The Circle

The_Circle_(Dave_Eggers_novel_-_cover_art)The Circle, Dave Eggers

I read this a while ago, and hadn’t quite gotten around to writing the review. But since the movie is coming out soon, this seems as good as time as any to catalogue my thoughts. So let’s begin, shall we?

The Circle is Dave Eggers attempt at a cautionary tale. The story chronicles Meg, the stand in for all of us, fresh out of college and with a serious lack of confidence and yearning to prove herself. Her college roommate, Amanda, who is gorgeous, rich, athletic, brilliant, and generally better at everything than Meg or any of us, is employed in the upper echelons of the Circle, a bit of a Google/Apple hybrid, and gets Meg a job there, too. The Circle has a giant campus, controls social media, online shopping, entertainment, biometrics, artificial intelligence, technology hardware, and so on and so forth. It has pioneered TruID, a program to ensure people are posting and purchasing things under their own names, which revolutionized the internet and also made The Circle the gatekeepers for most things online. They are prestigious, and a dream company to work for. They only want what’s best for all of us, and are our benevolent overlords, or would be if we would only let them. I’m sure you can intuit where this is going.

I am generally a fan of Dave Eggers, who, for all his faults, I find to be an engaging writer. So let’s start with what I liked. I, well, loved is the wrong term, but I thought the oppressive concern The Circle had for their employees, the yearning for them to be a part of The Circle for everything, for the company to be a family, made me cringe. The Circle is all of the worst of Silicon Valley on steroids. They have dorms for employees to sleep at in case they stay at work too late. They have numerous social groups that they require invite their employees to join. They have happy hours or social outings or team building events almost every night. They have rec rooms and gyms and cafeterias for all the employees to use, so why wouldn’t you?

Early on in the book Meg is invited to speak with her boss and chastised on a few occasions for going home on the weekends, for not having a high ‘social ranking’ (for interaction with her Facebook and Twitter stand ins), for not joining any of the social groups. These conversations are all too realistic and were legitimately squirm inducing for an introvert and anti-forced-fun individual like myself. Imagine the flair scene from Office Space times 1000 and even more uncomfortable because the boss sincerely believes what he’s selling. *shudders*

The other thing that he nails, at least from my limited experience, is the bizarre psychology of rating everything and everyone all the time. This is a weird thing we do these days, right? And we’re obsessed with it! Not just obsessed with the chance to rate everything constantly, but also that anything less that CONSTANT PERFECTION is terrible, and anything less than total love means that we’re failures. And there are many disruptors who think this is good! There’s even a couple of tech bros who now want to replace tips with a rating system in their app that will pay out ‘tips’ based on your rating that you can basically only spend in-app. *shudders* This is so terrible for so many reasons. But psychologically, it means we are now obsessed with either our publicity* or our popularity, and expect constant approbation. At one point, Meg is debuting a new feature and The Circle administration does an instant poll asking, “Is Meg just the best?” And she ends up obsessing over the 6% or so (I can’t remember the exact number) who said no, thinking constantly about how 6% of the employees hate her. And, yeah, that’s about what all of this does to us.

Okay, now that I’ve explained some of the things Eggers absolutely got right, I will admit that I still didn’t care for the book. My first complaint is, admittedly, rather nitpicky. But I think it’s an important nit to pick. The introduction to the book explains how one of the ways that The Circle had managed to capture almost all of the internet was through the TruID program, which wouldn’t let anyone post or comment or buy things without authentication of their real self. This cut down on trolling and online bullying, and made everyone love The Circle. Throughout the book, this is a major theme. That part of the way The Circle is able to get everyone to love the and the work they do—because by being transparent, and making sure people can’t hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity they’ve ended this online cruelty and will make people behave better. This is, quite frankly, the type of thing that people who didn’t use the internet much said back when blogs were first a thing. In reality, though, verified checks and getting people to use their names is not such a check on cruelty. That’s just, really, really not how the whole thing works and it makes me think that anyone who says it is doesn’t actually know that much about social media and the internet.

And then there’s how Meg is kind of a wuss of an audience stand in. She’s supposed to be all of us, hesitant about some of this and then embracing it quickly. Okay, yeah, that happens, but she doesn’t really put up a fight at all. Come on. Let’s make the audience stand in a little less easily manipulated.

But the real issue for me is what is always the cardinal sin of a book. Giving your message with a sledge hammer. Remember how I said you could see where everything was going from the set up? Yeah, we know everything that is going to happen. Maybe not the details, but definitely the broad strokes. And we know how we’re supposed to feel.  There is actually, literally, a shark discovered by The Circle’s science expeditions that viciously devours anything it comes in contact with, even if the shark isn’t hungry, and no animal can stand a chance against it. Yeah, that happens. Can you guess what it represents? Here is an actual video taken of me at the exact moment I read that part of the book.

I do not like being told what to think, and I do not like heavy handed metaphors! They are even more irksome than the somewhat irritating sex scenes, and some of the more poorly thought out plot points. (Listen, the problem with there being absolutely no privacy isn’t that there are major skeletons in everyone’s closet. It’s that all the little things can be twisted and that no none is perfect and also that then there’s no privacy).

