Books

Book Roundup: Dave Eggers and George Saunders

Capitalism Plunders the Sensuality of the Body

I finished Eggers’ The Circle and Saunders’ Tenth of December long before that, but my writeup on Eggers took so long (well, not that long, but I sat on it for nearly a month before finishing it just now) that I started to lose insights about some other books I’d finished in the meanwhile. Originally I planned to pair The Circle with Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide, but decided against it, figuring I didn’t want to push the supposed reality Eggers was pushing too hard. Good reads, all of ’em.

i.1.dave-eggers-the-circle-bookDave Eggers: The Circle (Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2013, 497 pgs.): ‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’ is the mantra echoing throughout Dave Eggers’s The Circle, his novel concerning a gargantuan Facebook-Google-Twitter-esque tech company whose tentacles have slithered over the entire world. Our protagonist, Mae Holland, is a young and open 24-year-old who has just started working at the Circle after having landed the job thanks to her executive friend, Annie. At first, when Mae is toured around the fifty-building campus, sees the glass eatery and the swimming pools and shops and dorms and endless stream of famous musicians and capital set aside for pet projects of passionate community members, she thinks she’s at her dream job. But the more we learn about the Circle, the more insidious its nature appears, however benevolent the company’s execs or employees intend to be. What we come to is a one-corporation world government that has set up a surveillance state from which it is impossible to escape.

Having come into this novel with virtually no idea what it was about, I can’t say I was terribly disappointed. I was fairly bored by 2012’s A Hologram for the King and had no real expectations, and probably couldn’t explain why I bothered to pick this up considering my continuing frustration with Eggers. When I was a young and impressionable undergrad, I was taken by his playfulness and ability to turn pace and tone on a single phrase, even if those turns were a bit on the schmaltzy side. Though I’d have to reread it to be sure, I don’t think I would dislike How to Be Hungry today, and I thoroughly enjoyed it then. But it was sloughing through his first novel You Shall Know Our Velocity! that put me on guard. There’s something terribly whimsical about two twenty-somethings flying around the world struggling to give away a ton of money. And it’s full of quirky character traits to make up for its lack of interest, such as Hand brazenly donning a ‘I’m Proud of My Black Heritage’ t-shirt or Will continually mentioning the zombie-like clones he imagines operating in his brain, bringing information from different parts to him at his desk. His transition in recent years to more serious subject matter is, I think, a step in the right direction. But as I stated in my Hologram review, he’s still learning how to do it. And you’d think at his age he’d have a better grasp of it.

Now, it would be very easy to call Eggers pompous and pretentious for boasting his lack of research concerning the real-life companies the novel expands upon, and it would be doubly easy to list every technical detail about the internet or the companies in general that Eggers gets wrong. But doing so misses the point—it would be like criticizing Orwell’s Animal Farm for its unrealistic depiction of the average English ranch’s daily operations. It isn’t meant as a critique of real institutions; it’s instead asking what would become of privacy were the entire world’s personal information in the hands of a few idealistic and generally well-meaning megalomaniacs. Eggers takes this opportunity to explore what could have been given different circumstances, and what might be if anything in the real world takes a turn for the slightly darker, particularly when a slogan such as ‘PRIVACY IS THEFT’ doesn’t sound so crazy in our day and age. That’s not to say The Circle is a flawless book or even a very prescient one, but its flaws are more nuanced than the simple-minded and dismissive “the internet isn’t like that” attack so many reviewers have employed.

