When I first picked up David Eggers’ recent novel, The Circle, I had no idea that the novel had any comic elements. To be sure, the majority of reviews suggested that the book was dystopian from start to finish. I was expecting something very grim. But, strangely enough, Eggers includes comic elements. What has not been sought after by any review or reflection I have read is the meaning of these comic elements. I’d like to venture, in a series of blog entries, a sketch of how one can read the presence of comedy in such a novel.
The Circle is a novel that hits home. It speaks to an age that is dominated by Google, Facebook, and Social Networking. Since we are in the midst of rapid shifts in the way we think and do things by virtue of social media and incredible new technology (computers, smart phones, tablets, etc), it’s very hard for us to reflect on what is happening to us. We are changing. We don’t think in the same ways. What does all this mean and how do we reflect on this? Fiction, to my mind, is one of the best mediums that we can use to explore and address the polyvalent meanings of this shift-in-progress. We can see ourselves through characters who are not-ourselves but are strangely similar to us. This is especially prescient when the characters in this novel are in hub of the social-networking business.
Through the two main characters, Annie and Mae (who are both fresh out of college), Eggers explores the hypothetical idea that is floating around most of our heads: what would it be like if I were to get a job at Google or Facebook? One can imagine the prestige and power that goes along with a job that puts one in a company that is virtually changing the way we look at ourselves and the world. It’s very exciting.
Eggers brings this excitement out in the fact that the two main characters, as I mentioned above, just left college. As one can imagine, they are hopeful and eager to be a part of something that has the capability of changing the world for the good. This is a serious endeavor (and adventure). It seems as if comedy has no place.
However, throughout the novel there is laughter and joking around. What Eggers does is to make that laughter uncanny. He suggests that we pay closer attention to this laughter by virtue of the fact that, at one point in the novel, when he first introduces her, he describes Annie as a “dufus.” And, by way of another character who is not immersed in the world of social networking, we hear Mae described as a “dork.” Reading these descriptions, one wonders if they should not be applied to just these two characters but to the members of the circle and perhaps ourselves.
Of the two, it is Annie who gets Mae into “The Circle.” And it is her description which should be of great interest to us because she is the character who we would all like to be: someone who goes from college to a place like Google or Facebook and rises to the top of the command. However, the description of her is not enviable. She’s a “doofus.”
There was a time, only four years ago, when Annie was a college student who wore men’s flannel housepants to class, to dinner, on causal dates. Annie was what one of her boyfriends, and there were many, called a doofus. But she could afford to be. She came from money, generations of money, and was very cute, dimpled and long-lashed, with hair so blond it could only be real. She was known by all as effervescent, seemed incapable of letting anything bother her for more than a few moments. But she was also a doofus. She was gangly, and used her hands wildly, dangerously when she spoke, and was given to bizarre conversational tangents and strange obsessions – caves, amateur perfumery, doo-wop music. (13)
The narrator goes on to describe her as a woman-child of sorts. She is a “scattershot and ridiculous person, who still carried a piece of her childhood blanket around in her pocket”(14). He muses, confusedly, about how such a person had “risen so quickly and high through the circle? Now she was a part of forty most crucial minds of the company – the Gang of 40 – privy to its most secret plans and data. That she could push through the hiring of Mae without breaking a sweat”(14).
All of this troubles the narrator because he can’t understand how a “doofus” like Annie could rise to such heights. Something is peculiar about this and his use of a comical descriptor suggests that the reader, like the narrator, should be suspicious. What, after all, does it mean that some of our greatest secrets – circulating on the internet – are in the hands of a “doofus?”
When we meet Mae, however, we think that she is more normal and not a doofus. Mae comes from a less privileged background. Her parents are more blue-collar, her father is dying, and she has a much more realistic sense of reality.
However, something happens to her after she starts working in the company for a few weeks. Her initiation into The Circle prompts her to become obsessed with social media in ways she never was. At work she has three screens that she has to attend to: one for incoming customer service (which she is rated on), one for messages from her supervisors, and one for social media. She must pay attention to every screen. If she neglects any messages – even the social media messages – she is disciplined in some fashion. Moreover, the companies ethos suggests that the knowledge of all things that have ever happened can be beneficial to humanity. Instead of being judged for what a person is, one is judged by the things said online, by algorithms, and comments of people. Being obsessed with this makes her into, what she will later be called by an ex-boyfriend, a dork.
But, as Eggers suggests, there is a difference between a “doofus” and a “dork.” Regardless of the difference (which we will explore in upcoming blog entries), Eggers’ use of comical terms to describe Annie and Mae functions to give us a comical distance from the condition we are immersed in. Where do we fit on this spectrum? What does it mean that we might be a dufus or dork by virtue of being immersed in (or desiring to be immersed in) social media?
….to be continued…..