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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge