Book Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is the tale of Mae Holland, a girl from the ‘burbs, burdened with college debt and a sick father, who blags a job at the world’s biggest internet company, The Circle, and begins to play her part in controlling the world and its data. In essence, The Circle is about the internet coming to eat us; Dave Eggers’ stern warning to the world of the fate that awaits us if we don’t get off Facebook.

The Circle is a terrifying amalgamation of Facebook, Google, Twitter and your bank details. It’s a Circle of Hell in cosy jumpers. It sounds like the Worst Place on Earth to work, like an Innocent smoothie bottle come to life with the face of Steve Jobs and ping pong tables under each arm. It’s Google run by Kim Jong-un, a scary mix of touchy-feeliness and totalitarianism.

Plot wise The Circle goes round and round. Not a lot happens; Mae gets increasingly embroiled in the inner workings of company, she’s given more computer screens, chums up with the Three Wise Men (the company’s CEOs), shacks up with some dubious sorts and falls out with her parents and her ex.

Eggers’ heavy satire and narrative rely on Mae being a complete moron. Fortunately, she’s happy to oblige, her young brain frizzled by a lifetime of status updates, pictures of her dinner and emoticons. Her parents’ health care and her desire to never go back to the grey-tinged dullness of her first office job in her hometown offer us an idea as to why she’s so crazy about this sinister company and why, beyond the odd raised eyebrow at the beginning, she never asks questions. But I wasn’t convinced as to how easily she was sucked in; where was her early 20-something cynicism? Why did she love her really tedious work so much? Why did she not think the people she was working with were humourous idiots?

The Circle tells a story that is uncomfortably close to our own world. I felt my anxiety levels rise as the computer monitors mounted on Mae’s desk and the relentless stream of zings, smiles, frowns, customer queries and questionnaires began. It is in places a very funny book. Sending frowns to military organisations in Africa in an attempt to shame them into stopping their atrocities made me chortle (sorry, LOL) and the rather unfortunate incident with her parents, the bedroom and a camera added a toe-curling, humourous touch.

The Circle is a fun read with an all too realistic vision, but its satire is little too heavy-handed. Orwell’s 1984’s dystopian nightmare was so futuristic that his vision of a totalitarian state gave us enough space for his message to strike a cord. Orwell would not have needed an over-extended, clunky metaphor about a transparent, rare shark kept in a Circle fish tank that eats everything in its way to help us understand that the internet had become an evil Pacman.

One of the scariest things about this novel is that a man (Mae’s father) with MS is denied the health care he needs as he’s unable to pay for it. Already a reality in the States, when the Coalition have done dismantling the NHS, it’s also our nightmare future. And this, even more than the monolithic internet is what I’ll have sleepless nights about.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

So let’s meet the Middlesteins, this year’s book club bait, 2013’s The Help, a well written novel with An Issue and a messy American family at its flabby core.

In Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins we swap race for that very modern problem, obesity, one that 300 plus pound Edie Middlestein’s (née Herzen) immigrant parents were never in a position to suffer from, but who inadvertently taught their only daughter that food is the world’s greatest comfort blanket.

We first meet Edie age five, demanding her laden-down mother carry her already heavy body up the stairs. When her stubbornness ends in  tears and bruised fingers, Edie’s tantrum is only stemmed by warm rye bread. Edie doesn’t get a lot more endearing as the years pass and the pounds creep on.

Fast forward fifty plus years and we’re in the present day where, on the eve of a second operation to fix her diabetes ravaged leg, Edie’s husband Richard leaves her. Their children, Benny and sulky Robin take their sides (Robin in her mum’s corner, Benny on the fence, his wife, Rachelle also on team Edie).  Everyone agrees that Edie is “hard to love, but worth loving”, but I felt sorry for sad old, emotionally vacuous Richard. Edie we’re told is larger than life, hilarious, warm, the life and soul, but we’re only told this, mostly we see the side of her that Richard fled from, the short-tempered, intolerant, impatient Edie. For such a big character, in every way, she lay rather flat on the page, her head seemingly full of food, her only concern the call of the fridge.

Jami Attenberg doesn’t try too hard to delve into the psychological reasons behind Edie’s chronic overeating, although throughout the novel, food is equated with love, as well as safety and sanctuary. But food is also a punishment, a false friend and, even on one occasion, a missile (a metaphor?!) We all have our vices, Attenberg seems to be saying, (booze, weed, sex, smoking being just a few of the Middlesteins’), the only problem is that Edie’s bad habit has set off a timebomb in her body and it’s tearing her family apart.

Each chapter is told in the third person from the point of view of each character. One particularly good chapter is narrated from the point of view of  three of the Middlesteins’ closest friends, the Cohns, Grodsteins and Weinmans that’s a wonderfully woven triple-double header, entwining six voices as one with great skill. The future is often reflected in the present day narrative, we know the characters’ fates before they do and are given the satisfaction of leaving them when the book ends and knowing where they end up.

The Middlesteins is a pacey, well written novel that combines lots of Great American Novel themes while maintaining a deft, light touch and gentle humour that make it such a page turner, if more of a – very tasty – oeuvre derves to bigger, meatier books.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

The Day of the Locusts

Nathanael West (1903-1940) – original name Nathan von Wallenstein Weinstein – was an American writer who died in a car crash at thirty-seven. He published four novels, wrote several screenplays and two short stories.

Why have I never heard of The Day of the Locust before? It’s a cult classic! It’s referenced in a Manics song! There’s a character called Homer Simpson in it who Matt Groening may or may not have named a certain yellow cartoon character after.

Written in 1939, The Day of the Locust reads like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as narrated by the bastard child of Holden Caulfield and Nick Carraway as it follows a bunch of off-the-wall characters in a Hollywood on the brink of self-destruction. At the centre of this storm of lunacy is the level-headed and naive set-designer Tod Hackett whose infatuation with the beautiful, vacuous aspiring actor Faye Greener draws him into a world littered with monosyllabic cowboys, angry dwarves and flirtatious Mexicans.

The narrative is rather disjointed; most of the novel is seen through the eyes of Tod, but West occasionally strays and skips from protagonist to protagonist using only a pronoun. There was more than one sentence that I had to re-read before I could make sense of who or what he was referring to. West also frequently plunges the reader into a baffling scenario – a moving pile of clothes; a sudden desert in the middle of the city; an 18th century battle outside Tod’s window – with no immediate explanation, presumably to convey the alien and alienating world of Hollywood. The distant, unsympathetic tone of the novel – and Tod’s detached, analytical voice – highlights the coldness and heartlessness of an artificial Hollywood and its inhabitants. West was good friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while the world he writes about in The Day of the Locust is far removed from Fitzgerald’s East Coast crowd, there’s that same feeling of a naive narrator becoming involved in a world he doesn’t belong in or understand until it’s too late.The result is surreal, funny, moving and horrifying. A cockfight towards the end of the novel was one of the most gruesome things I’ve ever read (and, no, I haven’t read American Psycho). The image of the dying bird was brutal, but there’s no judgment cast by the author or the characters. Poor old wet Homer is the only one to show any emotion, and even then it’s not much more than a flinch.

Like Hollywood itself, this isn’t a novel with much soul, but it’s a hugely entertaining satire on a world that we still very much recognise.
by Suzanne Elliott