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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My quest for an elusive can of juicy Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie ends with a Dolmio pasta sauce

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet.

The last time I addressed you from my bully-beef pulpit I was going to write about my all-consuming yen for a Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney pie, but as there wasn’t one to hand to mouth, I related the electronic cigarette incident at Pizza Express instead. This week, I can report that I have attempted to secure one of the meatylicious treats – and once again failed.

Mr Vairavar, who keeps the convenience store immediately beneath my flat, did have a Fray Bentos minced beef and onion pie on his shelves (and very attractively priced it was, too, at £1.99) but I knew that it wouldn’t hit the suety spot. I had already undertaken a smallish tour of supermarkets in the environs, and although I hadn’t secured the elusive pudding I still found plenty of food for thought.

In Tesco, I was struck by the presence of a paella ready-meal in the chiller cabinet. All convenience foods rely not on a specific ingredient, but rather on its absence: time has been left out, usually in favour of some artificial flavouring. I think of paella as a dish to be
prepared over hours, possibly an entire day. Cooked in the warm south, beneath the canopy of a leafy bower and before an azure sea – coaxed into full and piquant fruition by some adipose and moustachioed duenna, while almond-eyed kiddies dangle from her skirts and the menfolk sit around drinking harsh Rioja, smoking black tobacco and spitting.

Mind you, human ingenuity has been diminishing the temporal component of our cuisine for a long time now: in the Middle Ages salt was the preferred preservative, but by the 1900s tinned meat was being despatched from Fray Bentos in Uruguay and making the long voyage to dock in the British duodenum.

Also on Tesco’s shelves was an extensive selection of pasta sauces. All the usual suspects were there, including Loyd Grossman’s and several variations on the Dolmio theme. It had been a bad week for the Dolmio brand, what with Mars Food, which owns it, feeling it was incumbent on it to place a label on these sauces (and its other products) warning punters that they aren’t “everyday” foods but should be eaten only “occasionally” – say, once a week.

I stood in the aisle, my dreams macerated at my feet. Not eat a Dolmio pasta sauce every day of the week (and even twice daily)? What kind of freshly preserved, heavily sugared and salted hell was this? I have clung on for years to a vision of the good life, summed up for me by Dolmio pasta sauce adverts of the early 1990s, in which a tumultuously happy extended Neapolitan family chows down at a long table laid out under the spreading boughs of an olive tree: old crones and rosy-cheeked bambini, voluptuous girls and their blushing beaus, the entire assembly benignly surveyed by a greying paterfamilias, a role I reserved (don’t laugh) for myself.

True, I can actually count the number of times that I have eaten Dolmio pasta sauces on the fingers of one leprous hand, but as with most commodity fetishism – contra Marx – it’s the thought that counts. So, I bought a jar of Dolmio sauce and bore it home as a sort of edible time capsule; if it isn’t an “everyday” food, I reasoned, I could wait for the Apocalypse to crack off the lid.

I considered buying a jar of Loyd Grossman sauce as well. I’ve no idea if it’s any good but I met Grossman once, in his capacity as chairman of English Heritage’s blue plaque committee. He’d invited me to unveil the plaque for the short story writer H H Munro (whose nom de plume was Saki), which was to be sited on a property on Mortimer Street, London, now tenanted by a firm of accountants.

A scaffold had been put up outside so that the plaque could be mounted, but Loyd and I still had to crawl over one of the partners’ desks in order to reach it. I found him to be a warm and genuine man with no side at all – only a bottom, with which I was nose-to-tail during the desk-clambering. So, that’s the problem I have with his pasta sauces: instead of associating them with joyful consanguinity, I think of systematic pederasty. (Not, I hasten to add, because of Loyd Grossman’s bottom but because Saki had these proclivities and, according to his biographer, whom I met the same day, the writer kept a scrupulous menu of his conquests, including details of their, um, portion size.)

The next stop was Lidl – always a bizarre experience. The last branch of Lidl I’d visited was situated exactly on the death strip of the old Berlin Wall and surrounded by silver birches that looked to be precisely 25 years old. It was sheer foolishness to expect this outlet to have one of the elusive Fray Bentos individual steak and kidney puddings – its stock is discounted stuff that it has picked up cheap.

Fun fact: founded in 1930, Lidl was originally called Schwarz Foods but being referred to as “Schwarzmarkt” would have been a bit of a liability, especially once war was declared, and so the name was changed. There were no black-market puddings here but almost an entire aisle stacked with serrano hams! I would have bought one of these time-infused meats . . . but I had my Dolmio end-of-the-world to look forward to.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism