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 ingénue, 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.