So let’s start from the beginning and weave our way through an immense amount of details. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, a company called the Circle subsumes virtually all the internet due to its youthful founder’s invention TruYou, which conglomerates all the IDs, passwords, bank accounts, and social media profiles you use for every site into one account, and it’s this account you use for every website you visit, destroying anonymity on the web. And what’s amusing is that these disparate and non-intimate details about an individual are meant to reflect the “true you,” yet as Mae discovers when she’s the unwilling target in a demonstration of a new Circle dating program called LuvLuv, the reflection is “incomplete, distorted.” There are a few sentences about free-internet advocates, but they are brushed aside and forgotten about when the tidal wave of the Circle proves to be too much. And because online anonymity is wiped out, it changes the behavior of users in ways for the better; the reduction of trolls, the rising civility of discussions, and the increased connectivity of humans around the world. The Circle’s ultimate goal is ‘completion,’ where no moment of human activity is unrecorded, where every second is stored, where no possible data or information about any happening slips into the wind unheard and unseen. Mae is along for the ride, finding herself increasingly sucked in to the realm of the Circle, as she spends more time on campus participating in activities, staying on her computer to update her profile, going ‘transparent’ and exposing all her life to the world. All this might be a bit too much for the average reader to chew: “Why would the elimination of anonymity lead to the reduction of trolling?” “How would real names dissuade strangers from arguing on YouTube?” “Wouldn’t resistance to this be far higher?” And these are legitimate questions to ask, but Eggers drops the situation on you in the first few pages. If it’s a concept you’re not willing to roll with, if it seems too far-fetched to deal with, give up. The parameters of this strange world are set early, as they should be, and Eggers does a decent job of not deviating from the very bizarre mentalities the creatures romping through The Circle retain.

This isn’t a classic dystopia like Fahrenheit 451 or 1984 (although explicit parallels are made to the latter); whereas the occupants of those universes already existed in the dystopia and were far removed from the events that led to their creation, The Circle witnesses the transformation of a world similar to our own taking swift steps into the grips of totalitarianism under the guise of utopia. Furthermore, the takeover is mostly not forced upon the population, instead being willingly embraced. As Mae’s ex-boyfriend and near-Luddite Mercer puts it, “There are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes.” But therein lies the contradiction; is it really voluntary when the only way to engage online is through a single system? If the only snorkel of communication with the world is provided by one entity, is there any choice involved?

In my mind, though, the far more interesting predicament Eggers puts forth is one fundamentally different from most dystopias I’ve encountered. Napoleon knows he’s manipulating the livestock in Animal Farm; the Inner Party’s motivation is no more complicated than the pursuit of “power, pure power”; the autocrats in P.D. James’s The Children of Men provide the British population with what they believe is necessary and rudimentary, despite the unidealistic conditions. What dystopias have in common is that those in charge know that there is something fundamentally perverted about their control, that they are not actively working towards the best interests of the population. In The Circle, however, the future is controlled by Silicon Valley techno-utopists who honestly believe what they’re working toward is the next stage of humanity, one in which “bad choices are no longer an option,” where “we have no choice but to be good.”

The perverse logic characters use to justify their actions can easily be frustrating, as any mouth-breather could conjure counterarguments within seconds. But the point is that these arguments exist at all, are taken seriously, and regardless of their intrusive nature are being considered. Take Francis’s child tracker device, a small chip implanted into the youth to prevent abductions. The product works—abduction rates plummet, recovery rates soar, and its value is blindingly obvious. There is, of course, that nagging in the back of your head: “Just who is monitoring all these kids? And do the pros really outweigh the cons?”

The central weakness of Eggers’s book is his own writing. Because he’s long abandoned the cutesy back-and-forths and sentimental, snappy one-liners of books like You Shall Know Our Velocity! and How the Water Feels to the Fishes, he isn’t left with much style, and sentence after sentence, paragraph after paragraph, the words on the page fall flat and lifeless, become construed in syntactical nightmares, fail to relay hints of humanity, character, wittiness, or rhythm. With rare exceptions do the supposedly humorous sections raise a chuckle; hardly ever is there tension in terse dialectic exchanges. So because Eggers fails to establish a tone—it takes itself too seriously to be humorous parody yet propagates too many patently ridiculous ideas to be considered soberly in any sort of existing reality—it’s never clear through what filter one should trickle its info. Consider the following excerpts, the first a meeting Mae has with two HR reps concerning her participation in activities at work and the second a conversation with Mercer, and compare:

