I had incredibly high expectations for this book. I've never read any of Dave Eggers' fiction, but being a fan of his nonfiction and coming off the heI had incredibly high expectations for this book. I've never read any of Dave Eggers' fiction, but being a fan of his nonfiction and coming off the heels of his Pulitzer Prize nomination for A Hologram for the King, I was excited. I knew the basic premise of The Circle, but had steered clear of reviews for the most part.
The novel starts out with such potential. I wouldn't say it's strong necessarily, but it does have promise. Mae is a recent college graduate in her early twenties who thanks to an old college pal is hooked up with a job at a very Google-like computer firm called The Circle. Her early interactions in customer service are laughably uncomfortable with a seemingly mocking satire of corporate life in the age of social media. She's chastised for not reading email quickly enough, and she must keep track of an increasing number of computer screens, each displaying different aspects of her Circle life.
After Mae is caught doing something fairly innocent (yet still illegal), she's coerced into taking a drastic step into the new age of digital transparency. This is where the book plots a steady course for jumping the shark. And jump the shark it does, even as Dave Eggers incorporates an actual shark that one of the Circle bigwigs brings back from the Mariana Trench, one that is so lethal that with "a series of urgent thrusts" it can break through a "coral arch and extract" a precious "seahorse, which had no defenses and was eaten in two bites" (476). The shark is a heavy handed stand-in for The Circle itself, as its skin is so translucent it "allowed an unfettered view into its digestive process" (308). Initially, I gave credit to Eggers for attempting a bit of literary symbolism, but late in the book a character hits us over the head with the meaning when he shouts, "All this. The fucking shark that eats the world" (480).
What becomes so problematic is the sheer believability of the second half of the book where characters pitch their wildest technological dreams to The Circle and have them quickly turned into reality. These people might as well be wishing for the release of wild unicorns and geese that lay golden eggs for the veracity of their ideas. I understand that in a world with Google Glasses and tiny iPhones you can wear on your wrists, there is much to be marvel, but some of the things detailed in this book are simply preposterous, like a computer that knows when a weapon--any weapon--has entered a building.
Eggers really got my eyes rolling though when Mae's college chum Annie volunteers for PastPerfect, a computer program that identifies an individual's family for generations in all records on earth, including surveillance cameras, random tourist snapshots, written documents, and more. Not only does she discover some unsavory bits about her ancient family, she realizes some utterly ludicrous information that alters how she views her parents. Annie becomes yet another heavy symbol for the book, one who realizes the folly of The Circle's "completion" far too late and pays the ultimate price.
Part of me wishes Eggers had simply written a piece of nonfiction on the subject, done some research and put his position out there front and center. The dissenting voices here are clearly the author's harbingers of doom, including Mae's ex-boyfriend Mercer who details in a long rambling letter to her that "we need options for opting out" (368). His fate is sealed when Mae is fooled by the thought that Mercer will be filled with "admiration for the wonderful power of the tools at her disposal" when she essentially puts on Mickey's sorcerer's hat and creates a technological Fantasia of havoc in Mercer's life (458).
The biggest issue I have with the book though is Eggers' choice of protagonist. This is a young girl who isn't very bright. She's romantically bamboozled several times, even engaging in sexual relations in a bathroom stall at work with a man she barely knows simply because he's so manly and mysterious. She forsakes her parents without pause, and her final moments in the novel make me wonder whether she's been lobotomized between chapters.
With all that said, Eggers raises some great questions here and this is an incredibly swift read. This reminds me a lot of Dan Brown, only slightly smarter....more
After a recent disappointing experience reading Shteyngart's first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, I only read Super Sad True Love Story becauAfter a recent disappointing experience reading Shteyngart's first novel The Russian Debutante's Handbook, I only read Super Sad True Love Story because several friends had said they loved it even in spite of disliking the other. I did have to initially overcome the confusion of narrators that are far too similar between the two novels--and narrators that are far too similar to the persona of Shteyngart himself as I experienced at a reading a few months ago--but once I let go of that frustration, I ended up enjoying my experience with this book.
