and search rivals, and the genuis triumvirate that run are respectively a Howard Hughes-ish inventor/recluse, a money making business man, and a public facing show man. The employees of the Circle live on a campus (very Google) in San Francisco, and it is the one company that every aspiring graduate wants to work for.

Mae is one such graduate, and in her early twenties she movies from working for the moribund utility company in her hometown (which is near, but not quite Fresno), and follows in the footsteps of Annie, who was her room mate at college and has apparently pulled some strings to get her a job at The Circle, first of all in Customer Experience, a glorified call centre, where the ever optimistic Circlers "zing" or otherwise connect with customers around the world, and ask for instant feedback on how they've done. So now, so SEO, though in these first chapters, as Eggers takes us around Mae's first few weeks in the Circle, there's something a little strained about the world he describes. Unlike Douglas Coupland's "Microserfs" and "JPod" Eggers doesn't seem to have a particularly deep take on this kind of world - and the campus he describes is a strange mix between a 1990s call centre and a Xanadu like fantasy. This not-quite-in-the-future world sees Mae as a willing dupe, a country girl at heart, who bit by bit gets pulled into the all encompassing Circle lifestyle, where not only your work life but your weekends and evenings should ideally be spent with your workmates. She makes several missteps, but is so keen on being a good Circler, and with Annie as her mentor, she apologises each time she fails to give all of herself to the corporate love-in.

Mae's a bit of a blank slate on which Eggers can draw his story. She has a traditional family back at home, but her dad is suffering from M.S., and her one boyfriend from back then, Mercer, has put on weight, makes chandeliers from discarded antlers, and is increasingly an embarassing reminder of her non tech past. That said each visit back home shows us Mae as being a little more than a customer service girl. She goes kayaking on a deserted lake, and sips tea with the old couple who live a life of isolation out on the lake. In a prose more vivid than he uses for the flat modernity of the Circle, Eggers describes a raw world of natural beauty.

Neither does Mae neglect her emotional needs - quickly falling into a dismal sexual pairing with another Circler, who promptly videos her giving him a hand job, and posts it online, oblivious to her complaints, saying that nobody other than him will ever see it amongst all the other videos. Then she meets the mysterious Kaplan and has sex with him in a toilet cubicle. For a while she gets drawn towards this mysterious stranger who neither her nor Annie can find details of within the Circle's comprehensive database.

Bit by bit Mae is given more responsibilities, becoming ever more dependent on the Circle as it rolls out new products and services - such as miniature cameras that can capture everything in perfect detail, or a new chip that can be embedded into children to stop them from being abducted. The benign aims of the Circle see it going wider and wider into an all-seeing-I and the aim of the Circle becomes clear, it must be made complete.

Yet though this is a very believable dystopia, Eggers is much too friendly a writer to over play the dark side. Mae is a willing dupe, a useful fool, and we go along with her as she one by one alienates those from her past, as well as her scepticism about the Circle. Her desire to make up for past lapses see her volunteering to become "transparent", where almost everything in her life is on camera. She quickly becomes a walking Big Brother contestant, everything she sees being seen by her millions of followers. At the same time her parents and Mercer become increasingly exasperated at her for not being "present" as they talk to her, whilst she "zings" her million followers.

In Mae, Eggers has created a very believable carrier for this satire - and the book really comes into its own once Mae, rather than joining some resistance led by Kaplan as the reader initially expects, becomes more and more important to the inner circle. Yet at the same time as Eggers is deft at explaining her dependency on the new media, he occasionally has a deaf ear. When the real world occasionally intrudes - such as a mention of Edward Snowden - it feels forced; and in a few scenes where he tries to create a broad comedy through a long list of Mae's new routine, checking this and that social media, he simply lacks the satirical edge that you'd find in Brett Easton Ellis or David Foster Wallace.

In many ways, the book is much more of a pageturner. Reading his debut memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" I remember how despite the pyrotechnics, "Here's a picture of a stapler...." etc., there seemed to be a more traditional novelist underneath - adept at the mechanics of family, and prone to a not untypical sentimentality. So there's nothing particularly dark here. The sex tape doesn't rear its head again; the old couple on the river are not returned to. When one of the leaders of the Circle brings back three exotic creatures from an underwater trench, Mae is there to film their feeding, and you feel tension for a moment as it looks like the shark will take off the feeders hand, but no, things move on. At first I thought this unwillingness to take such narrative chances was a real weakness in the novel, but as you come into the final third, you realise it is the immersion of Mae in the Circle that is Eggers' intent. The darkness is in how close to our own reality this.

In Huxley's "Brave New World" you could easily read the world of ready sex and soma as being some kind of utopia, bread and circuses to subdue the masses - until he brings it into perspective by the interruption of the outsider; again, a similar technique is there in the subduing of Alex in "A Clockwork Orange." Yet our outsiders here are only seen through Mae's prism as she becomes ever closer to closing the Circle. You stay with her, and rather than shock, feel a certain acceptance at how easily we could fall into totalitarianism.

It's somewhat overlong, as many contemporary future fictions seem to be, and lacks a cutting edge, falling a little between two stools - a day-after-tomorrow extrapolation of where we are now vs. an SF reimagining. Compared with the strangeness of Ben Marcus's "The Flame Alphabet" it feels like a kid's comic strip, yet Eggers' is at his best when detailing the human, and the changes Mae goes through, from a sceptic to the most vociferous exponent of the Circle are deftly handled. As it ends, you feel you've been told a cautionary fable, rather than experienced a nightmare. As I finished the book, I was sat on a Virgin train, and going to the toilet, a disembodied voice follows you in there, and tells you what not to dispose of down the toilet; when I mentioned this on Twitter, one of Virgin's social media team replied to me. We are already some way down the rabbit hole.

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