Category Archives: Books

Squaring The Circle

“Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.”

This boilerplate disclaimer, inserted amidst various other notices on the copyright page of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, is superfluous: nothing in The Circle resembles reality in any way whatsoever.

This book administers a cudgel to the English language, among other ignominies, and, as with all such tragedies, the reader is left with only two options: remain a complicit bystander or stand firm against literary massacre.

I choose the latter. Some books are so terrible that only a review warning away potential readers has the power to absolve oneself of the guilt and self-loathing that accompany the book’s completion.

The Circle is a disaster. It is, on its face, a cautionary tale of the consequences of over-sharing and voluntary self-surveillance in the digital era, but its concerns are so explicitly belabored, its storytelling so juvenile, its characters so obviously proxies for authorial obsession, that the fictional universe is inevitably compromised in favor of absurdist dystopia.

Here, numbers — and everything else — have no meaning. Eggers tosses them around like grains of sand, wholly detached from any sort of significance. (Case in point: employees of the Circle — a thinly-disguised hybrid edition of Facebook, Google, and Twitter — actually count the grains of sand in the Sahara. It takes three weeks.) In one excruciatingly long paragraph, Eggers channels an Excel spreadsheet by quoting 40 separate numbers in mind-numbing fashion:

The total number of stats she was tracking was only 41. There was her aggregate customer service score, which was at 97. There was her last score, which was 99. There was the average of her pod, which was at 96. There was the number of queries handled that day thus far, 221, and the number of queries handled by that time yesterday, 219, and the number handled by her on average, 220, and by the pod’s other members: 198.

If there were even an inkling of a rationale for this numerical inundation, The Circle could have been at least minimally readable. But even the most disinterested reader cannot match Dave Eggers’ apathy for his own figures. In an unsurprising oversight, Eggers describes Mae’s “six weeks she’d been transparent” on page 309, then “the three weeks Mae had been transparent” on the subsequent page.

The raison d’être of the Circle — to vacuum up every conceivable data point on its users in order to better serve advertising and personalized content — is clearly borrowed from contemporary social networks. But this is where the similarities end. Eggers’ heroine, Mae Holland, achieves the Herculean task of appearing more inanimate than the Circle’s villainous algorithms, whose alleged ascendance ostensibly prompted Eggers’ hellscape.

Mae is a human being in only the most technical sense: she has eyes, ears, and a mouth, but virtually everything else suggests a quasi-robotic response to all human interaction coupled with a stunning lack of self-awareness. Mae is essentially a drone, only more predictable and less vulnerable to human emotion.

As the Circle demands ever more of her devotion — in one of the book’s rare highlights, she slowly accumulates workstation computer screens, beginning with two and expanding eventually to nine — Mae rarely betrays any semblance of human resistance, choosing instead to drown her peers’ disapproval in a pool of self-loathing.

If that metaphor sounds overwrought, you’ll have a very difficult time completing The Circle. Which brings me to the eponymous company’s “completion,” the Eggers-ian concept of absolute omniscience that, unfortunately for him, is already comically outdated thanks to Edward Snowden. While Eggers struggles valiantly to elucidate the grave danger of the creeping news feed — a phantom menace that, much like creeping sharia law, dissolves upon closer scrutiny — the nation has moved on to PRISM and XKEYSCORE: apparent mundanities belying great danger, a precise inversion of Eggers.

That is not to say The Circle isn’t terrifying, although certainly not for the reasons intended by its author. I finished the book fearing less for a grim future of autonomous digital overlords and more for the disappearance of the subjunctive tense: “For a moment, the couple watched as Mae maneuvered her way to their barge…as if this was their living room and she their night’s entertainment.”

Elsewhere: “Mercer took a deep breath, and Mae knew he was about to give a speech. If there was a podium before him, he’d be stepping up to it, removing his papers from his sportcoat pocket.”

And again: “He smiled sympathetically at Mae, but with a raised eyebrow, as if there was something about Mae that was perplexing him, something he couldn’t put his finger on.”

It’s almost as if Eggers was not familiar with the English language. In this, at least, he has his creations for company. Remember that ubiquitous movie scene where the bad guy explains his diabolical plan to the horrified hostages before carrying it out? The Circle is a 491-page version of this, right down to the expositional format and preachy condescension.

In one scene, a Circler — novelistic parlance for an employee of the Circle — explains an on-campus sculpture (designed by a literary Ai Weiwei knockoff) to Mae:

I mean, how can the Circle find a way to make the connection between us and our users stronger? To me it’s incredible that this artist, so far away and from such a different world, expressed what was on the minds of all of us here at the Circle? How to do better, do more, reach further, you know? How do we throw our hands through the screen to get closer to the world and everyone in it?

