Thursday, March 27, 2014

Dave Eggers' The Circle: A Polemic about the Virtual World

Any reader of this blog (and please, please join and follow) will know that I just don’t like polemics disguised as fiction. Few writers do it well.

Jonathan Swift wrote a fine polemic titled Gulliver’s Travels. Ray Bradbury succeeded with Fahrenheit 451, and Stanley Kubrick crafted a wonderful polemic through Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Each of these is a world and a work unto itself, replete with complex characters, verisimilitude, and literary delight. Each of these is literary first and polemic second.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is polemic first. Eggers offers pedestrian language, iconic characters intended to represent a type rather than a complex, dynamic person, and settings that are sketches rather than fully developed works of art characterized by verismilitude.

Eggers' stock characters fail to frighten or inspire. Mae is part ingĂ©nue, part Harlequin heroine, and part protagonist. She longs to be important, to belong, at first happy to be a moon circling the planet of her college friend, Annie. Soon, however, Mae begins to set her own trajectory and break free of Annie’s gravitational pull. Mae becomes an antagonist, heroic in her own mind only.

Mae also meets a mysterious man, one so alluring that Mae tempts fate and allows herself to be seduced by a man she knows nothing about, cannot contact, and cannot introduce to anyone else. In a Harlequin romance, this seductive fellow would have a complicated past, one that forces him to be taciturn, but once all is known, readers and heroine will learn that his intentions are good. And they are--except for the inexplicable sexual encounters. Why he seduces Mae, why she agrees, and why she substitutes a nearly impotent and certainly inept lover in his place require much more than a willing suspension of disbelief in service of the story.

The man who repels Mae is Mercer, her former boyfriend and an artist working with antlers from animals killed to thin herds, never for sport. Mercer, we see, has a conscience that Mae mocks. Still, he has qualities that Mae envies. Her parents call upon him in their moments of extreme need, in part because he lives closer to them than Mae, but more important, because his motives are pure. He doesn’t use them to make himself important or needed.

Al Griffin Photography at Work Moderating and Learning

Eggers pours all the anti-virtual world rhetoric into Mercer’s mouth. Speeches made to condemn the loss of privacy and defend the right to personal dignity are Mercer’s. He flees Mae and her good intentions to make him an artist of good renown. He even dies on camera to make a point about the relentless, ruthless pursuit of an individual, even to the ends of the earth, in order to corral him within the electronic fences of a virtual world. He just will not, cannot submit; he prefers death to a life pinned like a bug under glass in a collection.

Mercer’s death makes no difference, however. He’s written off as a troubled introvert, a lonely man slapping away all the electronic smiles that could have made his life better. The Circle even persuades Mae to believe this of Mercer, and it is equally effective at convincing Mae to believe her former best friend and ideal, Annie, merely collapsed after being exposed as the descendant of men and women who committed crimes against humanity. Mae is so thoroughly wrapped in the The Circle’s embrace that she even betrays the mysterious man who once made her heart pound.

And all of this is quite predictable. All is easily foreseen. All is stereotypical. Read the book if you wish to imagine a world gone mad, but I recommend that you unleash your own imagination while reading about today’s social network, Edward Snowden revelations, and the NSA.

Reading Challenge:

Read Dave Eggers’ The Circle, but a better title from his collection is A Hologram for the King. It too indicts our psyche, showing one man in particular as too materialistic, too self-indulgent, and too detached from any real and meaningful relationship, but the novel’s characters and language rise to the levels of literature.

Writing Challenge:

Using the last book you read, write two different reviews of it, the first favorable and the second, unfavorable. Doing so will help you view one work from different angles.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Dave Eggers' The Circle

I will confess at the outset of this post that I step upon the virtual yellow brick road daily. I click “like” and comment. I follow famous and not-so-famous people. Like all social networkers and Internet fans, I hope to arrive one day in the Emerald City where glitter and glamour will dazzle and all my dreams will come true.
Album Cover: Music of Ross Davis
Yellow Brick Road

This is the trek that Dave Eggers’ characters in The Circle take. Annie and Mae travel to the Emerald City, but their ambition and quasi-sibling rivalry urge them on to the Wizard hidden behind the curtain. When they see him clearly, he’s a monster. Annie turns away; Mae follows him like men without wax in their ears followed the Sirens. Mae even becomes a siren herself, luring men and women to the deaths of personal privacy.

Eggers’ Emerald City is The Circle, a thinly disguised Google-like California campus where gourmet foods are part of the benefit package. On campus, Circlers never want for anything--not health care, not comfortable beds in insulated, climate-controlled dorms, and certainly not a full, rich, convicted social life. They can click their approval of products, sign an infinite number of petitions and resolutions in favor of an endless array of causes, and select “smile” or “frown” to voice an opinion.

