The Circle

Review – Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers

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–Don’t you think the vast majority of the chaos in the world is caused by a relatively small group of disappointed men?

–I don’t know. Could be.

–The men who haven’t gotten the work they expected to get. The men who don’t get the promotion they expected. The men who are dropped in a jungle or a desert and expected video games and got mundanity and depravity and friends dying like animals. These men can’t be left to mix with the rest of society. Something bad always happens.

If Seth Henderson’s Fourth of July Creek was the best book I’ve read so far in 2014, then Dave Egger’s Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is by far the most unique and concise. The book does away with setting the scene and describing the action (minimal, anyways); Eggers instead writes the brisk novel in 212 pages of dialogue.

There are few plots this sparse style would assist, but Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is a novel about a young man with questions, some of them very big, and his search for answers. All we need to learn of Thomas’s struggle, to learn of what he calls “the questions piling up and strangling me at night,” is the back and forth discussion between him and those he kidnaps. And at the novel’s opening, Thomas’s decision to find answers by kidnapping an astronaut and chaining him to a post in an abandoned army base outside of Monterey seems like a very bad idea.

But as the book progresses, along with Thomas’s kidnapping prowess–he brings a congressman, a teacher, his mother, and a police officer to the base, as well as a few others–some of his motivations make sense. Eggers allows us to look at the world through the lenses of this angry thirty-something. Thomas is lost in what he thinks is the very worst way, as he’s a man without a cause–he has no canal to build, no war to fight, no space race to join. He explains:

You don’t know what it’s like to be a man over thirty who’s never had anything happen to him. You spend so many years trying to stay safe, stay alive, to avoid some unknown horror. Then you realize the horror is existence itself. The nothing-happening.

This is a return to the Dave Eggers of A Hologram for the KingWhere The Circle was exaggerated to an exhausting point, overwritten and over-plotted, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? is sparse and clear. Eggers still reaches big here, making statements on everything from police brutality to fiscal spending. But while The Circle left me sitting outside its spectacle, wondering what exactly to think about it all, half-laughing and half-worried, Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? brings me right down into the drama, asking me to walk in Thomas’s sad little shoes. Eggers gives a voice to the modern young American man: seeking his place, demanding too much, blaming others, desperately unhappy. It’s a quick, unforgettable read.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Review – The Circle by Dave Eggers

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Josiah rolled his eyes. ”No, I mean, I know this is a tangent, but my problem with paper is that all communication dies with it. It holds no possibility of continuity. You look at your paper guide, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. Like you’re the only one who matters. But think if you’d been documenting. If you’d been using a tool that would help confirm the identity of whatever birds you saw, then anyone can benefit — naturalists, students, historians, the Coast Guard. Everyone can know, then, what birds were on the bay on that day. It’s just maddening, thinking of how much knowledge is lost every day through this kind of shortsightedness. And I don’t want to call it selfish but — ” –The Circle, Dave Eggers

Dare I say this beautiful work of publishing, The Circle by Dave Eggers, is the most debated book of the year?  Certainly it is the most debated since Reza Aslan’s Zealot.

First, there was the excerpt published as the New York Time Magazine‘s first ever fiction cover story.  Then, there was the plagiarism claim.  The claim was part humorous (Kate Losse, author of The Boy Kings, hadn’t actually read The Circle but just the excerpt from the NYTmag), and part ominous (both stories, one fiction and one memoir, feature a young woman exploited publicly by a menacing tech company).  After that, there was Eggers’ somewhat flippant and confusing reply to the plagiarism claim.  He said that he “didn’t want The Circle to seem to be based on any extant companies or upon the experiences of any employees of any extant companies.”  In a book that had a ripped-from-the-headlines feel, with aspects clearly grabbed from Facebook and Google, this seemed to be an odd statement to make.  After Eggers’ proclamation of obliviousness, there was the backlash from the technocrats, who claimed Eggers knew nothing about computers.  Oh, the madness surrounding The Circle!

I was so excited to get The Circle I purchased it for its $27.95 cover price at an indie bookstore rather than getting it through Amazon at a $10 discount.  Yay me, saving small bookstores one irresistible and pricey hardcover at a time!  I had listened to the excerpt from the book (“We Like You So Much and Want To Get To Know You Better”) for free on Audible.com, and I was blown away.  Those who enjoyed the excerpt and choose to check out the book should prepare themselves.  Where “We Like You So Much..” was concise and edited, The Circle itself is a sprawling tome spelling out its message again and again.

