Dave Eggers' new thriller: Beware of the IT crowd

Despite a climax involving a leadenly symbolic, Jurassic Park-style “feeding experiment” in the Circle’s aquariums, The Circle is the well-managed thriller Eggers plainly intended it to be.

The Circle
Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, 512pp, £18.99

Dave Eggers’s heartfelt new thriller has an unlikely saint. Mercer is a humourless, squat young man in his early twenties who makes chandeliers out of antlers but in a near future in which the power of independent thought has been commandeered by the Circle, a tech company the size of Google and Facebook smashed together and squared, he has a crucial voice. “The world has dorkified itself,” he protests – but no one is listening to him.

The novel’s lead character is Mae, Mercer’s ex-girlfriend, who loathes him with all the vehemence of a girl in her early twenties eager to disown her younger self. The story begins on Mae’s first day working for the Circle – “a blur of glass rooms and brief, impossibly warm introductions”. Mae’s best friend, Annie, has helped her get the job. Eggers sets up a neat chick-lit division of characteristics between them: Annie is the tall, thin, naturally blonde one with a “mysterious core sense of destiny”, a tonne of old “Mayflower” money and an existing prestige in the company; Mae is more ordinary, middle class – and, ultimately, robust.

Right away, the Circle seems to have the makings of a cult. Its “campus” is the venue for endless after-work events designed to enthral the young workforce; there are “shuttles” to take them home when they are drunk and rooms for the increasing number who choose never to leave. There is a large-scale drive to generate a sense of specialness. In “the Great Hall”, the “Circlers” assemble to enjoy early access to Circle innovations. Though the products are flagrantly designed to appeal to them as consumers, they give credulous whoops of assent. Mae’s seduction by the Circle is total. Her job is to manage a relentless “chute” of user questions on an ever-increasing number of screens and at the same time answer consumer surveys using a headset, and yet “Mae knew she never wanted to work – never wanted to be anywhere else”.

The Circle is a fizzy mix of entertainment and ideological debate but it makes few claims to being a work of art. Eggers makes no use of the structure to add to the texture of his world – the story has a neat beginning, middle and end, divided into three “books”. The writing, line by line, is mostly inconspicuous but sometimes rushed – in the aquarium, “The shark was still holding still” – and the characters often speak as if enlisted in a stiff Platonic dialogue. At dinner with Mae, Mercer says, “I mean, like everything else you guys are pushing, it sounds perfect . . . but it carries with it more control, more central tracking of everything we do.” Mae replies, “Mercer, the Circle is a group of people like me. Are you saying we’re all in a room somewhere . . . planning world domination?”

Comparably thudding are Mae’s kayaking trips, which symbolise a private involvement with the physical world that she and other Circlers are throwing away. Seal sightings, like guys who make chandeliers out of antlers, are an under-realised rival to Eggers’s hi-tech world. When, at a moment of crisis, Mae is begged by another character to abandon her job, his alternative is another kind of smug fantasy life: “We can hike through Tibet . . . We can sail around the world in a boat we built ourselves.”

But there is no questioning Eggers’s inventiveness. As utopian tech vision is tarnished by capitalist drive, the Circle’s products grow increasingly macabre. A kind of doublethink is soon required to justify its infringements of privacy and liberty: “Caring is sharing” and “Equal access to all possible human experiences is a basic human right” are two infocommunist slogans. Ideas become products at white-knuckle speed. Mae suggests that if voting were done online through the Circle servers, it might be made mandatory. A day later, she receives a “zing” (a tweet, but it makes for a neater verb) from her boss: “We’re calling it Demoxie . . . It’s democracy with your voice and your moxie.”

Given the energy he devotes to detailing his vision of the Circle, it’s striking that Eggers does not attempt to locate it in its historical context. He seems incurious about why this particular generation of twentysomethings should be so intolerant of anxiety and so ready to believe in self-aggrandising “rights”. He takes care to dramatise their existential terrors – Annie’s jokes about the decrepitude of Mae’s love interest (he has grey in his hair and may be over 30) attain a pathological quality, for instance – but makes no hint at what has created this group of cerebral infants.

