As in, Jerk

Books and Literature, Culture, Economy, The Life of the Mind

Dave Eggers’s The Circle has won a lot of critical praise from traditional book-review types and a lot of derisive snorts from those of us—I count myself, somewhat embarrassingly, among them—who have both computers and business degrees for its comic ignorance of how computers function, what the internet is, or how these corporations are created, funded, and managed. But, although it’s easy enough, and fun, to giggle at a book whose near-future information architects say “in the cloud” with the same skittish incomprehension as your mother or your sixtysomething boss; although it’s easy enough, and fun, to plunk Eggers into the dour, self-reverential gentlemen’s club of Twitter-hating Franzens, forever clearing their throats and folding back their broadsheets in the Anglosaxon gloom of a midday liver lunch with the brocade curtains pulled; the less funny, unfortunate truth about The Circle is that it isn’t just an obtuse book, but a bad one: badly written, poorly conceived, and deeply uncharitable.

The main character is a young woman named Mae, freshly rescued from a dull job at a public utility somewhere in the Central Valley and plopped in an entry-level position in the novel’s eponymous Google-manqué. She rises through the company, and although the narrative frequently stops to mete out in actual, numerical detail the various impressive scores she receives on the company’s 100-point internal grading system, our principle experience of Mae via a limited third-person voice that never exits her rather limited head is a skein of never-ending idiocy and incompetence. Eggers clearly set out to write her as a naïf whose unfolding experience and awareness of The Circle both prompts and mirrors our own, but he accidentally wrote her as one of the shallowest dummies you’re likely to encounter this side of a Tom Friedman column; you wonder how she made it out of high school, let alone how she managed to get hired by the choicest tech firm in the world, connections or no.

She wanders around bedazzled by everything, and the prose reads like an unapproved merger of bad Young-Adult writing and SkyMall catalog copy. More skillfully done, this sort of thing might come off as satire, but here it just reads as clumsy writing, and when errors pop up, you can’t quite tell if they’re meant to be mocking Mae’s misunderstandings or if they’re just errors. There’s a particularly odd passage in which, while taking us on one more interminable tour of the company’s campus and all its myriad wonders, we encounter, “Another Circle team [that] was close to dissembling tornadoes as soon as they formed.” Does Eggers mean disassembling? Would that actually make any more sense? Would it be better writing?

Nitpicking copyediting issues is trivial and a little unfair, but there’s a broader problem here, a problem that the giggly eviscerations of Eggers’s internet non-comprehension hint at: the texture is all wrong; The Circle’s ersatzness is . . . ersatz. There are piles of detail—the naming conventions of buildings, the layout of the campus, the many projects that many teams in many departments are working on, etc.—but there’s not the slightest sense that any of these things exist except as convenient ideograms for Big Google Company Doing Big Google Company Things. A really good workplace novel, a really good workplace satire—Then We Came to the End; On the Floor—hauls the essential unreality of working life out of the weird blandness of working life as much as out of the particulars. Eggers famously (notoriously?) bragged that he hadn’t done any research on tech firms when writing this book, which is clearly not true. If anything, the book suggests an unhealthy infatuation with the self-presentation of those very internet companies, all happy-happy people playing ping-pong in the artisanal cafeteria while dreaming up the next disruptive inflection point in human history. Eggers exaggerates all this to a point light-years beyond absurdity, but he never manages to land a convincing blow because his target is itself an illusion.

So a dumb character stumbles through a poorly conceived fictional company until—spoilers—she arrives at her Winston Smith moment and loves Big Brother. Except she always loved Big Brother; her moments of doubt are petty and procedural; she always gets over them, and quickly. She must betray her friend and mentor, Annie, but the betrayal is such a foregone conclusion, so telegraphed, so obvious the moment Annie’s own first doubts emerge that you mostly wonder why it took so long to get there. Mae has already abandoned her family. Oh, and she drives her ex off a cliff, literally. That scene has a quality of slapstick. Intentional? In a book so hasty and thoughtless, it’s hard to tell. Anyway, she loves Big Brother. The Circle has turned—in about a year—into a force of global domination, and Mae is, like, cool with that. Eggers’s ideology appears to lie with her dead ex, but he’s dead, and in any event, his speeches mostly sounded like bad college-paper op-eds. I suppose Eggers made him insufferable in order to make him more complicated, to make the point that unpleasant people and cranks and kooks can be right, too, but the guy mostly comes off as a bozo. And despite living for years now with revelations about government spying and subversion of the online world, about a complex interplay of antagonism and collusion between spy agencies and tech businesses, this is a straight-up evil corporation; the hapless government is just hapless. Mae isn’t manipulated; she isn’t tortured; she isn’t a skeptic converted or corrupted by The Circle’s promise of wealth and power; she’s nothing that would make her interesting, and she doesn’t change. Eggers sets his come-to-Jesus moment in the middle of a megachurch.

But what bugs me the most, and what makes this book worth reviewing as an artifact of an attitude, is the unfair and uncharitable way Eggers writes the rest of us idiots, who appear here only as a vast, unthinking mass eating whatever shit the internet shovels at us out of some desperate, pathetic, mewling, self-worshipping desire to be loved, or something. One of The Circle’s supposed-to-be terrifying slogans is “Privacy is theft.” Well, no. Privacy is respect. But sharing (“Sharing is caring” is another scare-phrase here) is human; the desire to know and to be known is one of the bases of cognition, conscience, and sentience. There’s nothing wrong with lampooning narcissism, and the internet enables plenty of it, but this evident belief that there is something fundamentally disordered about rating your favorite restaurants or poking your friends is a load of snobbish, patrician garbage. If modernity and modernism are the history of human atomization, of the centrifugal forces of technology and economy flinging our communities and families ever farther away from each other, of the dislocation of the human mind and the human soul, then how do we find ourselves in an era when some small part of our old communities—gossipy, yes, and sometimes without secrets, and very judgmental, and yet, because we know them, very often good—can be regained, only to find that many of our writers, who are supposed to be concerned with things like the mind and the soul, hate it, and think that we’re children and fools for wanting it, even if our desire should indeed be tempered with reserve.

I am not a technological utopian. I don’t think that “information wants to be free” is an adequate ideology for the perfection of the human condition. I also don’t think that governments should be in the intellectual property racket, and I think Google and the like ought to be broken up, although I’d probably give them a pass until I got done with the banks. I worry about my privacy, both the privacy that I sign away when I log onto gmail or Amazon and the privacy that’s wrenched from me by the panty-sniffing fear salesmen in the US government. I would gladly eat my own eyeballs before reading another restaurant review on Trip Advisor. I find Instragram slightly upsetting, but I’m willing to admit that’s probably just me getting a little bit old.

But it’s unkind and unperceptive to assume that people’s sometimes ill-considered flight to convenience is a mark of some vast inadequacy. Insofar as we encounter any citizens of the internet in Eggers’s book, they’re a horrifying stampede of gimme-gimme-gimme status-obsessed zomboids who will kill a man through an overabundance of likes. Yeah, well, maybe some of them are just busy moms with long commutes to lousy jobs in a shit economy. Maybe some of them are wannabe reviewers who got one too many rejection notes from McSweeny’s and decided to start their own blogs. Maybe some of them are gay dudes in Russia or activists in Myanmar who find pseudonymity convenient and safe. Maybe some of them just like taking pictures of their fucking food. Maybe some of them were forced to move across the country for work and this is just how they stay in touch. Maybe some of them are uncomfortable with the compromises they make to bank online or e-file their taxes. And maybe some of them are trolls and misogynists and scammers and crooks. But they are, in fact, people, for whom The Circle, in whose sympathies they supposedly lie, hasn’t got any time at all.

Update: I was not the first to this post’s title, or at least, the punchline. Credit and attribution where due.

11 thoughts on “As in, Jerk

  1. I always come away from your posts with some good titles in mind. “Ersatz Revolution” would be one. “Flight to Convenience” is another. Some day I’ll actually write prose to accompany them.

  2. Fantastic review. I’m reminded of Hemingway’s advice to “always think of other people” which, whatever you think about H., is pretty much the most important rule for a writer. It’s astounding how many can’t or won’t do it.

  3. Tried it in audiobook format. Ditched it after listening for at most half an hour. Lousy writing, bad plotting (I probably could have sketched out the arc of the plot after the first 10 min), etc. Good review.

  4. Eggers struck me as a bullshit artist from the moment he made his big splash onto the scene years ago, and I never had any interest in reading any of his books. So thanks for confirming my suspicions.

    There’s some irony here, too, in his attitude toward the instagrammers. I seem to recall, in all the fawning press surrounding his debut, that he had either been on, or auditioned to be on, The Real World, and that he had gotten ripped by some of the priests of high literature (it may have even been Franzen) for this act of shameless media-whoring. He defended himself by saying, basically, that only a Negative Nellie would pooh-pooh such a golden opportunity for self-promotion.

  5. “Another Circle team [that] was close to dissembling tornadoes as soon as they formed.”

    I must admit, typo or no, I really love the idea of a dissembling tornado: “No, no. I didn’t mean to knock down all those trailer parks, many fine people live there. It’s just one of those things that happen”

  6. In the late 90’s Eggers and his then girlfriend were interested in my friend’s house for sale. At one point during the tour he asked if she would lower the price substantially. When my friend declined, explaining that the asking price was hardly extortionate for the area and the house was, in addition, her only asset, Eggers responded by gently explaining how terrible it was that she refused to help two young people acquire their first home. Jerk.

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