Tag: David Eggers

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 2

images-1

Since they sometimes overlook reality in the name of something “good” that they are a part of, optimism and hope have a comical aspect. In certain scenarios, however, overlooking such things can have negative and even tragic consequences.   The blindspots we have, if they deal with fundamental things, like the importance and meaning of privacy and freedom are a case in point.   In the enthusiasm for a utopian kind of project, which promises to transform reality or in which a transformation is actually coming out, there may be a blindness to the meaning of freedom and privacy. We see this especially, today, in our head-over-heels love for facebook, google, and social networking. We are in the midst of a major change in social life in America (and around the world) and we haven’t yet figured out the stakes with respect to freedom and secrecy. We are all to happy to give away our information and make our private life public.

In the last blog entry on David Eggers’ last novel – The Circle – I discussed the often overlooked fact that the novel has comic elements. Although these moments are few and far between, they are very special because they involve a kind of optimism and utopian hope that overlook the meaning of privacy and freedom. The author calls the two main characters out on being naïve fools in the beginning of the novel and so does an old boyfriend of one of the characters (Mae) named Mason.

As I pointed out in the last blog entry, the narrator of Eggers novel makes the comic blindness of these characters evident in the very beginning of the novel. Annie, who gets Mae into “The Circle” (a name for a company like Google), is the first to be comically profiled:

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

She is also described as a “scattershot” and a “ridiculous person” who carries around a “piece of her childhood blanket around with her in her pocket.” But Annie is not alone. The narrator tells us that most of the three people who founded the circle also have this aspect. He brings this out in his description of a painting of all three of them which is, more or less, a caricature that they may be blind to but the narrator is not:

The painting was awkward, the kind of thing a high school artist might produce. In it, the three men, the founders of the company, were arranged in a pyramid, each of them dressed in their best-known clothes, wearing expressions that spoke, cartoonishly, of their personalities.   Ty Gospodinov, the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, was wearing nondescript glasses and an enormous hoodie, staring leftward and smiling; he seemed to be enjoying some moment, alone, turned into some distant frequency. People said he was borderline Asperger’s, and the picture seemed intent on underscoring the point. (19)

Ty, the narrator tells us, also sees himself as a kind of outsider, oddball: “Ty realized he was, at best, socially awkward, and at worst an utter interpersonal disaster”(20). He hired the “other two Wise Men, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton” to balance him out. Ty designs the core of the Circle’s system which is called “TruYou” which sounds a lot like Google Plus.  In this novel, the Google system is portrayed as something that streams all of one’s bills, identities, accounts, etc into one system:

One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities. Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the Tru you, unbendable and unmaskable. (21)

While the owner, Ty, and his partners, taken together, may look cartoonish, this system is utterly serious, powerful, and a force on its own. It takes on a kind of moral, disciplinary force: “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year….the True You wave a was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites….Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into darkness”(22). The narrator makes sure to mention that TruYou “subsumed” all social media: “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe and Quan”(23).

This new system, TruYou, has the goal of creating total transparency. It will eliminate “identity theft” and unfair and prejudiced practices on the internet. And Ty, in his utopian awkwardness, believes this will be good for everyone and make society a place devoid of crime and malice which, to his mind, are based on hiding things from others.

Following these serious descriptions of TruYou, the narrator completes his description of the other two Wisemen in the picture. Emaon Bailey, “standing next to him (Ty) in the painting, semmed utterly at peace, joyful even”(24). He smiles a lot. His whole body seems to smile: “When he smiled, which was near-constantly, his mouth smiled, his eyes smiled, his shoulders seemed to smile. He was wry. He was funny”(24). Bailey likes to play “Dixieland trombone”(24).

The last of the Three Wisemen is Tom Stenton. Of the three, he is the most serious. He is “unabashed about being wealthy, about being single and aggressive and possibly dangerous”(23).   The law and the government don’t stand in his way: “He was unafraid of presidents. He was not daunted by the lawsuits from the European Union or threats from state-sponsored Chinese hackers”(24).

Taken together the three of them create an odd image as of “mismatched flowers” but in the end the image of them together “worked”: “The three of them, in life and in this portrait, made for a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers, but there was no doubt that it worked”(25). But, the more Mae looked at the image, “the stranger it became.” She, who is also called a fool by the narrator, at the very least notices that there is something odd about this image that may “work” but not for her. She can’t put her finger on it:

The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another’s shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch. “Bailey thinks it’s hilarious,” Annie said. “He wanted it in the main hallway, but Stenton vetoed him”(26).

As Annie leads Mae up to their secret room, she sees all kinds of comical things that are juxtaposed to things that are utterly serious. The juxtaposition gives one a sense how, behind all of these smiles and comical gestures, there is something sinister lurking, something they aren’t aware of in their absent-minded (though apparently noble) utopian idealism.

 

…..to be continued…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doofus(es) and Dork(s) in David Eggers’ “The Circle” – Take 1

images-2

When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.

The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.

Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook?   One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.

Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.

However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.”   Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.

Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”

There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)

The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).

All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”

When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.

However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks.   Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people.   Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.

But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in.   Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?

….to be continued…..