The Circle follows malcontent but kindhearted Mae, excited to leave her mundane job at the local electric company for a customer service position at The Circle, a sort of Google-Facebook-Apple-and-then-some tech giant.  Mae, who feels so honored to get this supercool job, becomes exhausted as she struggles to keep up with the increasing demands of the perfection-seeking corporation.  Mae is encouraged by her superiors to use the company’s social media heavily, and she becomes depressed and disconnected from real life.  The Circle is making a lot of statements surrounding technology, privacy, and the companies who control these two aspects of our lives;  Eggers seems focused on just getting the message across, loudly and clearly, instead of in a way that might make the book more believable.

There was a lot I liked here.  The manipulating use of positive language rang especially true to me, as I worked at a .com company where we had a list of positive words we could say on the phone and to each other.  The almost constant addition of screens to Mae’s workstation is comical; she is excited about having two monitors, then she gets a third, then a fourth… And most importantly, as Mae finds more affection online, in her rankings and likes and shares, she feels lonelier in the real world.  There is a great moment in The Circle when Mae has left her phone at her desk while running an errand on the company’s gigantic campus.  When she comes back to her desk, her phone is overloaded with texts from her friend Annie:

She read the first:  Hey Mae, realizing I shouldn’t have gone off on Dan and Alistair that way.  Wasn’t very nice.  Not Circly at all.  Pretend like I didn’t say it.

The second:  You get my last msg?

The Third:  Starting to freak out a little.  Why aren’t you answering me?

Fourth:  Just texted you, called you.  Are you dead?  Shit.  Forgot your phone.  You suck.

Fifth:  If you were offended by what I said about Dan don’t go all silent-treatment.  I said sorry.  Write back.

Sixth:  Are you getting these messages?  It’s v. important.  Call me!

Seventh:  If you’re telling Dan what I said you’re a bitch.  Since when do we tattle on each other?

Eighth:  Realizing you might just be in a meeting.  True?

Ninth:  It’s been 25 mins.  What is UP?”

I think we all rely on this instant gratification style of comfort from text messages and social media. The compulsive way immediate communication has affected us all is illustrated well here.  There are always those times I have to tell a girl friend, “Dude just stop texting that guy!  Put down the phone!”  But we all now have this need to reach out for reassurance of our self worth, and fall into a panic if a reply doesn’t appear on our time table.

That being said, there was a lot about The Circle that was hard to take.  I wasn’t sure if Eggers was purposefully making Mae incredibly naive, or if he is maybe just not able to create a believable female character.  Mae’s obliviousness throughout the novel is completely unbelievable, and almost laughable by the end.  I’m not sure how to explain this without giving it away, but one of the main plot points relies on Mae not noticing something simply impossible not to notice; this makes the entire book a frustrating read.  I’m not sure if Eggers believes people capable of missing obvious connections or if Mae’s character is supposed to be some sort of caricature of idiocy.  What feels like clever speculation in the beginning (The Circle introducing affordable small cameras, so you can observe your social networks activities) becomes more dramatic and extreme, until actions towards the end of the book are totally unbelievable.  Even if the technology Eggers presents is plausible, Mae’s reaction to it is so distracting that any message is completely lost.  She is like the buxom blonde in the horror movie, oblivious to the monsters we can all so clearly see creeping up on her.  The warning of a society without privacy owned by a Google-like company has no bearing on the real world, because people simply don’t act like Mae acted.  As commenters on Goodreads noted, Mae acts with the flighty lack of self-knowledge or awareness equal to a character in a YA Romance novel.  And that makes The Circle hard to take seriously.

I’m a huge Eggers fan.  I thought A Hologram for the King was the best book of 2012, and How We Are Hungry showed early on that he has some seriously amazing ability to write great fiction.  I love McSweeney’s and I’ve heard Eggers speak on the good works he does tutoring kids in San Francisco and building the Voice of Witness series, so I have no doubt this guy is a saint.  Eggers still has my heart, but The Circle was a spectacular crash and burn for me.

The Circle on Amazon
The Circle on Indiebound