#13) Dave Eggers’ The Circle and Heroes of the Frontier

heroesDave Eggers is the author of ten novels, four short story collections, five works of nonfiction, and three screenplays. His titles include A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), What is the What (2006), and both novel and film versions of Where the Wild Things Are (2009).  He is the editorial mind behind The Believer and McSweeney’s. This week we consider two of his more recent novels, The Circle (2013) and Heroes of the Frontier (2016).

Matt:

Dave Eggers’ Heroes of the Frontier is about what happens when you try to get away from society. It centers on Josie, a (kind of) single mom who leaves behind her dental practice, takes her kids to Alaska, rents an RV, and drives around avoiding wildfires and flirting with total isolation.

Eggers’ The Circle is about what happens when you give yourself over to society completely. It centers on Mae, an employee at a Google-type company that insists on constant “engagement” and online interaction (“Sharing is Caring”; “Privacy is Theft”).

I liked both novels, but The Circle touched me more. It’s in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World, but it deals with newer phenomena – the social surveillance (and self-surveillance) we experience on social media. I often feel a ton of discomfort on Facebook, etc., but I feel sheepish about saying so – aren’t these just benign tools for connecting with friends and acquaintances? Aren’t I a little spazzy for feeling so claustrophobic? No, says Eggers. There’s way more going on than that. We aren’t built to interact in these ways, and we make ourselves crazy when we spend too much time trying to.

Eric:

It didn’t really occur to me that the books were opposites until you pointed it out. The one is very much about total escape and the other about total integration. Perhaps appropriately, I had the opposite reaction – Heroes resonated with me much more than Circle. There are some things I can say about that, but maybe it’s more interesting to hear first about your Facebook claustrophobia. What’s up?

Matt:

Facebook feels to me like living inside a pinball machine – except all the flippers and blinking lights and spinning balls are the people you know, and Facebook is shouting at you about all of them, all at once. I feel something similar on YouTube; their suggested videos are so well-curated that I literally lose muscle control – my eyes scan hungrily over each of the thumbnails and headlines, pulled along much faster than I’m capable of processing. I don’t even try to stop myself anymore – I just wait until I’ve looked at all the headlines and then try to rip my eyes from the screen and remember why I was there in the first place.

So maybe I described it wrong. I’m not worried about them surveilling me; I don’t have too many secrets. It’s more that these sites are astonishingly good at stealing my self-awareness from me, at getting me to act much faster than I can reflect.

Eric:

I get that. The Circle speaks to that anxiety, and even more to the ways that social media monitors your tastes and uses that data for market research and customization. Also the inane ubiquity of likes, shares, and follows, among other forms of phony connection. That’s the sort of thing that drove me from Twitter, and the sort of thing that soured me on blogging. Maybe it’s also why I didn’t really enjoy the book. If I find this stuff irritating in daily life, why would I want to subject myself to 500 pages of it?

I think I’d rather free myself from all of it, and maybe move to Alaska. I get the attraction, anyway. I’m surprised you weren’t more into Heroes.

Matt:

I was initially, but then I started to feel the way I feel in a lot of Eggers’ books – that after he’s squeezed the best, most interesting, most revealing material out of his characters’ wild impulses, he keeps pushing them into this zone of wishfulness and denial. He’s so good at expressing a yearning for escape, flight, triumph, and transcendence; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was my favorite book for a long while. But here, as Josie drove deeper into the wilderness – and closer to the fires that genuinely endangered her kids – I felt less moved by her courage and more impatient with her unwillingness to acknowledge reality.

On the other hand, I appreciated the shit out of Eggers’ sympathy toward her. I think he genuinely loves people – real ones, fictional ones, blends. Sure, Josie didn’t make perfect decisions, either for herself or her kids. But she was doing her best, and for long stretches of the book, it made me feel like doing my best might be good enough, too.

Eric:

One of the consistent themes that seems to be arising across our posts is this shared interest in how literature prompts us to empathize with others. Since this happens through the mediation of the author, success or failure depends on how well the story is told. And I agree with you about both Eggers and Josie – he has her making a lot of very suspect decisions, but then he also makes those decisions intelligible by situating them within the very strange context of her tumultuous life. You still may not agree with them, but they are at least more difficult to judge.

My gripe with The Circle is that I don’t think Eggers achieves the same effect with Mae. She seems to me a pretty flat character, incapable of any real resistance, and so also incapable of inspiring much sympathy from the (this) reader. She is caught up in the technocratic spirit of the age, which is fine, but she is also far too quick to embrace the cultish conformity that surrounds her.