“Okay, let’s go to Sunday. Tell us about Sunday.”
“I just drove back.”
“That’s it?”
“I kayaked?”
Josiah and Denise registered dual looks of surprise.
“You kayaked?” Josiah said. “Where?”
“Just in the bay.”
“With who?”
“No one. Just alone.”
Denise and Josiah looked hurt.
I kayak,” Josiah said, and then typed something in his tablet, pressing very hard.
“How often do you kayak?” Denise asked Mae.
“Maybe once every few weeks?”
Josiah was looking intently at his tablet. “Mae, I’m looking at your profile, I’m finding nothing about you and kayaking. No smiles, no ratings, no posts, nothing. And now you’re telling me you kayak once every few weeks?”
“Well, maybe it’s less than that?”
Mae laughed, but Denise and Josiah did not. Josiah continued to stare at his screen, while Denise’s eyes probed into Mae.
“When you go kayaking, what do you see?”
“I don’t know. All kinds of things.”
“Seals?”
“Sure.”
“Sea lions?”
“Usually.”
“Waterbirds? Pelicans?”
“Sure.”
Denise tapped at her tablet. “Okay, I’m doing a search now of your name for visual documentation of any of these trips you’ve taken. I’m not finding anything.”
“Oh, I’ve never brought a camera.”
“But how do you identify all these birds?”
“I have this little guide. It’s just a thing my ex-boyfriend gave me. It’s a little foldable guide to local wildlife.”
“So it’s just a pamphlet or something?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s waterproof and—”
Josiah exhaled loudly.
“I’m sorry,” Mae said.
Josiah rolled his eyes. “No, I mean, 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 brochure, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. Like you’re the only one who matters.”

The tension in this passage—which is a few pages longer and possibly my favorite part of the book—is palpable while simultaneously funny and thought-provoking. With little furniture-moving, Eggers communicates each characters’ internal state through subtle gestures and turns of phrases: Mae is a tad perplexed why her passive interest in kayaking should be blown up into something indispensable from her identity, while Denise and Josiah are shocked Mae could go about her day without sharing any information about it. The rate of revelation is steady and builds towards a bursting point; as Denise and Josiah continue to probe Mae, her supposedly carelessness and selfishness become more evident, finally capping with the admission that she uses a paper pamphlet to ID birds rather than some sort of computer app, and thus Josiah earns his short rant on the virtues of communicative technology over pen and paper. Mae’s constant apologizing signals she’s unsure of what exactly she’s done wrong and that she wants to move on. That Josiah and Denise work furiously on their tablets instead of taking notes by hand tells us exactly how they operate. This entire scene works on multiple levels; it develops the characters—even the minor players Josiah and Denise—moves the story forward, reveals the mentality of the employees and the company, parodies the asinine info we share every day on Twitter with the absurd electronic social networking standards Mae is expected to meet, and simultaneously drives home a point about print communication we should consider, however ridiculous. So what happens when it’s a dialogue between Mae and Mercer?

“I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky.”
Mae exhaled through her nostrils.
“I love it when you do that,” he said. “Does that mean you have no answer? Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write and note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing.  But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.”
[…]
“It’s not that I’m not social. I’m social enough. But the tools you guys create actually manufacture unnaturally extreme social needs. No one needs the level of contact you’re purveying. It improves nothing. It nourishes nothing. It’s like snack food.”

And so on and so on and so on. The problem with the dialogue between Mae and Mercer is that they’re completely one-sided. Instead of Eggers using this chance to have Mae fight back, to raise questions against Mercer’s assertions, to posit what might be positive about the Circle’s achievements, she instead sits there and repeats to herself how stupid Mercer is as he goes on with his sermon. This is uninteresting because it sets up Mercer as the moralizing voice of reason, and, by extension, Eggers’ implanted mouthpiece—one we don’t need because there’s no one outside the book on the other side of the issue—and it continually denigrates Mae, making her increasingly unlikeable and raising our suspicions about her intelligence and her humanity. Perhaps that’s the point Eggers wants to make. But Mercer’s stump speeches don’t read as witty observations or profound revelations, instead only coming through as Eggers warning us about potential dangers of social media run amok, of the destructive tendencies it fosters in its more susceptible users.

And this highlights the second pitfall. Eggers has almost no ability to be subtle. When, at the beginning of Book II, a transparent shark is introduced and is seen eating a variety of colorful sea creatures and transforming them into identical piles of grey ash, the audience understands this metaphor immediately. Before going through the Circle’s system of transparency—where all you do is recorded and saved and available to anyone—people are unique, interesting, colorful individuals. But after having been devoured by the machine, they all come out the same, as uniform mounds of flesh indistinguishable from the next. This would be fine enough, but Eggers has to bring back the shark towards the very end when the Circle is near ‘completion’ to hit us once more with the metaphor, only this time for a much longer period, and then again at the very end when Ty—the inventor of TruYou—explains to us in detail the meaning of the shark, hammering the audience over the head. It’s these kinds of slips that steal away the book’s ability to be read as satire, as Eggers is so insecure in his message that he has to tell you explicitly what he wants you to take away without a hint of irony.

It’s curious, then, that the book is littered with small details that are not pronounced loudly nor ever expanded upon but are nonetheless illuminating. There’s the satirical bite of tens of thousands of people around the world sending ‘frowns’ to the Central Guatemalan Security Forces having an actual effect. There’s the haunting image of data storage cells approximating the size of a human containing all the memories, info, and data of and about that person, implying the flesh and bones are no longer necessary. And then there are the details about Mae. She is impressed on her first day of work when she is given two monitors to work with; by the end she’s up to nine as more and more tasks are heaped upon her. Mae starts off working in Customer Experience (a ‘progressive’ term for customer service) answering queries and asking clients to rate her performance; should anyone give her a score less than 100, she should badger them to be specific as to why she wasn’t given a 100, and usually the customer relents and capitulates. But then another task is added where she is meant to respond to a never-ending waterfall of survey questions. Then her endorsements and purchases of products are made public and their influence on the population monitored, and she receives a score of how much money has been made as a result of her actions. She spends incalculable hours zinging and commenting and ‘smiling’ and ‘frowning’ in order to increase her participation rank (or, as it is more sinisterly known in the novel, ‘PartiRank’). Finally, Mae goes transparent, her entire life on display for whoever would like to watch. And people do want to watch. Millions want to watch.

Despite all the flaws the book contains, there are major questions raised that should be discussed. Does the ceaseless pursuit of data equate to better understanding? Would, for example, all politicians going ‘transparent’ really decrease the corruption currently present? Could state-sympathetic media outlets not spin such travails as they do today, despite how relatively open our access to information is? And would we be willing to sacrifice some of our individuality, mold our behavior into specific patterns, in order to achieve a world with less crime? Or no crime? Would you give up the privilege of jerking off in your apartment for fear that someone, anyone, could potentially see it if it meant you lived in a world without poverty? Sure, the questions seem ridiculous, ones we’ll probably never have to confront, but Eggers puts it out there. And he should. It’s not easy finding answers to tough questions, and even more important is asking the right kinds of questions, which, absurd as the book can be at time, Eggers does.

tenthofdecemberGeorge Saunders: Tenth of December (Random House, 2013, 251 pgs.): “It increases our capacity for human empathy,” said Jim Shepard in response to the question of what reading fiction can do; not only can it teach us about the world and how to dismantle the duplicities in it, literature retains a unique ability to get us to care about people we might otherwise ignore, dismiss, or not know exist at all. And that’s perhaps the most stunning quality of George Saunders’s Tenth of December, a collection of ten stories chronicling a satirical journey across American struggles with capitalism, class, and each other. From the idealistic worldview of a fourteen-year-old ballerina to a cynical and suicidal cancer patient, Saunders has an apt ability to inhabit the consciousness of each of his characters and make them collide in beautiful and brilliant ways.