I won't say I loved reading it, only because Shteyngart's vision of the near future is incredibly scary in that it plays upon elements of our society that are already here: a sexually-desensitized youth culture, socialization ruled by technology, indecipherable boundaries between corporations and government, among other frightening elements. (Although the accuracy with which he paints this dystopian reality gives me hope that educated people do in fact see where we're headed, I wonder how those less politically-minded view these ideas.)
The politics here are all humorously represented for the most part, which certainly makes them much more palatable. Most people wear small "apparati," which constantly stream news, gossip, announcements, and scores about other the owners of other nearby apparati, including credit scores, net worth, personality, and even "fuckability" (89), with scores being ranked based on who is within the immediate vicinity. Along the same lines, New York City is lined with Credit Poles which announce one's credit scores to the world.
Much of the sexual humor is crass--major retail stores include AssLuxury and JuicyPussy--but the cavalier manner in which these elements are conveyed is precisely where the commentary lies. The pendulum of American sexuality in this world has swung as far away from Puritan repression as possible. A minor character, Hartford Brown, streams "a political commentary show intermixed with his own hardcore gay sex," providing coverage of "the Governor of the People's Bank of China-Worldwide" on a visit to America's all-powerful Secretary of Defense Rubenstein while engaging in various sex acts "on top of...a yacht near the Dutch Antilles" (155). One of the main characters compares a love interest to "the old man who molests teens on the beach" in "those porns [they] used to watch when [they] were in kindergarten" (226). These nonchalant references to explicit sexual acts that occasionally pop up throughout the narrative are clear indications of a sexually numb society.
And this quotidian approach to sex is precisely why the true love story of the novel is so super sad. Lenny and Eunice, the authors of the narrative's two epistolary strands, are in many ways totally reprehensible. And yet their love affair thrives, albeit unhealthily, amidst all the dysfunction and dehumanization of their society. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, we should all be so lucky, for as with all great dystopian fiction, the true commentary here is that love can thrive under such similar circumstances in our own world....more
During the first half of this book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The sardonic and morbid wit Ferris employs to convey the absurdly ironic world of a CDuring the first half of this book, I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The sardonic and morbid wit Ferris employs to convey the absurdly ironic world of a Chicago advertising agency floundering in the plunging economy of the early twenty-first century creates a humorous text in the vein of Catch-22. However, as with Heller's novel, I found myself worrying about the sustainability of such a tone for a long novel like this. Where Heller refocuses his text through the fragmentation of chronology, Ferris instead shifts tone at exactly the right moment. Midway through his book, his narration moves from pure satire to a moving focus on a character who has until that moment been purely peripheral (as most characters in this book are). A shift in tense signifies the change in style and this beautiful portion of the book provides an important weight to Ferris's work. The second half of the book melds the two tones, culminating in a brilliant plot device that some might view as heavy-handed but in the context of these postmodern shifts in perspective is actually quite brilliant. The final chapter of the book marks a return to the gorgeous and important tones of that midpoint chapter, and I found myself near tears in those closing pages....more
A few months ago I was complaining to a friend that all the really "epic" contemporary books out there, the ones that leave your head spinning becauseA few months ago I was complaining to a friend that all the really "epic" contemporary books out there, the ones that leave your head spinning because you can't fathom how the author so elegantly keeps so many plates spinning at once, are all written by white men, novels from authors like John Irving and Richard Russo. This friend then told me I simply had to read White Teeth, which she felt fit the bill and is written by a black woman.
The opening of the novel left me totally satisfied. After the first few chapters though, my delight waned with a slight feeling of confusion due to Smith's tunneling technique of connecting present to past, minor character to major. Once I had acclimated myself to her style though, I quickly regained my earlier excitement. As I dove deeper into the text, I found hints of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Joseph Heller's Catch-22 in Smith's biting critique of everything that makes up Western society and a mixture of nods to other classic and popular samples of British literature. The literary equation she lays out is an interesting blend of risque imagery, offensive humor, and heart-breaking realities.
