Is a cheerful dystopian novel a contradiction in terms? Novelists,notoriously, have a tendency towards ludditism (honorable mention to luminaries Margaret Atwood and WIlliam Gibson, who buck the trend). Some might even go so far as to posit that the long hours spent alone predispose them to a gloomy or even combative outlook. And isn’t this, to a degree, what we look for in a dystopia? We want mechanics grinding us to dust, beautiful androids revealing our irrelevance and mocking our physical decay. There’s an impulse to depict the future in high contrast, so that the relief against our world is more visible.
Dave Eggers has written a new novel of an arguably dystopian flavor. He’s something of a singular type in the category of social critics. He’s quite hip. That’s a rather backhanded compliment that denotes a childishness in high-minded circles, but who am I to criticize? In his first published work, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he flirted with the postmodern. Fortunately, and I believe some of this can be attributed to his success, he has grown out of the trappings of trickster. Literary tricks really are for kids, and once you realize that it’s harder to do the straight story, the obfuscations and labyrinthine justifications of the game player seem like a bit too much protestation, no? Well, Eggers realized this and good for him.
This results is a skillfully crafted novel. It reads like the work of someone who has recently entered the class of serious, no-joke writers. Everything works and it’s a joy to read.
The thing is, it’s a bit soft. The set up makes you itch. We’ve been waiting for a brutal takedown of this culture since Facebook’s IPO. Eggers describes it perfectly. You can almost see the campus, designed in a kind of zen-Blobitecture sensibility, located in Mountainview, California. Corporations have been treated as individuals for a long time now. The Circle is megalomaniacal. It has subsumed the behemoths Facebook, Google and Twitter into something almost pre-capitalist, something maybe not even seen since the predators of the Paleolithic era. It has all but monetized benevolence.
It’s commendable that Eggers doesn’t slip into depicting a moustache-twirling evil genius at the company’s heart. Instead, he does the hoodie and jeans, genius-slob dude with subtlety and style. The programmers have a sanctimonious tone that belies a real myopia about the world, much like the real world movers in Silicon Valley. While Eggers does these characters so well, he is held back a bit by, what I can’t help but feel is his own kindness.
Eggers’ assured temper, much like his optimism seems incorruptible. This holds him back from allowing the novel to become unhinged. Smothered heat begs to come out of the characters; the stuff an analyst would compulsively pick at. Maebelline, affectionately called Mae throughout, is the young woman we follow. Eggers deftly draws her from a sharp, skeptical college graduate, working an embarrassingly pedestrian job at an energy company that still uses fax machines, to a fully indoctrinated node of transparent identity sharing at the Circle. She is fantastic. But Eggers doesn’t quite dig deep enough.
It’s relatively well known that Silicon Valley is a notorious boys club. Women are excluded, their accomplishments diminished and their input explicitly belittled at every level. Yet, the two main characters in this novel are women and we are never privy to anything like misogynistic exclusion. It’s as if Eggers has, on some level, internalized the utopian vision of The Circle. At this company, people really are better .
Then there are the relatively tepid sex scenes. They feel as though they have been censored by a liberal helicopter parent—just enough seed to show that the writer’s down but none of the actual ugly embarrassment of real sexual proclivities. Finally, and this may actually be a real reflection of the valley but I highly doubt it, everyone in the novel is basically altruistic. Sure, they’re misguided and they get caught up in a project of a kind of communism of data that eclipses their possible comprehension. That’s not their fault. These people are just brilliant upstarts with great ideas, who happen to live in a time in history when this is what brilliant young upstarts do. I get that. But when you listen to smug Mark Zuckerberg talk down to the billions of pedestrian people he sees with backwards ideals, who think that technology is “weird”, you can’t help but think he’s a sonofabitch.
For all that this book could have been, it’s still well worth the read. At 500 pages and some change you’ll read it at a clip. It’s smart enough to be edifying, and Eggers is courageous enough to be straightforward and not try to trip you up. The Circle isn’t really a new take on technology or on the direction the world is moving in. It’s not scathing enough in its satire. It is, however, quite an accomplishment. In a way, it’s the opposite of Upton Sinclair’s incredibly slow classic The Jungle —a tasty, low stakes jaunt.