Saturday, December 28, 2013

Privacy Lost: Dave Eggers's THE CIRCLE

Why is this book typeset in “ragged right” rather than “justified”? Beats me. Mostly, it’s not noticeable, but at times, it’s sloppily done, with large gaps on the right that would easily accommodate the next word, and tremendous inconsistency with regard to hyphenation. Why mention it? It’s an odd choice that, to some readers, will stand out; also, in a book so concerned with technological innovation, the nefarious uses of technology, and the thoughtlessness with which some changes are embraced, the typesetting decision looks like what Eggers warns against: sloppy thinking in service to some ideal.

I hadn’t finished an Eggers novel before this one; I read perhaps a quarter of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius before losing interest. This novel does have a page-turning quality to it—enough of a narrative drive is generated, once you’re past the slow and uncompelling opening scenes—so one can move through it pretty quickly. With the exception of a few scenes in which descriptive writing takes over (often in ways that feel force-fed with symbolism and significance), the story is carried by dialogue. It’s not especially good dialogue. Everyone has the same voice, and only one character ever asks the questions an intelligent reader would ask. The main character is not only charmless, she’s a cypher. It’s possible that that’s what Eggers intends, given how she never makes a single good decision. (I’m not sure I’ve read another novel of which I could say that of the main character; I think even Humbert Humbert probably makes a few good decisions, or at least defensible ones.) This quality of hers may be why she’s hired, promoted, and successful.

In short: Mae is brought in, via an old friend, Annie, to work for The Circle, a Google/Facebook stand-in that has a cool campus in California and outsized ambitions to change the world using online technology. Mae quickly learns that one doesn’t merely work for The Circle; rather, one joins a community—a community that doesn’t like being snubbed and that wants to know everything about her. That, of course, becomes the tension-generating pivot around which the story turns, though Eggers’s handling of the technology isn’t convincing (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore does a better job of leaping several minutes into the future by way of Google while also feeling more grounded in tech-type thinking). There’s an interesting question at the heart of this book about knowing and being known, but the big moments are telegraphed, the insights are blunt, and the book’s set-up is so gradual and surface-level, it felt to me as if Eggers needed to rethink at least the opening in light of where he was going to take the character, shaping the narrative more subtly.

Fifty years ago, or even twenty, this novel would be a satire. For their times, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World were satires, taking real things to their next level as a way of critiquing them. This book, at this time, can’t find anything to satirize. Mostly, Eggers describes things as they already are. The sole satirical element, to my eyes, was the proliferation of screens on our protagonist’s desk. “No one told you about monitoring your third screen? Here,”—and another computer screen is hauled within view. The way in which information is thuddingly and incongruously dropped into our protagonist’s lap seems the stuff of comedy, but it comes across as flat, especially since Mae simply yields to whatever is thrown at her.

I did enjoy the novel, but it’s not an especially well-crafted thing. Fittingly, it seems to be getting the critical praise it was crowd-designed to earn, but I was happy to see that citizen reviewers weren’t quite so impressed. It’s light entertainment with some half-considered ideas and no real surprises.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Long-Distance Romance: Burroughs's A PRINCESS OF MARS

As if to prove my lack of pulp and SF cred: I had not read this book before.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’s first John Carter adventure, A Princess of Mars was originally serialized as Under the Moons of Mars. I prefer that more evocative title (the moons being an oft-referenced motif in the story), though in fact, A Princess of Mars suits the resulting story better—and identifies one of the novel’s two chief faults.

The tale starts well enough, and I was familiar with the beginning (or at least its most necessary elements) from the Marvel Comics adaptation from the 1970s. Trapped in a cave by a group of hostile Apache, one-time Confederate officer John Carter steps out of his body and is transported to the planet Mars. Burroughs does a wonderful job setting up his premise, providing teasing bits of information in advance, creating tense scenes, and capturing our hero’s confusion at each turn of events. Then there’s the implied subtext of the novel, with the Native/white man conflict in the U.S. providing a lead-in to warring species on Mars learning to cooperate through John Carter’s intervention (though largely they cooperate in slaughtering other peoples). Though the green, gigantic, tusked, four-armed Martians and the red-skinned, human-like Martians seem to each contain components of Native Americans, the green folks get the sorry end of the comparison, with their communal rearing of children, pragmatic dispatching of the disabled, and their warlike ways seen as barbaric in contrast with the culture of the red Martians, who only make war when they need to. However, by the time the book wraps up, it becomes evident that the culture is not its people, and green Martians aren’t innately bad, just badly led. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on how ERB distributes good and bad traits among the various Martian peoples.

I have no idea what the idea is behind the white Martian apes, who, like the green Martians, claim squatters’ rights in the ancient abandoned cities but only show up when the plot requires it.

The story’s main weaknesses are two: the Dejah Thoris thread, and the shaggy construction of the novel’s second half. Once the beautiful Dejah Thoris enters the narrative, John Carter is in love; not a terribly well-defined character prior to this, he now becomes focused on the source of his adoration, and thus his mood shifts depending on his reading of the moods of his beloved. It’s exhausting and not terribly interesting, and Burroughs withholds information so that he can provide us with some late-story entanglements that could have easily been avoided. Also, though the princess gets some bold speeches to indicate her self-regard, she’s a less interesting character than Carter—and somewhat petty emotionally. (This is repaired in the 2012 film version, though the movie was lumbered with a poor choice for its lead and a jumpy narrative.)

There comes a point where the story lapses fully into pulpiness in the style of A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with psychic powers that come and go, convenient coincidences in every scene, and the clear case of a writer merely chattering away (and sending his characters lurching about) until he’s filled his word quota. Certain fight scenes which seem crucial get rushed as if Burroughs lost interest, while other moments drag out as he works to tie up the many narrative threads. The story does become vivid again near the end, setting up the reader marvelously for further adventures and intentionally leaving several elements unexplained and unresolved.

All-in-all, a mixed bag, but worth it for the premise, the sporadic strong scenes, and the many flights of invention.