That cultish conformity, by the way, is laid on really thick. The 1984-ishness of the story actually becomes a little distracting. The creepy slogans – “privacy is theft” – are so creepy that the universal support they receive from Circle employees places a heavy burden on one’s suspension of disbelief.

(This much is clear from the history of Facebook, which is punctuated by collective panics about privacy settings and surveillance. People in the US tend to be skeptical – even paranoid – about any sort of Big Brothering. They might accept it on false pretenses, or submit themselves to it gradually and through apathy, but they don’t cheer it on.)

Maybe that is the major difference between the books, at least as I read them – Heroes features a main character whose strange decisions I can (ultimately) understand in the context of her experience, while Circle does not. The main reason why it does not, I think, is that it’s too preachy – it’s a little too intent on indicting present day life in Silicon Valley as a real-life, present-day, dystopian future. Or do you disagree?

Matt:

Man, I love just about everything you’ve just said, and I agree with just about all of it. A thought: I think one could read The Circle as an indictment of present-day Silicon Valley or as a warning about the very near future. You read it as the former, whereas I think I saw his portrait of the company as self-consciously overdone – a slight exaggeration designed to show us where we’re headed.

Then again, I think “privacy is theft” does capture something that feels more and more pervasive in the culture – a sense that sharing (photos, details of our lives, whatever) is the default, and that anything else needs to be argued for. Now, if you actually came out and announced, “Privacy is theft!” then I agree: not many people would sign up. But if we were to examine our behavior – or our hearts – I’m not sure it’d be so clear.

Eric:

I think this nods toward an even more basic question about how (or whether) a novel can advance a social critique without drowning under its weight.

For example, it seems significant to me that Heroes is set within a whirling maze of forest fires. In telling a story about a family, Eggers is also making a pretty basic observation about the environment and our collective failure to protect it. Each summer the West seems to dry out and burn more broadly than the summer before, and we continue stubbornly to ignore or downplay the implications. It’s a point that needs making. But this setting also stands in as a metaphor for the confusion and frustration and rapid consumption burning up Josie’s life. There is a certain subtly at work – it succeeds because it makes sense in the context and needs no belaboring.

In The Circle, Eggers beats the point into bloody submission. Whether his vision references the present or the not-too-distant future, it can’t achieve the same seemingly effortless success – it’s trying far too hard.

The action in Heroes of the Frontier is further refined by having a title like Heroes of the Frontier, which evokes a different time and different heroes, but features a single mother and her two kids driving around Alaska in a crappy RV. The risks they run prompt their heroism, which itself comments subtly on the social conditions of this time on these new frontiers.

The Circle maybe could have achieved something like this – with respect to the title – but Eggers basically just explains everything in the exposition. His characters tell you what you need to know. In the process, they tell you where it’s all going to go wrong. Since you can see it coming, it’s harder to sympathize with them when they don’t. (Dumbasses).

Matt:

Yeah, I think you’re nailing something there with Heroes, and it’s something that Eggers has cared about since the very beginning: his characters often want to live heroically, in a time and place where opportunities for heroism aren’t obvious.

I’m just finishing The Odyssey for the first time, and man, the contrast between Homer’s world and Josie’s world couldn’t be stronger. So what does heroism look like when you’re a dentist cleaning old people’s crown molars in small-town Ohio, stuck in a relationship with a dude who narrates his own shits, and fending off petty lawsuits?

Maybe here’s a better way to say it: Eggers’ characters are often seeking ways to live with dignity, and since even that doesn’t always seem available, Eggers describes their small moments of victory in hilariously Homeric terms.

(One of the funniest scenes I’ve ever read is in You Shall Know Our Velocity; these two guys are stumbling around Africa, trying to give away the little bit of money that one of them earned from illustrating an advertisement. At one point, they put some money into a paper pouch and then tape it to a donkey. On the pouch, they scrawl: “HERE I AM ROCK YOU LIKE A HURRICANE.”)

It’s self-consciously ridiculous, but it gets at something very real, I think – a desire to live on a big, even epic scale. (These days, young people use the word “epic” all the time, but it’s usually ironic. What would real epic-ness look like?) You see it in some of Eggers’ titles, too: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; You Shall Know Our Velocity; How We Are Hungry; A Hologram for the King; Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

In Heartbreaking Work, the young Eggers – he’s the narrator – reaches for this stuff a little too single-mindedly. His parents have both just died, he’s in charge of raising his little brother, and he’s full of resentment and anger and fear. But he’s also full of joy and zest; there’s an awesome scene where he diagrams the opportunities for triumphant sock-sliding in their kitchen. And I think that’s something he’s always been on about – this sense that life can feel heroic, even when it looks pretty mundane from the outside.

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About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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