I have to confess I was not an instant fanboy. Having heard his name thrown around the past few years, I decided to check out “Victory Lap” when it was featured in The New Yorker. He’d lost me by the fourth paragraph, with its lightning quick perspective switcharoos, excessive use of brackets, and what seemed like purposeful alienating. I hadn’t read more than half a page and understood nothing, did not feel compelled to go on, thought maybe he was full of hot air. Thankfully, though, something possessed me many months later to read “Sea Oak,” about a male stripper living with his corpse of an aunt and foul-mouthed sisters. I loved it. It was ridiculous and humorous, but never at the expense of the characters; rather, the humor came from how they reacted to the situation they were thrust in to, and not as a product of them existing in fringe conditions. In other words, it’s not funny because they’re poor, it’s funny (in a dark and kinda tragic way) because of what the world outside of their poverty demands of them. Ridiculous, crazy stuff.

So I huffed it back over to “Victory Lap,” read the entire story in the back of a dolmus from Taksim to Kadikoy, and instantly thought it was one of the best story I’d read in years. In years. What first sets Saunders’s work apart is the language; his ability to hover in third-person narration just above the character’s mind—occasionally taking on the neologisms and thought processes the character possesses—allows us to examine the headspace of different people in a room before, during, and after they rub shoulders. The reversals of characters’ expectations—or confirmation of them—is a reminder of just how much we are slaves to our preconceived notions, regardless of how open-minded we think we are. So Saunders has no problem deftly slipping into the skin of a young and naive teenage girl, Alison, who’s convinced the world is wonderful and all people are good (“To do good, you just have to decide to do good. You have to be brave. You have to stand up for what’s right.”), and a young track runner named Kyle whose parents are frighteningly overprotective and authoritarian and who have effectively established a microcosm of capitalism in their home (“Hey, today was Tuesday, a Major Treat day. The five [5] new Work Points for placing the geode, plus his existing two [2] Work Points, totaled seven [7] Work Points, which, added to his eight [8] accrued Usual Chore Points, made fifteen [15] Total Treat Points, which could garner him a Major Treat [for example, two handfuls of yogurt-covered raisins]”). Instantly the bubbles in which these kids dwell are recognizable as both an honest portrayal of white suburbia and comical satire thereof. And that’s what good satire should do. It’s too easy to sit back and poke fun at the world, nudging the reader in the ribs and saying, “Hey, man. Ain’t this all some bullshit?” It’s harder to make the reader chuckle at a description he understands as both realistic and simultaneously sad because it is realistic. It’s a concept Bret Easton Ellis will never understand.

There are the occasional hiccups, particularly the short-shorts and the dreamlike “My Chivalric Fiasco.” But more often than not Saunders hits them out of the park. In “Home,” a soldier returns from a tour of duty in the Middle East to a home that has changed in his absence, both with his family which has begun to crumble from lack of communication and in the normal consumer world, where products on the shelves of tech stores are so foreign to him their functions cannot be adequately explained. A financially struggling father keeping a diary unwittingly exploits those even less fortunate than he in order to make his daughter happy, impress the neighbors, and convince himself he is a good parent in the novella “The Semplica Girl Diaries.” And all the stories follow this similar string—people on the fringe trying to come to terms with what they’ve been dealt in a society and system that hardly acknowledges their existence.

But there’s no bludgeoning of ‘meaning’ in any of these stories—any deeper message is a byproduct of the narrative, not a vehicle to move it forward. Apart from the troubling idea of prisoners being test subjects for radically mind- and memory-altering drugs in “Escape from Spiderhead,” Saunders asks the larger, more terrifying question of whether we humans really have any sort of free will at all or if our actions are predetermined by the happenstance chemical makeup of our brains, a mere result of synapses firing.

Most of all, though, and it’s something I should have stressed earlier, is just how warm Saunders is despite the harsh and somewhat fantastical realms he creates. Never do things take a turn for the weepy-eyed sentimental, never is a cheap trick pulled with the intention of tugging the reader’s heartstrings. Saunders pens humans, and we watch them move about in their environments, become them in some instances, and step away with a better understanding of just what kind of person we are. You can’t ask for much more than that.

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