Despite a climax involving a leadenly symbolic, Jurassic Park-style “feeding experiment” in the Circle’s aquariums, The Circle is the well-managed thriller Eggers plainly intended it to be. If it weren’t for his pitchperfect rendition of tech grandiosity, there would be no reason to long for the wiser satire he might have given us.

Could Google + Facebook = something like The Circle? Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Are we taking Woody Allen for granted?

In some ways, Allen is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect.

Do you know what a state Annie Hall was in when it first emerged from the editing room? Maybe you’ve heard that its original title was Anhedonia – referring to Alvy Singer’s inability to experience pleasure – but it wasn’t just a title. That was the film that Allen shot: a Fellini-esque stream of consciousness, honeycombed with flashbacks to Alvy’s Coney Island childhood, featuring a murder mystery, a Nazi interrogation dream, an elevator trip to hell and a basketball game between a team of philosophers and the New York Knicks.

“Terrible, completely unsalvageable,” said Allen’s co-writer, Marshall Brickman, of the film they saw as a rough cut in late 1976. Only one thing worked: the subplot involving Alvy’s romance with Annie Hall. “I didn’t sit down with Marshall Brickman and say, ‘We’re going to write a picture about a relationship,’” Allen later said. “I mean, the whole concept of the picture changed as we were cutting it.”

His reaction to the success of Annie Hall – his biggest hit at the box office at the time and the winner of four Academy Awards – was the same reaction he had to any of his films that went over too well with the public: he disparaged it, while quietly absorbing its lessons. Bits and pieces of Annie Hall showed up in his other films for the next two decades – Alvy’s Coney Island childhood resurfacing in Radio Days, the murder mystery in Manhattan Murder Mystery, the elevator trip to hell in Deconstructing Harry – while reshoots and rewrites became a staple of most of his pictures, granting him the freedom almost of a novelist working through successive drafts.

“It was remarkable what he did for me,” Diane Keaton later said of Allen’s ear for Annie’s Chippewa Falls language: self-conscious, neurotic, a little jejune in her attempts to sound smarter than she is, “flumping around, trying to find a sentence”. Annie Hall was a breech delivery, as indeed it had to be, as the first film of Allen’s that was almost entirely taken over by another performer, a voice other than his. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, Allen studied the great magicians and in many ways his greatest achievement as a director has been to make himself disappear.

Introverts often grow up thinking that they are invisible – a fear, perhaps, but a strangely comforting one and something of a sustaining fantasy should they become famous. These days, Allen has the invisibility of ubiquity, noiselessly producing a film every year for critics to take a whack at: is it good Woody or bad Woody?

Allen is a figure occluded by the scandals and speculation of his private life, which still sends tabloid Geiger counters crackling, some two decades after his break with Mia Farrow. The headlines could almost be the pitch for a Woody Allen film, were it not that Allen has already made it. In Zelig, the chameleonic hero is, you may remember, “sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions”, before finding redemption in some Lindberghian derring-do – an accurate forecast, in a sense, of Allen’s return to making crowd-pleasers in the mid-1990s. Except that Zelig was released in 1983. On the rise and fall of Woody Allen, Allen, it seems, was there first.

His 46th film opens in cinemas on 11 September. In Irrational Man, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a dishevelled, alcoholic philosophy professor who decides to pull himself out of his funk with a spot of murder, which has long replaced masturbation as the favoured activity of the Allen male. I’ll leave it to Allen’s old shrinks to tease out the connection between comedy and murder, spotted by Freud in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious – why else do we talk of comedians “killing” it, or “slaying” their audience, if not for the release of hostility common to both? And I’ll leave it to the critics to decide the relation of Irrational Man to the earlier Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The problem with late Allen is not that the films are bad necessarily but that they are sketchy: spindly and dashed off, the result of a too-easy passage from page to screen. Allen’s has to be the shortest in show business. A film a year, as regular as clockwork, with zero studio interference. He is the one genuine success story to emerge from the big, hairy, super-freak auteurist experiment of the 1970s – the auteur of auteurs. Francis Ford Coppola crashed and burned. Martin Scorsese crashed and came back. Robert Altman was driven into exile, Terrence Malick into early retirement. Who would have guessed that the only film-maker to keep chugging along would be the writer of What’s New Pussycat?