This doesn’t sound like anyone I know, and I work in online advertising. (The dead giveaway: social networks with customer service departments.) The walking dead in Eggers’ universe are categorically immune to warnings of a totalitarian eradication of privacy — their idealistic naiveté thus constituting, to borrow John Oliver’s phrase, “a straw man so large you could burn it in the desert and hold an annoying festival around it.” (Not to mention the fact that Ai, his celebrity-infused dilettantism notwithstanding, became famous for protesting surveillance, not celebrating it.)

Indeed, events of the past week undermined Eggers’ preening concern. Facebook released a study revealing that they had conducted a one-week experiment over two years ago in which approximately 700,000 users were exposed to varying levels of positive and negative posts.

Upon the study’s release, the Internet hordes went wild with speculation and fury. “Facebook and the Ethics of User Manipulation” was one of the kinder headlines. A general consensus coalesced around the idea that involuntary subjection to such an experiment was highly unethical — despite the fact that Facebook’s News Feed is, and has for years been, algorithmically curated based upon criteria that are necessarily highly subjective. Everything on one’s Facebook feed is, to an extent, the result of an experiment.

In short, on many issues we are still closer to much ado about nothing than the other way around. Yet Eggers still inhabits a 1984 world, and his star, Mae Holland, meets an end as self-nullifying as Winston Smith’s: acquiescence to her masters via the betrayal of a lover.

But even in the wake of Snowden’s devastating disclosures, Aldous Huxley’s prophesies ring truer than George Orwell’s. As a social network, the Circle may dull our senses, but it is unlikely to kill us. In fact, Eggers is at his best when conjuring a near-future world in which a frenetic, almost-constant exchange of digital messages — zings, he calls them — drives their senders and receivers into paroxysms of emotional insecurity and self-regret.

This is a society I recognize (as a participant), from the quiet desperation of Like-seeking to the more overt emergence of Internet celebrity as a legitimate vocation. And so I find it truly bizarre that the debate on the vanishing art of the negative book review — recently inflamed by Buzzfeed books editor Isaac Fitzgerald’s categorical disavowal of them — was presaged by Dave Eggers all the way back in the year 2000:

Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a fuckload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

This is precisely the brand of overly-sensitive claptrap Eggers now decries in his novel, many years later: honesty as a casualty of a status-obsessed generation. So do not listen to 2000 Dave Eggers. Go forth, be a critic. Social networks will not destroy you, nor will punishing book reviews.

The same cannot be said of The Circle.

Trusting your translator

houellebecqYesterday I finished reading Michel Houellebecq’s Prix Goncourt-winning novel The Map and the Territory. (Not to be confused with Alan Greenspan’s treatise of the same name.) A rather short book (the paperback version clocks in at 269 pages), it was originally written in French (La carte et le territoire) and translated into English by Gavin Bowd.

It was, in general, an easy read. I wouldn’t place it among my favorites, but then meditations on human deterioration and eventual death — the preoccupations of the Louis CK set, so to speak — were never my forte to begin with.

What caught my attention more, however, was the translation itself. One of the striking features of the novel is the author’s insertion of himself — or some twisted literary version of himself — into the story. Because Houellebecq plays such a central role in the narrative, the book begins to get creative with its references to him. In addition to simply referring to him as Michel Houellebecq, he is alternatively described thusly:

  • “He rang the doorbell and waited for about thirty seconds, and the author of The Elementary Particles came to open the door, wearing slippers, corduroy trousers, and a comfortable fleece of undyed wool.”
  • “‘That’s a magnificent subject, fucking fascinating even, a genuine human drama!’ the author of Platform enthused.”
  • “He hammered on the door for at least two minutes, under a heavy downpour, before Houellebecq came to open it. The author of The Possibility of an Island was wearing gray-striped pajamas that made him vaguely resemble a prisoner in a television series; his hair was ruffled and dirty, his face red, almost with broken veins, and he stank a little.”
  • “Nevertheless, the poet of The Art of Struggle stepped back a meter, just enough to allow Jed to take shelter from the rain, without, however, really giving him access inside.”
  • “‘Just one bottle?’ asked the poet of The Pursuit of Happiness while stretching his neck toward the label.”

After noticing many of these constructs throughout the book, I began to think this was some sort of literary in-joke: Michel Houellebecq using a fictional version of himself to promote his oeuvre. But several elements conspired against this interpretation as I continued reading. First, Houellebecq wasn’t the only author referred to by the titles of his books, thereby eliminating shameless self-promotion as the likeliest explanation.