So, overall, I have to rate the book only a three out of five stars. There were some really good points. But overall, it was just too obvious, and too uncomfortable, and too heavy handed in too many sections for me to, in good faith, rate it higher.

*I have had both Facebook and Twitter let me know which of my posts on my personal account are doing well and also let me know how to pay to boost them. Like I need to be doing A/B testing on my random thoughts on the podcast I’m listening to? Like I should keep track of the pictures of which of my kids gets the most interaction? This is so, so, bizarre.



220px-ZeitounZeitoun, Dave Eggers

Imagine, if you will, a time when the threat of terror attacks has led to a drastic curtailing of civil liberties, and discrimination and oppression of Muslims. When it comes to immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color, law enforcement seems to operate with impunity. And many key government appointments seem to be held by staggeringly incompetent people with no actual qualifications. In fact, many historians are saying that the current president will go down as possibly the worst in history.

Yes, 2005 was a different time. A time many of us miss now, but I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how frightening it really was. Zeitoun is a good reminder.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, takes place in New Orleans right before and in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The title character, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian-American immigrant, a Muslim, and a builder and general contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina is coming, while his wife evacuates with the kids, he stays behind to watch over the property. He and some friends spend the days after the hurricane boating around the streets, helping to rescue neighbors, deliver water and supplies, and help abandoned pets. Amazingly, when help finally comes, he and his friends are arrested by the National Guard and held for 23 days without notifying his family, or giving him access to a lawyer.

This is a narrative non-fiction, along the lines of What is the What, and I find that Eggers is particularly adept at this. I know it’s popular to dislike him-partly because he gets all prickly about criticism-but he is a talented writer and story teller. And his particular style does well in highlighting huge, intimidating problems in a manageable way, relating to one individual, and what abstract concepts-like civil liberties-or major news stories-like the civil war in Sudan-actually mean.

I found Zeitoun fascinating. I was and am a very politically involved, politically aware person but had actually not heard about the renditions in New Orleans after Katrina, or that this was used in another front to push what is allowable in the fight against terrorism. But wrapped up in the horror of the lack of planning pre-hurricane, the lack of effective response, the fact that a white suburb and their police force blocked black residents from entering, and law enforcement shot people looking for food, apparently the government did find time to send in the National Guard to look for terrorist. The response to Katrina was even worse than many of us knew.

I’m incredibly glad that I read this book, and was reminded of how things were, and which fights under the Trump administration are new, and which are ones that we never finished during and after Bush. It may seem that this is a book that would only be timely for a little while, and perhaps in popular view it is, but I always find it useful to read topical books much later, or popular fiction from decades ago, or historical books that go into the daily life rather than major events, to remember what we so easily forget from our history. It’s important that we don’t let such events fade into the background. Partly for when it seems we’re in a more dangerous time, so we can look back and remember that politicians and newspapers always say we’re in the most dangerous time. And partly so that we can be on the look out for real dangers—like the destruction of civil liberties—and know the warning signs and how to fight back. And so we remember what was tried before and failed, and don’t get suckered by it again. (Those last two are things that the U.S. in particular needs to work on.)

I think that in writing this review I need to also explore the controversy surrounding the book. In short, in the two years after Zeitoun was published, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, separated, with his wife citing abusive behavior. He was eventually arrested for plotting to have his wife and her son killed. This is, obviously, horrific behavior. And from what I was able to tell, Eggers refuses to seriously address these issues since writing the book. However, I do not think that they undermine the book, and, from what I can tell, other than suggesting that Zeitoun may not have been the “perfect victim” of the police state, do not dispute the main facts of the book: that he stayed behind in New Orleans, that he and his friends were helping others in the days after the hurricane, and that he was eventually arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and held for 23 days with no access to a lawyer or his family.

Kathy Zeitoun has said that the presentation of their relationship was true at the time the book was written, while at the same time saying there had always been some violence. She also said that Zeitoun became more violent and radical in his Islam after his detention. It is not unbelievable that someone who had been through such an ordeal may have seen their behavior altered dramatically. I am not defending his violence at all or trying to deny or excuse attempted murder. Only that it can be the case that the presentation in the book was mostly true, and that Zeitoun, while doing good things for others after Katrina, is not actually a great person and only deteriorated after his detention.

If that ruins the concept of the book for some people, I understand, and I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book and started looking up other reviews. If I’d known it before, it would undoubtedly have colored my opinions when reading it. However, I still recommend the book for the reasons I listed. It’s an engaging and highly readable story, and it covers a topic that we should all remember. A major American city was destroyed because of incompetence, the citizens continued to suffer because incompetence was compounded by racism, and in the midst of this we found time and resources to seek out and arrest Muslims we suspected of sneaking into a flooded city. As we find ourselves again being told to fear the others and accept leaders who know nothing of governing, told, indeed, that one of the most competent and inspiring presidents we’ve had was destroying the country simply by being other, it seems a very timely read indeed.