Since they sometimes overlook reality in the name of something “good” that they are a part of, optimism and hope have a comical aspect. In certain scenarios, however, overlooking such things can have negative and even tragic consequences. The blindspots we have, if they deal with fundamental things, like the importance and meaning of privacy and freedom are a case in point. In the enthusiasm for a utopian kind of project, which promises to transform reality or in which a transformation is actually coming out, there may be a blindness to the meaning of freedom and privacy. We see this especially, today, in our head-over-heels love for facebook, google, and social networking. We are in the midst of a major change in social life in America (and around the world) and we haven’t yet figured out the stakes with respect to freedom and secrecy. We are all to happy to give away our information and make our private life public.
In the last blog entry on David Eggers’ last novel – The Circle – I discussed the often overlooked fact that the novel has comic elements. Although these moments are few and far between, they are very special because they involve a kind of optimism and utopian hope that overlook the meaning of privacy and freedom. The author calls the two main characters out on being naïve fools in the beginning of the novel and so does an old boyfriend of one of the characters (Mae) named Mason.
As I pointed out in the last blog entry, the narrator of Eggers novel makes the comic blindness of these characters evident in the very beginning of the novel. Annie, who gets Mae into “The Circle” (a name for a company like Google), is the first to be comically profiled:
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)
She is also described as a “scattershot” and a “ridiculous person” who carries around a “piece of her childhood blanket around with her in her pocket.” But Annie is not alone. The narrator tells us that most of the three people who founded the circle also have this aspect. He brings this out in his description of a painting of all three of them which is, more or less, a caricature that they may be blind to but the narrator is not:
The painting was awkward, the kind of thing a high school artist might produce. In it, the three men, the founders of the company, were arranged in a pyramid, each of them dressed in their best-known clothes, wearing expressions that spoke, cartoonishly, of their personalities. Ty Gospodinov, the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, was wearing nondescript glasses and an enormous hoodie, staring leftward and smiling; he seemed to be enjoying some moment, alone, turned into some distant frequency. People said he was borderline Asperger’s, and the picture seemed intent on underscoring the point. (19)
Ty, the narrator tells us, also sees himself as a kind of outsider, oddball: “Ty realized he was, at best, socially awkward, and at worst an utter interpersonal disaster”(20). He hired the “other two Wise Men, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton” to balance him out. Ty designs the core of the Circle’s system which is called “TruYou” which sounds a lot like Google Plus. In this novel, the Google system is portrayed as something that streams all of one’s bills, identities, accounts, etc into one system:
One account, one identity, one password, one payment system, per person. There were no more passwords, no multiple identities. Your devices knew who you were, and your one identity – the Tru you, unbendable and unmaskable. (21)
While the owner, Ty, and his partners, taken together, may look cartoonish, this system is utterly serious, powerful, and a force on its own. It takes on a kind of moral, disciplinary force: “TruYou changed the internet, in toto, within a year….the True You wave a was tidal and crushed all meaningful opposition. It started with the commerce sites….Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less taken over the internet, were driven back into darkness”(22). The narrator makes sure to mention that TruYou “subsumed” all social media: “Facebook, Twitter, Google, and finally Alacrity, Zoopa, Jefe and Quan”(23).
This new system, TruYou, has the goal of creating total transparency. It will eliminate “identity theft” and unfair and prejudiced practices on the internet. And Ty, in his utopian awkwardness, believes this will be good for everyone and make society a place devoid of crime and malice which, to his mind, are based on hiding things from others.
Following these serious descriptions of TruYou, the narrator completes his description of the other two Wisemen in the picture. Emaon Bailey, “standing next to him (Ty) in the painting, semmed utterly at peace, joyful even”(24). He smiles a lot. His whole body seems to smile: “When he smiled, which was near-constantly, his mouth smiled, his eyes smiled, his shoulders seemed to smile. He was wry. He was funny”(24). Bailey likes to play “Dixieland trombone”(24).
The last of the Three Wisemen is Tom Stenton. Of the three, he is the most serious. He is “unabashed about being wealthy, about being single and aggressive and possibly dangerous”(23). The law and the government don’t stand in his way: “He was unafraid of presidents. He was not daunted by the lawsuits from the European Union or threats from state-sponsored Chinese hackers”(24).
Taken together the three of them create an odd image as of “mismatched flowers” but in the end the image of them together “worked”: “The three of them, in life and in this portrait, made for a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers, but there was no doubt that it worked”(25). But, the more Mae looked at the image, “the stranger it became.” She, who is also called a fool by the narrator, at the very least notices that there is something odd about this image that may “work” but not for her. She can’t put her finger on it:
The artist had arranged it such that each of the Wise Men had placed a hand on another’s shoulder. It made no sense and defied the way arms could bend or stretch. “Bailey thinks it’s hilarious,” Annie said. “He wanted it in the main hallway, but Stenton vetoed him”(26).
As Annie leads Mae up to their secret room, she sees all kinds of comical things that are juxtaposed to things that are utterly serious. The juxtaposition gives one a sense how, behind all of these smiles and comical gestures, there is something sinister lurking, something they aren’t aware of in their absent-minded (though apparently noble) utopian idealism.
…..to be continued…