Secondly, other parts of the book were clunky as well. In the second excerpt above, for example, “enthused” is used to describe Houellebecq’s statement. As the late novelist Elmore Leonard once wrote, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.”

Finally, there were a few tell-tale passages that betrayed the original French lurking just beneath the English translation (even though Gavin Bowd, the translator, is a native Scotsman). One is the following:

Even if he speaks at length about it over several pages, the camera equipment used by Jed had, in itself, nothing very remarkable about it: a Manfrotto tripod, a Panasonic semi-professional cameoscope — which he’d bought for the exceptional luminosity of its sensor, allowing him to film in almost total darkness — and a hard disk of two teraoctets linked to the USB outlet of the cameoscope.

(Emphasis mine.)

“Teraoctet” is, of course, the French translation of “terabyte.” Similarly:

It was the last important decision he had to take in his life, and Jed feared that this time again, as he used to do when encountering a problem on his building site, he would choose to make a clear-cut choice.

(Emphasis mine.)

“Taking” a decision, as opposed to making one, is another quintessential French-ism (from prendre une décision).

Evaluated separately, none of these linguistic tics is particularly noticeable. But the cumulative effect is to cast doubt on the effectiveness of the translation as a whole: The Map and the Territory, obsessed as it is with the distinction between a representation and that which is represented, requires a certain delicacy of language.

Bowd appears to have drawn the line at a literal translation: where the French version referred to Michel Houellebecq as the author of The Elementary Particles, for instance, Bowd apparently did the same in English, every time. But it is entirely unclear to my (decidedly non-fluent in French) eyes whether the true meaning was just as accurately conveyed in English as it was in the original French. Here, too, the map is certainly not the territory.

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My Days of Fire review is now up

I took a look at New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker’s new book, Days of Fire: Bush and Cheney in the White House:

Baker, in his acknowledgments, hopes that readers comprehend “the value in attempting a neutral history of a White House about which almost no one is neutral.” But here he stumbles down the well-worn path of journalists like his colleague (and former Times executive editor) Bill Keller, whose tired defense of reportorial objectivity masks, time and again, their own inevitable — precisely because they are human, not because they are flawed — prejudices.

Chief among Baker’s faux neutralities is his characterization of the CIA’s brutal interrogations, which he fastidiously avoids calling torture. At one point, Baker describes the methodology as “the interrogation program that many called torture.” Elsewhere, a National Security Council press secretary refused to defend “the interrogation program many considered torture.” Later on, Baker writes that Bush “pared back the harsh interrogation techniques that critics called torture,” echoing his earlier characterization of waterboarding as a practice that (ostensibly subjectively) “was deemed torture by the rest of the world.”

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To Blame Everything, Read Here: The Folly of Technological Defeatism

My inner cynic was pleased to discover that the back cover of Evgeny Morozov’s latest book, To Save Everything, Click Here, included a blurb from noted war journalist and scholar David Rieff. The curmudgeonly critic was a professor of mine at Sciences Po in Paris two years ago, and his class was a weekly tour de force of disillusionment with the modern human rights-industrial complex.

In praise of Morozov’s latest effort, Rieff wrote, “Against the reigning consensus — that there is a digital fix for every social and political problem, and that thanks to the technologies that we group together for convenience’s sake as the Internet, the brave new world of the future will be one of endless, limitless improvement in every realm of life — Morozov offers a sophisticated, eloquent, and definitive rebuttal.” This was the Rieff I remembered from my time in grad school, as I heard him wearily repudiate the moralist cri de coeur of peers like Michael Ignatieff and even Bernard Kouchner. It’s the same Rieff I read with great interest in the virtual pages of Foreign Policy, where he took a moment between excoriations of “Kony 2012” and the Singularity movement to dub Morozov “cyber-utopianism’s severest and most eloquent critic.”

That may not be inaccurate. But it is hardly the whole story. A mid-sized hamlet’s worth of straw men make brief cameos in To Save Everything, Click Here, only to be set ablaze by Morozov’s rapid-fire denunciations. Intellectual broadsides are not innately problematic, of course. But like fellow fire-breather Glenn Greenwald — whom Morozov, in his book, dubs “a terrific polemicist…[with] a tendency to overstate his case” — the Belarusian-born author often employs scorched-earth rhetoric against stunning illogic. Continue reading To Blame Everything, Read Here: The Folly of Technological Defeatism

Growing out of guilty pleasures

inferno

 

On an impulse, I recently purchased Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno. Although I admittedly read and enjoyed The Da Vinci CodeAngels and Demons, and The Lost Symbol in the past, this time something irreversible finally seems to have taken place. Yes, in the past I’d already resigned myself to Brown’s eyeroll-inducing italics, smiled at his strained metaphors, even accepted his jarring similes.

