Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dave Eggers' marvellous new novel The Circle

Dave Eggers' last book, Hologram for the King, was a major disappointment. Its various strands didn't mesh and its strident political message was decidedly dated and reactionary. It was an unpersuasive call for the protection of an older, traditional manufacturing-based America.

The Circle, however, is quite simply wonderful. Its focus is sure, its politics far more sophisticated and contemporary, its characters believable and its plot intriguing. It's all pulled off with exceptional imaginative power. 
Essentially it grapples with the hot topic of privacy in the digital age. The Circle is a huge digital corporation - clearly a fusion of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. It 
is run by 'three wise men' who are really sad, vacuous nerds with lame Utopian visions: 

'We can solve any problem. We can cure any disease, end hunger, everything, because we won't be dragged down by all our weaknesses, our petty secrets, our hoarding of information and knowledge. We will finally realize our potential'.

The Circle's innovations are many: tiny cameras in every public place ('all that happens must be known'); tracking chips embedded in kids' bones ('an age without worry'); a dating site that knows all the 'secrets' of everyone ('secrets are lies'); necklace devices that disclose all politician's activities ('going clear'); all government services, including voting, channeled through The Circle, membership of which is mandatory; and lots more.

Its mantras are simple:

                        Secrets are Lies
                        Sharing is Caring
                        Privacy is Theft
Massive breaches of privacy are commonplace. There is no respect for personal independence or individualilty. It's 'the world's first tyrannical monopoly' as one non-believer says. It flourishes via a constant, intrusive surveillance.

Eggers is superb at getting right inside the culture of this ultra-modern corporation. He makes you feel a real part of it. 

New employees need no persuasion to embrace such a vibrant, progressive 'community'. It's a subtle process but total and invasive. Health checks, for example, are compulsory, with all data passed to the employer: 'To heal we must know. To know we must share'. The Circle provides 'wraparound wellness services'. Believe me, it's cringe-worthy.

But unknown to these innocents there's nasty stuff going on. Politicians critical of the Circle's monopoly get fitted up, as do all other public figures who complain. Pornography and other offensive material is suddenly found on their hard drives.

In a Truman, reality-TV way, cameras positioned everywhere around the corporate campus feed video of the main character's activities every minute of the day to millions of viewers around the world. Via social media they respond, swept up in the absorbing drama of this mega-corporation's life and wholesome mission.

Eggers sets up two possible and realistic endings. But in my view he chooses the right one.

As I said, a superb, thoughtful novel and an extremely enjoyable read.

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