It may tell us something about auteurism as an idea, certainly as a production model in Hollywood, which has always reacted to success by throwing money at it, granting film-makers ever greater control – a dubious drug denying them the artistic constraints and collaboration in which their creativity first flourished. It vacuum-packs their talent.

The one-man-band aspects of Allen’s career mask the juice that he gets from his co-conspirators: Keaton, but also Dianne Wiest, Farrow and Judy Davis. Most of his biggest box-office successes have been co-written: Annie Hall and Manhattan (with Brickman), Bullets Over Broadway (with Douglas McGrath). “The first thing he says is, ‘If you’re not comfortable, change it,’” said Wiest of working on Hannah and Her Sisters.

“It’s as if he’s got a feather in his hand and he blows it and it goes off in a dozen directions,” said Jeff Daniels after starring in The Purple Rose of Cairo. It’s a lovely image, for that is what the film is about: the unruliness of creation running disobediently beyond its creators’ grasp. This is the great Allen theme. It is the theme of Bullets Over Broadway; of his other great farce about artistic creation, “The Kugelmass Episode”, his New Yorker short story about a professor of humanities who drops into the pages of Madame Bovary to conduct an affair with its heroine; and of his one-act play Writer’s Block, in which the characters of an unfinished manuscript push open the drawer and take over the author’s Connecticut house. It is the theme of all of the romances, too, in which women grow, Pygmalionishly, beneath the green fingers of the Allen male, only to outgrow and leave him.

The biggest dead patches in his work, on the other hand, have come when he was most cut off from collaborators: the run of movies he made in the late 1980s and early 1990s with Farrow, clenched in silent agony and overdosed in brown; or the series of comedies that he dug out of his drawer for DreamWorks in the early 2000s – The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Hollywood Ending, Any­thing Else – long after he had lost interest, or could summon the energy for farce.

In some ways, Allen today is a prisoner of the independence from Hollywood he fought for so long to protect. He encourages his actors to change his scripts as much as they want, but who is going to pluck up the courage to tell the quadruple Oscar winner that kids don’t “make love” any more, or fall for “nihilistic pessimism”, or name-drop O’Neill, Sartre and Tennessee Williams? Jason Biggs, the star of American Pie and American Pie 2 and Allen’s lead in his 2003 film Anything Else? I think not.

One should, however, resist the temptation to give up on him. Midnight in Paris moved with the sluggishness of melted Camembert but Blue Jasmine had the leanness of a cracked whip, in part because in Cate Blanchett Allen found a collaborator willing to go the distance with him on a theme close to his heart: female vengeance. “Take after take after take of very exhaustive, emotional scenes,” recalled Alec Baldwin. “I sat there at the end of the day and thought, ‘She is unbelievable.’”

If Allen’s early films mined comedy from Thurber-like fantasists and romantic Machiavels and his mid-period work drew rueful comedy from reality’s refusal to co-operate, his late work seems most preoccupied by the painful urge to peel the world of illusion, to see it stripped bare. He is now at work on his 47th film, starring Blake Lively, Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Parker Posey and Bruce Willis – and the excitement there is surely at the thought of Willis, once the king of the wisecrack and exploding fireball, now 60, collaborating with a film-maker deep into his own twilight. Both men could well find each other’s groove, or, better still, shake one another out of it. Yipikaye, pussycat.

Tom Shone’s “Woody Allen: a Retrospective” will be published by Thames & Hudson on 11 September

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism