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

Getty
Show Hide image

Manchester will keep being Manchester – anything else would let the victims down

The city will survive even this bitter attack on the young and their freedom to have fun.

It was probably the first time many people had ever heard of Ariana Grande. That in itself is horribly significant, this perverted generational dimension to the plan. Manchester throbs and pounds to the sound of music every night. Most evenings of the week, I have a choice of gigs or concerts I can go to in the city. Some nights I make several in succession – “double dropping”, as we say in a term borrowed from drum’n’bass and drug culture. You probably wouldn’t find me at an Ariana Grande concert; her brand of slick teen, YouTube-friendly R’n’B is not really my thing, nor is it meant to be. But it is very much the thing of a very great many 14-year-old girls.

Targeting that Manchester show, picking the MEN Arena that night, choosing that as the place where you would detonate a nail-filled explosive in a crowded, teeming foyer as the suicide bomber did, seems to be an attack not just on Manchester, not just on pop culture, not just on youth even, but – unbelievable as this would seem – a specific, bitter, nihilistic attack on children, girls, young women and their freedom to have fun in the way they want.

There are some who say that modern Manchester began with a bomb blast. In 1996, in one of their final, almost desultory and wilful acts of valedictory violence, the IRA set off an explosion in the city centre, down on Corporation Street by the weary and unlovely Arndale Centre, that squat retail edifice of 1970s brutalism. There, on Saturday 15 June 1996, the IRA triggered a truck bomb that was the largest explosive device detonated in Britain since the Second World War. No one was killed but more than 200 people were injured. The structural damage was enormous. Many buildings, shabby and smart alike, were damaged beyond repair and had to be demolished. The city was a building site for years.

Most of the work was done in time for the new millennium, though, at a cost of an estimated £1.2bn. Out of the rubble (literally) the modern Manchester of sleek trams, hipster bars, street food and chic hotels emerged. Until then, for all its vigour and self-belief, Manchester still looked like a postwar city of faded grandeur and former magnificence; rough around the edges, its heart still pockmarked with strewn bricks and boarded entries, its fringes often empty and desolate. The city felt like the music of Joy Division, the Smiths and Happy Mondays sounded: rain-lashed, bleak, sardonic, hedonistic but in a bug-eyed, low-rent, faintly menacing way. The jokes and myths were of rain and drugs and guns. Now they are of beard barbers and vintage bicycles, of Chorlton luvvies, the Northern Quarter, MediaCity and millionaire footballers.

To the people of Manchester and beyond, there is no credible comparison between the events of 21 years ago and this week. Five days after the 1996 blast, the IRA issued a statement in which it claimed responsibility, but regretted any injury to “civilians”. Wreaking injury and death on the innocent is precisely what atrocities such as the MEN Arena attack are about. Indeed, it is all they are about when viewed through anything other than the warped, distorting lens of fanaticism and barbarism. Whatever your feelings about Irish republicanism, and however feebly the right-wing press tries to kindle that old demonology to discredit Jeremy Corbyn, Manchester, like all north-western cities in England, has huge Irish and Catholic populations. These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want, beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

“I have no words,” Ariana Grande posted after the attack. Others in fact had quite a few words, to which I am, of course, now adding. At times like this we reach first for cliché, but irritation at social media feeds soon softened when one realised that people mostly meant well and, God knows, meaning well was something to cherish and value in the aftermath of such violence.

A few people invoked the Manchester of laddish rock culture, of Oasis, Factory Records and being “mad for it”. They talked of the fact that Manchester “rocked hard”; and, well-intentioned as this was, it somewhat misunderstands what had happened. The bomb was, as far as we can guess, an attack on the fans of a young American woman and entertainer, on the frivolousness and foolishness and fun of young girlhood, on lipstick and dressing up and dancing, on “boyfs” and “bezzies” and all the other freedoms that so enrage the fanatics and contradict their idiot dogmas. Hatred of women is a smouldering core of their wider, deeper loathing for us. But to single out children feels like a new low of wickedness.

We held our breath when we heard the president of the United States had shared his thoughts on the tragedy. His comment on the bombers (“I won’t call them monsters, because they would like that term. They would think that’s a great name. I will call them . . . losers, because that’s what they are – they’re losers”) was as crassly expressed as usual and drew the usual sniggering. But, in its casual bullishness, Trump’s was a strangely Mancunian response. This is not a city that shrinks and frets and wrings its hands. This is city that is used to winning and will happily call its rivals “losers”. As my friend John Niven tweeted with characteristic gusto: “To the sordid animals making nail bombs: in 1940 the Luftwaffe dropped 443 tons of high explosive on Manchester in 48 hrs. You’ll lose too.”

In the endless, repetitive rolling news after the bombing, I heard another well-intentioned voice, this time a media-friendly psychologist, saying tremulously that “Manchester will never be the same again”. Well, to use the local argot: sorry, chuck, but that’s bobbins. Manchester will mourn and weep but it will come through and get on and it will continue to be Manchester, to the delight of its citizens and the amused exasperation of nearly every other British city.

To not be the same, to change, would be to let the victims down. It may be a little harder to get into gigs for a while; the evenings may be a little more awkward and inconvenient, as air travel has become – but that is a small cost compared to what those kids and their families paid. As a great man once said, “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.” It will be the price of victory.

Stuart Maconie is a radio DJ, television presenter, writer and critic working in the field of pop music and culture. His best-selling books include Cider with Roadies and Adventures on the High Teas; he currently hosts the afternoon show on BBC 6Music with Mark Radcliffe.

0800 7318496