Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

*Spoilers Below*

I finished this book over a week ago, as the first read for our local "Books on Tap" book club, and have been delaying writing the review ever since. I wasn't sure what I wanted to write about it, or perhaps that I had so many thoughts that an overriding drive to the review was slow in coming. I've finally decided to give in to that and write a review about how messy this book is, how good some parts of it are, and how frustrating other parts are. The parts where the story is great, and the parts where we rely on a narrator who is, quite frankly, not the smartest.

Although everyone around Mae tells us she is smart, the brightest, and on and on. Perhaps she's bright, although she doesn't in the least really show it. The problem is not the intelligence. It's the total lack of self-reflection. Or outwardly directed reflection. Reflection, of any kind. Heck, if a student who had done well in one of my classes, as apparently she did in her college education, and was this uncritical about everything around them, I would be intensely convinced that I had failed.

This is somewhere where my personal preference for narrators may be showing. Dumb narrators drive me crazy. Unbelievably naive narrators drive me crazy. And uncritical narrators drive me crazy. I realize this is definitely something very personal, but if I'm spending that much time inside someone's head, even if I don't agree with them, I want them to critically engage with the world around them. Otherwise, I want to grab the controls and start steering this goddamn ship.

On the other hand, I have a sneaking suspicion that that's done on purpose. I'm quite sure Eggers can write more intelligent, perceptive characters than this. He has two in the background. They're so far in the background they're almost drowned out, and again, I think he has a point in doing this.

Mind if I take a little detour into Dollhouse? I have long been one of the staunchest defenders of that show. I tell people, when I'm in the midst of my Whedon-evangelism, that to really get the most out of the show, you have to watch it as a pre-apocalyptic show. Screw all this post-apocalyptic zombie nonsense.

(Also, I'd like to say that I'm very sorry to everyone who has had to listen to my long and impassioned sermons about how Buffy The Vampire Slayer is the best show ever, followed closely by everything else, and holy shit has Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. gotten good. And yes, I know, written by Maurissa Tanchaeroen and Jed Whedon, but it's still close enough it bloody counts. I think you get the point. My love for the Whedonverse is complete and all-consuming and not going away any time soon. Also, the interactions between Hawkeye and Black Widow are the most awesome things about the extremely awesome The Avengers. Sorry again. I have a lot of opinions on this stuff.)

ANYWAY.

Where was I? Dollhouse. Right. That idea, that we're watching a show that quietly is showing us all the wrong steps, all the bad decisions, all the justifications that led up to the apocalypse (as shown in the unaired episodes). It's fascinating.

That's pretty much what's happening here. That's a neat idea. It's a world that is only a couple of degrees off from our own, and power is being consolidated in the hands of a corporation that masks its own grab for absolute surveillance with the expressed belief that Privacy Is Theft. Now that's a slogan to make all those of us who've read dystopias shudder right there. Good work, Eggers!

But where most dystopias come from the time where the despotic power is well-entrenched and someone, say a fireman, or Winston, or a rogue pig, or a young woman, whatever, rubs up against the strictures they'd never previously considered to be constrictive or fascist, this is, like Dollhouse, in the before times. Where someone could stop the dystopia with the right words at the right moment.

Don't hold your breath.

The dystopia here is not that far off our own world of social media, where quick gratification has replaced reflection for most people, and their lives are more and more full of obligations that social media places on them. I find this both interesting and a bit overblown. I'm certainly on board with worrying about how corporations are mediating our social media interactions, and even concerned when people become too wrapped up in responding to everything.

But the interconnectedness, by itself, not that scary to me. We've always traded information about each other, it is just the scope and the medium that are different this time. Gossip, in the sense of news about each other's lives, that's always been a part of community. It's finding the times to disconnect from community and just be alone that are increasingly missing, and so I am both on board with the worries of this dystopia and a little frustrated by it.

Of course, I've worked in sick workplace cultures, so the first day at that job, even when everyone's being all hunky-dory, the first hints of mandatory fun that appear would have made my antennae wave furiously. Wanting control of more than just the workday is a huge red flag. And then the next day, with the revelation of constant performance surveillance, impossible goals, and bullying the customers into giving you the responses you want? Out the door, slamming it behind me. I've been there, done that. Fuck that shit.

Any time someone tries to mask corporate Big Brother tactics as a friendly competition, or a way to track store numbers (why don't you look at the store numbers then?) or this fun thing we're doing? Out. Run. Gone.

So yeah, I'm a little sensitive. From the first pages, sick feeling in the stomach. This is not healthy.

This is why I'm not a corporate person. I want my non-work life to be my own. Hell, I want most of my work life to be under my own control. And I want to believe in what I'm doing. Which at least the big corporation offers to its non-reflective employees.

So this book made me uneasy, and sometimes it made me frustrated, both with main character and the sometimes overblown fears of social media, but then it equally often made me agree, with the dangers of quick surface thought rather than time to reflect and digest, and the mediation of our social media experience by corporations that definitely have ulterior motives. And add that to interference with the political system, and this became a very scary book.

Still, I'm not entirely convinced. But all dystopias have aspects of hyperbole about them. Underneath that, there are issues Eggers raises here that are serious ones, ones we should reflect on.

Even if the main character kept making me want to throttle her.

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