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.

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