But this one may be a bridge too far. File this one under “Oh, The Lengths to Which I Will Go on a Family Vacation.”

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Trouble in cyber-paradise

Yesterday Full Stop published my dual book review of Susan Crawford’s Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age and Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? An excerpt from the essay here:

The consumer as loser is nearly a meme at this point, so thoroughly has the Great Recession imprinted its insignia on the wearied American mindset. Nevertheless, Crawford warns, the consolidation of the American Internet access bottleneck is particularly worthy of hand-wringing. As other advanced economies like South Korea and Japan rocket ahead in embracing fiber-optic connectivity – complete with 1Gbps symmetric data speeds that remain incomprehensible to most Americans – the United States finds itself in the humiliating position of aiming for a minimum national broadband speed of 4Mbps (download-only; 1 Mbps upload) by 2020.

Underlying this technological angst is something deeper, more primal. It is the sense that some right, however virtualized, is being denied by the cartelization of the American telecom space. It is the realization, further still, that our international peers are enjoying the fruits of their justly obtained lightning-speed access while those of us holding American passports are condemned to the endless purgatory that is YouTube’s “loading” spin-wheel.

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Adding to the archives

I’ve just imported all posts from my old blog, 50 Books for 2010. Longtime readers will know this (hello, family), and the rest of you can probably surmise as much from the title, but that blog chronicled my attempt to read — and review — fifty books in 2010. It was a lot of fun, and a lot of work, but until now it had remained on a separate site.

Well, it’s still there, but going forward it’s now right here at The First Casualty too. So you can search through the archives, check out reviews of your favorite books, and so on. And feel free to leave comments on anything you (dis)like! I’ll read and respond to them.

Writing, but only for the love of doing it

Jeffrey Eugenides reminds young writers to stay focused:

To follow literary fashion, to write for money, to censor your true feelings and thoughts or adopt ideas because they’re popular requires a writer to suppress the very promptings that got him or her writing in the first place. When you started writing, in high school or college, it wasn’t out of a wish to be published, or to be successful, or even to win a lovely award like the one you’re receiving tonight. It was in response to the wondrousness and humiliation of being alive. Remember? You were fifteen and standing beside a river in wintertime. Ice floes drifted slowly downstream. Your nose was running. Your wool hat smelled like a wet dog. Your dog, panting by your side, smelled like your hat. It was hard to distinguish. As you stood there, watching the river, an imperative communicated itself to you. You were being told to pay attention. You, the designated witness, special little teen-age omniscient you, wearing tennis shoes out in the snow, against your mother’s orders. Just then the sun came out from behind the clouds, revealing that every twig on every tree was encased in ice. The entire world a crystal chandelier that might shatter if you made a sound, so you didn’t. Even your dog knew to keep quiet. And the beauty of the world at that moment, the majestic advance of ice in the river, so like the progress of the thoughts inside your head, overwhelmed you, filling you with one desire and one desire only, which was to go home immediately and write about it.

What the presidents read

The literary site Full Stop has just posted my short piece on presidential reading lists:

In this golden age of American polarization, it is no surprise that even one’s reading is subject to the scourge of partisan bickering. During this year’s presidential campaign, Amazon.com actually produced an interactive map detailing which states’ customers were buying conservative versus liberal titles and coloring those states red and blue, respectively.

Even politicians are now just as often producers as consumers of the written word: today, penning a flag-waving bildungsroman-esque memoir is nearly a prerequisite for launching a presidential campaign. Obama authored Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope; Mitt Romney wrote No Apologies. If Herman Cain fends off his circling sexual harassment accusers in the dually relevant courts of law and public opinion, perhaps he will release a recipe book of pizza toppings.

Writer meets Roth.

New York writer Julian Tepper served Philip Roth at a deli on New York’s Upper West Side and, seizing the moment, offered the author a copy of his first novel:

He was seated alone at a table, reading on an iPhone and awaiting his check. I approached Roth with less trepidation than I had anticipated, given that in past years, the author’s presence had been enough to make me physically ill and render my hands so shaky that I would drop plates, spill coffee, trip on air. He looked … well, he looked like Roth: ruddy skinned, dark eyes stoical, bushy eyebrows untamed, shoulders back in a noble posture. Against my boss’s orders (I’ve actually signed a piece of paper that said I wouldn’t write about patrons or bother them with things such as my novel, the consequence being my termination … I hope I have a job tomorrow, the child will need diapers!) I keep copies of the novel in a knapsack under the waiter’s station just for moments like these. I tucked one under my arm. With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”

His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”

These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”

Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

After which I went back to work.