Within The Circle, Mark Zuckerberg's cure for loneliness has blossomed; no one wants for smiles, the fictional version of likes, and management counsels rogue employees who fail to respond to others’ messages or attend events to which they’re invited. Circlers are required to glean participation points in the community. They have one computer screen for the work they do, another screen for zings about social events, and a set of headphones to respond to survey questions about products and services. Circlers must also earn scores for the number of products they review and recommend; they strive to be among the top influencers to define the bottom line of businesses world-wide. Such a workload keeps Circlers tethered on campus, less and less attached to family, more and more tied to electronic pals with the most superficial acquaintance, but sufficient for them to think of these pals as friends upon whom they can rely.

The Circle has also developed cameras, drones, and sophisticated audio hardware that allow it to show the world what is going on in city squares as well as shadowy alleys. It even tracks down in under twenty minutes a convicted felon on the run for decades because of the huge number of people linked worldwide. The Circle can post the face of a criminal and initiate a search, transforming it from an IT power-house into a police force with the longest of long reaches.

These cameras have also shaped the political realm. Elected officials become favorites with voters when they agree to transparency, a term applied to the habit of wearing a camera with audio at all times, day and night, except when visiting the bathroom or sleeping. All negotiations with donors, all meetings with colleagues, and all debates about policy are live on the web for viewers’ critiques and judgment. Soon, no politician can run for office without being transparent; it becomes a criterion for success much like being endorsed once had the power to change outcomes. Thus, The Circle begins to shape government to its will.

The Circle even contemplates administering voter registration and voting. It considers coding law-breakers in easily recognized colors during a 24/7 world-wide video feed so that neighbors can recognize who belongs and who does not; more important, law enforcers will not waste time profiling black and brown people when they could be stopping and frisking people who’ve already been arrested and convicted for some crime in their pasts.

With The Circle, Eggers’ weaves a dystopian tale, one without chaos or anarchy and only mild violence. It is the NSA-Google-Facebook-satellite-drone future we all seem to be marching toward without any hesitation whatsoever. Eggers proves that the need to belong and feel validated are addictive. We want more followers, more zings, more short bursts of information. We want our opinions heard and instantly, too. We want, we want, we want, and The Circle will provide.

Reading Challenge:

Read Dave Eggers’ The Circle.

Writing Challenge:

Write a position paper declaring what privacy you are willing to exchange for the virtual drug that the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Google+ provide.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

True Detective: Grief and Guilt Revisited on HBO

Last week I wrote about Theo Decker, the protagonist in Donna Tartt’s tome, The Goldfinch, and his heavy cloak of guilt. This week, HBO’s hit series, True Detective, presented its final episode in what may be its first season, and closed a tale about the heavy price that guilt exacts upon the human psyche.

Rust Cohle, one-half of a detective team, one mirror image of the toll that grief and chaos requires of us, dwells apart. He never swaggers as Marty Hart does. Rust never takes women and sex for granted either, in part because he no longer desires intimacy. He prefers to dull the pain of memory with sleep, drug-induced, if necessary.

Rust shed his old identify and took up one created by isolation and a deep, unimaginable sorrow that began after he lost his child and then his marriage, both losses sending him into the depths of Dante’s Hell, there dwelling among thieves, dealers, killers, and thugs, becoming like them, absorbing their world view, and chameleon-like, camouflaging himself as one of them to survive. His grief is such that he cannot be more or otherwise.

Even when his life is most derelict, Rust demands much of himself. Trying to instill some order upon disorder, he permits himself to eat burgers and drink beer on Thursdays at a specific hour. Such control over empty, oppressive hours helps them pass; in Rust’s career hours, he fills the heavy unknown with tedium, demanding concentration and devotion. He searches for the byways that lead from one place to another, one person to another, one shred of evidence to another. He fits together a puzzle of chaos one piece at a time until he sees the ordered image.

Rust is clever, intuitive, afflicted, and driven, in part because he grew up isolated from popular culture and learned to dwell in the infinite: the stars and his own imagination. Grief and guilt are even more significant in shaping him. When he lost his child and his marriage, he sculpted a philosophy, bleak and borne of pain. “Everybody wears their hunger and their haunt (Nic Pizzolatto),” he says, and “The only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward (Nic Pizzolatto)” as if man has little within to restrain him or guide him. Only an external authority and the promise of reward suppresses the beasts in our hearts.

Marty Hart, on the other hand, doesn’t think as deeply. He doesn’t seem to contemplate eternity or even the consequences of his actions. He professes to rely upon traditional family values with family being uppermost among them, yet he drinks, in part to dull the ache that is his job searching for a twisted serial killer. But his own depravity fuels his need for alcohol, too. Marty is unfaithful, cannot shout or cajole his first daughter into upright behaviors, and lies as often as required. For his choices, he pays. His wife cheats, tells him, and divorces him. His daughter seems to despise him, and his own lies trap him, rendering him unable to claim the higher ground. He finally can bear no more witness to depravity and leaves police work, too.

