I just read the new Dave Eggers book, The Circle . It started out a little slow, but then it became a page-turner. I plowed through it in two days, thinking a lot about the characters and the ideas, and when it was done, I missed having it to read.
I liked the book a lot. It got to me.
The “Circle” is a company something like Google + Twitter + Facebook. They’re working to take over the world, ultimately controlling all information and all elections, and making it impossible (and illegal) for anyone to be offline. The main character is Mae Holland. She starts out as something of a free spirit, but she’s also ambitious, a striver, and very much a people pleaser. And by the end, she’s a self-deluding and heartless zealot. You empathize with her, pity her, and end by despising her—which is just what you’re supposed to do. The book is something of a moral fable.
Being a science fiction writer, I’m interested in the fact that The Circle is a science fiction novel by a mainstream writer, and it’s being marketed as a general audience book. Not that these general audience books use the “SF” genre label. They’re “visionary,” “speculative,” “dystopic,” “novels of the near future,” and so on.
[Happy moment for a writer. Sitting on a hillside with a manuscript to correct.]
I’d been wondering what exactly to call these books. I don’t necessarily want a bitter, negative word for them…I don’t want to be like a crusty old-time Mission hipster throwing rocks at a Google bus. So I posed the what-do-you-call-these-books question on Facebook, and a person with the screen name “Post Script” coined what I think a the perfect word. Gengen.
Gengen is a cozy word, pleasant to say, and this is important for a new coinage. I see the gengen move as working in two directions. The name can be read either as “general audience genre” book, or “genre book that’s broken out to a general audience.” It isn’t inherently disparaging to either side. You can be an SF writer moving onto the general shelves, as William Gibson has done and as Kurt Vonnegut did before him.. Or you can be a denizen of the general shelves, safe in your position, wanting to get wild and write a genre book—like Margaret Atwood, Gary Shteyngart, Jonathan Lethem, Chang-Rae Lee, and nnow Dave Eggers.
(By the way, re. “gengen,” someone might protest that there are other genres besides SF. That’s fine, and if someone wants to have a gengen discussion about the detective or romance or western genres, sure, why not. Gengen is a type of move, a sidling between the genre ghetto and the shopping street. But it’s gengen SF that I’m talking about in this post, and often as not I’ll just call them gengen for short.)
There’s more and more gengen books these days—the SF mode has acquired a trendiness, a cachet. And really that’s good. I like reading SF books, and if they’re gengen by a talented writer, so much the better.
[View from the poetry room in City Lights Books.]
Of course, some pro SF writers might jeer, “The Brahmins are wading in the funky Ganges where we hardcore SF sadhus have wallowed for, lo, these many years.” Or, “Are we lowly science-fiction pros expected to be grateful when a mainstream writer stoops to filch a bespattered icon from our filthy wattle huts?” Not, harrumph, that I would ever say those kinds of things. Yes, I do write literary SF, and I don’t get much recognition in the general market, but I don’t want to be all bitter and resentful about this, at least not all the time. Today I want to talk about gengen and about Eggers’s excellent The Circle.
In discussing gengen, critics often namecheck Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. And there’s much of Brave New World in The Circle.
Mae and her Circle bosses formulate three sayings that could have been lifted directly from 1984: “A Secret is a Lie.” “Sharing Is Caring.” “Privacy Is Theft.”
The Circle does lack certain things—I’m thinking of cyberpunk flash, wild SFnal speculations, and rollicking laugh-out-loud humor. But that’s not what Eggers was trying to do, so there’s no point bugging him about it. The Circle totally nails the points that he wanted to hit. Like the pious holier-than-thou and insanely-naive attitude of techies who want to run everyone’s lives and have everyone be so much better and cleaner than humans are meant to be. They even use that old line, “Why would you want privacy unless you have something you want to hide?” And there’s a cutting riff on the self-aggrandizement of a cubicle-dweller who feels brave because she “liked” someone’s strongly political post. And Eggers really gets the brutal, brutal work schedule of computer types.
My mind was blown by a couple of scenes where Mae goes into zombie-mode feeding-frenzy bloodlust-clicking-frenzy and spends hours or even a whole night working the social sites, building up her rankings, raising her various virtual scores, all of these scores being precise numbers you understand—Eggers goes ape on this, and has a one-or-two-page paragraph where every clause contains a number that Mae is pumping for better job security and higher self esteem.
And reading those scenes, I was repelled, but also, I had to think, “My god, this is me. I do this.” Obsessively spinning from Twitter to Facebook to email to my iPhone messages to the work on my new blog post to the latest tweaks of the HTML on my umpteen webpages, then back to Twitter to Facebook to… I’ve spent whole days like this, lost in the clicks, returning to each site over and over, hungry for comments, for Likes, for reviews, for response…
I think of a pigpen that my friends and I used to enjoy visiting at the Rutgers Agricultural School campus, back when I was in grad school at Rutgers in 1970, a tidy pen, with a feeding-trough at the near end, and a hinged metal flap over the trough, and every so often a pig would come to the trough and nose up the flap, the younger ones did this more often, and usually there wouldn’t be anything in the trough, and the lid would click on the way up and then clank back down. No mail. No comments. No likes. Click clank. Or maybe there’s one left-over nugget of chow. Great streamers of saliva. Possibly an exultant squeal.
Another thing in The Circle that got to me was that Mae starts out with a pantheistic or nature-worshipping side to her. She likes to kayak out into the San Francisco Bay, enjoying the company of the watchful seals, loving the light on the water, even exploring a deserted little island by night, wholly in the now, fully analog, not even thinking of checking her phone.
That’s when I loved Mae the most, when she was doing these kinds of things that I myself place great value on, getting outside and into nature, and leaving all the computer crap behind. I’m sure Eggers himself has this side to him, or he wouldn’t have been able to evoke it so movingly. And then—what a bummer—the Circle bureaucrats kind of crush Mae for going offline like this. And from here on in her personality is pretty much destroyed. She loses her contact with the natural world—and she loses her soul. Echoing Winston Smith in 1984.
So yeah, The Circle is a great book. Viva gengen.
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