Many friends warned me that the ending "jumped the shark" a bit, and I have to agree that I was right there with Smith up until the final page, where I found myself wondering, "Where's the rest of the ending?" The journey there though was really fantastic, and I am anxious to read more of Smith's work!...more
At first this book was a total joy to read. The satirical elements of the opening chapters are both hilarious and biting. Haroun's father, kindly refeAt first this book was a total joy to read. The satirical elements of the opening chapters are both hilarious and biting. Haroun's father, kindly referred to "the Shah of Blah" and "the Ocean of Notions" is a renowned professional storyteller, often hired by politicians to incongruously garner constituents' support via his fictional tales. In the first chapter, Haroun questions his father's vocation, repeating a miserly neighbor's question: "What's the use of stories that aren't even true?" The question both resonates with Haroun's mother, who leaves his father to run off with the pragmatic neighbor, and establishes the central theme of the novel: What is the purpose of fiction? Soon thereafter, the Shah of Blah loses his ability to tell stories, and Haroun embarks on a fantastic voyage to literally restore his father's flow of creativity.
Once the story plunges into pure fantasy, however, taking Haroun (and later his father) into another world full of imaginative creatures and elements no less satirical than those from earlier in the book, the text goes a bit too far for my tastes, simply because the characters are so outlandish (a giant fish made up of millions of little fish, a gardener made up of flowers and vines) that it's difficult to keep straight what is what and who is who. (For that reason though, I think this would actually be a great book to teach!)...more
This book came heavily recommended from someone whose view on books I usually trust wholeheartedly, and I was pleased upon my initial reading. From thThis book came heavily recommended from someone whose view on books I usually trust wholeheartedly, and I was pleased upon my initial reading. From the outset, Kennedy Toole paints a hilariously depressing portrait of American life, which I think is what earned this novel the Pulitzer Prize back in the early 80s. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is an obese esoteric hypocrite, and his endeavors throughout the novel to avoid work and effect political change are still relevant nearly three decades after the book was first published. Ignatius is that quintessential American stereotype, spending far too long in college and then refusing to work because no job suits his level of education. (He also lives at home with his beleaguered mother in New Orleans, spending his hours "abusing" himself sexually and jotting down notes on a yellow tablets of paper that he assumes will eventually all be published as some genius manifesto.)
As with most good satire, much of the book is highly offensive. And as with most offensive humor, I didn't take too much notice of how offensive it was until it hit close to home. At one point, Ignatius meets a "degenerate" homosexual in the French Quarter and lights upon the brilliant idea that if gays took over the political establishment and the military, he could easily effect world peace. He says to himself, "'The power-crazed leaders of the world would certainly be surprised to find that their military leaders and troops were only masquerading sodomites who were only too eager to meet the masquerading sodomite armies of other nations in order to have dances and balls and learn some foreign dance steps.'" Ignatius then progressed to organize a political movement of New Orleans homosexuals, of which at the initial rally he encounters hostility in the form of three brutish lesbians relegated to the kitchen because they don't know how to have as much fun as their male counterparts, as well as further insult when he unplugs a record player supplying the Ethel Merman soundtrack to the party. (Oh, and there is a basement with a shackled young man dressed as a sailor.)
This is the sort of fodder upon which Kennedy Toole draws for his humor, and nearly every element is equally disparaged. Taking a step back, I can see the hypocrisy exposed by his stereotypical treatment of these characters, and it is somewhat depressing and shocking. The treatment of black characters in this book is especially interesting given the events with their real life counterparts in New Orleans over the past few years. And this is where A Confederacy of Dunces earns its five stars with me. I find it just as compelling and humorous as Heller's Catch-22, and that novel is enshrined as a paragon of satire. This book is definitely a nice departure from the usually depressing verisimilitude of the novels I typically read, and I'm so glad it was recommended to me!...more