The greatest of Hart’s lies is his cold-blooded, premeditated assassination of a despicable excuse for anything human and Cohle’s complicity covering up that truth. This binds the men as does the crime for which they became partners.
Castle Ruins, Lake of the Ozarks
Al Griffin Photography

When Cohle persuades Hart that they didn’t catch the right or only killer, the bond between the two men reignites, and they work together to get to the right solution, to bring down the evil. Cohle even displays a bit of modesty when Hart notices a detail that finally leads to the name of the killer.

What secures their partnership is that they have been naked, their souls stripped bare of any mask, their pain and flaws stark in the sun. In the certain knowledge of their partner’s vulnerability and suffering, they arrive at a place where they truly have each other’s backs, not because of complicity in a cover-up and not because they are required to do so. Nearly two decades after their first encounter, these men have no one else to rely upon in their quest for redemption.

And they find it. Marty reveals that he’s been listening to all of Rust’s bleak pronouncements, and rather than leaving Rust to his personal ninth circle, nudges Rust to remember to look up. He nurses his partner and pal into another journey, this one away from the grief of having lost a child and a marriage, of having glimpsed eternity wherein resides only love denied here on this earth, of regret that he breathes still. Marty guides his friend from that dark night into a glimmer of light. This too is the path that grief and guilt may take--at least according to Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective’s screenwriter.

Reading Challenge:

Find the eight episodes of True Detective. Read them closely for archetypes, character, language, and figurative devices.

Writing Challenge:

Imitate Pizzolatto’s line written for Rust Cohle: “Everybody wears their hunger and their haunt.” What does everybody wear for your line? Be sure to strive for the same alliterative effect when choosing two things that everybody wears.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

My Writing and Editing Coach: Theo Decker: Donna Tartt's Study in Guilt

My Writing and Editing Coach: Theo Decker: Donna Tartt's Study in Guilt: Grief can become a heavy cloak, dusty black velvet, a weight upon the soul and shoulders. Inside we feel safe even if o’erburdened, too ch...

Theo Decker: Donna Tartt's Study in Guilt

Grief can become a heavy cloak, dusty black velvet, a weight upon the soul and shoulders. Inside we feel safe even if o’erburdened, too chilled to lay down the garment, too warm to expose ourselves to the vicissitudes of wind and weather.

Theo Decker, the protagonist of Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, dons such a cloak early in life. On the day his mother will die, he has already stitched a lightweight version, its threads the stuff of casual error and misjudgment. He’s a friend of a boy who can be cruel to those weaker and different. Together they break into homes and steal. Their grades slide, and they come to the attention of their school’s principal.

On the way to that appointment, Theo’s mother detours into a museum and shares her appreciation of Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, with her son, but on this day, at this hour, the museum explodes, killing the boy’s mother and leaving him forever scarred. Not only does he persuade himself that his mother would have, could have, should have lived if not for the errors of his youth, he also endures paternal grandparents who have no interest in giving him a home; an absent, alcoholic father who would steal from his own son to feed his gambling debts; a rogue and rascal of a best friend who leads Theo into drug use; and a poorly understood desire to cling to the very painting his mother admired so much even though doing so is illegal and impossible. These are the threads that turn a lightweight cloak into deadweight.
Nevertheless, Theo enjoys great gifts. A school friendship with a boy often bullied opens a door into Andy Barbour’s home, granting Theo a safe haven from foster care and later in his life, a maternal figure in Mrs. Barbour. She genuinely cares for him.

The man over whom Theo must crawl as he makes his way through the museum rubble gives Theo a ring and asks him to carry it away. When Theo returns it to its rightful heir, he finds another parent and a vocational mentor in Hobie. This man gives the boy a home when he has nowhere else to go, and this man never adds weight to Theo’s cloak. He errs in judgment even, granting Theo the benefit of the doubt always.

When Theo’s father finally claims him and offers him shelter if nothing else, Theo finds Boris, an irreverent boy who endures abuse from his own alcoholic father. Boris also becomes a boy without a home or country, but like an artful dodger, Boris learns to manipulate and fly below the law’s radar. Perhaps more than any other lesson, Boris learns not to expect much from love or friendship even as he remains loyal to both as ideals and theoretical possibilities.

Theo stumbles always. He leaps to the wrong conclusions. He settles for appearances rather than substance. He lets fear and guilt move him into dark, depraved realms as easily as he enters into the lights shined by art and friendship. He grows in understanding, but he never sheds his cloak even as it becomes thinner and lighter with time.

Reading Challenge:

Read The Goldfinch. Trace the dynamic changes that Theo Decker undergoes.

Writing Challenge:

Reflect upon other characters afflicted by guilt:

  • Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Sonia in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
  • Jim in Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
  • Arthur Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
  • Sethe in Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Sophie in Sophie’s Choice by William Styron
  • Amir in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
  • John Bartle in The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers