Hitler wakes up in a back alley in Berlin in 2011; he can’t figure out what is going on. It is too quiet: no shelling, no shooting, no sirens. The people he meets believe he is a method actor always in part. Soon he is on TV and the people love his rants. One review is headlined: “Loony YouTube Hitler/Fans Go Wild for His Tirades!/The Nation Is Stumped: Is This Humor?”
Hitler misunderstands everything about progress. He attributes as much of it as he can to Aryan brilliance. What is this thing called Vikipedia? Clearly it’s Germanic, with the first part of the name a homage to Viking heritage. What about YouTube? At first he thinks it must be U-Tube, as in the U-boats that served Germany so well in wartime.“I realized at once that I held [a cell phone] in my hands a masterpiece of Aryan creative genius, and all it took was a few swipes of the finger to discover that — of course — the superlative Siemens company had been responsible for the technology that brought this miracle to pass.”
The Shoe of the Roof is a thought-provoking novel about faith and the thin line between madness and reality. Thomas Rosanoff is a brain-research grad student. His father, Dr Rosanoff, is a famous psychiatrist who gained his notoriety by studying his son’s life in great detail and publishing in “The Boy in a Box.” Having a famous father is a double-edged sword for Thomas: he gets away with a lot at the university, but he has to put up with a lot of ribbing. Using his father’s name, Thomas kidnaps three patients from the mental hospital, who think they are Jesus. He wants to experiment with them to prove that bringing them together will cure them. He believes that they will sort out among themselves that three Jesuses can’t exist all at once, and so at least two of them will have to cure themselves of their delusion.
You need to read Shoe to find out what the title means. Also, read Ferguson’s 419; it won a well deserved Giller Prize. There was an excellent Peter O’Toole movie of a similar theme from 1972, The Ruling Class. O’Toole was a British lord who believed he was Jesus. I may be available online.
This slim volume of vignettes, stories and essays are both hilarious and outrageous. In the introduction, Tamaki confesses, “I have no problem admitting that I am a liar at heart. It’s true. I am.” She compares “lies to pearls: they look better strung together in a set.” Of course, the reader knows not which is fiction and which is truth. Some stories are written from the time before she came out as a lesbian, such as, “Reasons to Give a Blow Job,” and after, “The Epil-Lady vs. The Hairy Asian.” An epil pen is used to pull body hair out by its roots.
If you appreciate the ludicrous and aren’t squeamish about sex, you will enjoy this book.
Weird is about the redemptive power of family. At the moment of their births the Weird children were given a blessing, a special power by their grandmother. As time passed the blessings seemed more of a cures than a blessing. The children call it a “blursing.” Lucy never gets lost, Abba never loses hope, Richard is programmed to keep himself safe from harm, Kent is able to defend himself from all threats, and Angie always forgives. On her death bed the grandmother, who the children nicknamed, The Shark, predicated the exact time of her death and stated that if all the children were present that the curses would be lifted. What follows is a madcap race to gather all the sibling and convince them to come for the good of all. The children have been on their own since their father died in a car crash, the body was never found, and the mother slipped into a kind of madness at the loss of her husband.
“It became clear to her that the only thing powerful enough to transform people into brothers and sisters and and mothers and fathers, is the ability to forgive each other. That what really gets handed down from generation to generation isn’t blood or history but the will to forgive.”
The most bizarre bank robbery opens Wife. The the thief, flamboyantly wearing a purple hat, demands from all present in the bank the most sentimental item they possess. Not their money, “It was never about the money.” He receives a watch given to a man by his mother, photo graphs of children, a calculator by the mathematics loving wife of the narrator, a much read copy of The Stranger by Camus, among other precious objects. The thief tells the people he has taken 51 percent of their souls and that they will need to learn to grow them back or they will die. Thus the fable begins and so does the magic realism of this novella. The victims begin to notice strange things happening to them. A woman’s lion tattoo leaps off her leg and proceeds to chase her about the city. A baby fills his diapers with money instead of excrement. A woman wakes to find her husband has turned into a snowman. A man realizes his mother has become small enough to fit in his pocket, but worse, she exponentially multiplies, so that there are dozens of her. The narrator’s wife, Stacey, mother of their toddler, is shrinking at a rate she calculates will mean she will disappear in a matter of days.
At one point, the thief says to the husband: “Perhaps one of the hardest things about having kids is realizing that you love them more than your wife. That it’s possible to love someone more than your wife. What’s worse is that it’s a love you don’t have to work for. It’s just there, indestructible, getting stronger and stronger. While the love of your wife, the one you do have to work at, and work so very hard at, gets nothing. Gets neglected, left to fend for itself. Like a houseplant forgotten on the windowsill.”
Wife is well written and is a quick read. Check it out to find out which victims can grow back their souls and how. Well worth the read.
“It is difficult to recover from an unhappy childhood, but to recover from a sheltered childhood may be impossible.” It is difficult at times to tell if French is a novel or an autobiography. The main character and narrator has the author’s name. Frederic claims he has no recall of his childhood until he is thrown into jail and later into prison for snorting cocaine off the hood of a car out side a Parisian nightclub. It is in the confines of lockup with nothing to do that his memories gradually return to him. Not only his memories but the stories he has heard of his grandparents and great grandparent reaching back to both world wars. He complains bitterly about the confinement, “I’m just a privileged child deprived of his comforts as punishment for his overgrown rich-kid self-indulgence… Do not dismiss my suffering; comfort has been the great struggle of the French ever since the Liberation.” and especially the squalor of the prison, “in THE COUNTRY THAT GAVE BIRTH TO HUMAN RIGHTS.”
Novel is quite funny in places. It is a provacative look at the French and their culture through the sixties and seventies. Well worth the read.
Laughing is a hilarious memoir by the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie which was a hit tv show that ran for six seasons. It chronicles Nawaz’s own misadventures inside her community. When an Iman from Saudi Arabia came to her local mosque he insisted there be a barrier between the men and the women who were praying. A shower curtain was quickly hung but Zarqa and a few other women refused to be treated like second class muslims and would go in front of the curtain to pray with the men. Wanting to be helpful Zarqa joined the DBWC — the Dead Body Washing Committee — at her Regina mosque. Attempting to heave a deceased woman onto her side so she could wash her back, Zarqa exclaimed, “Now we know where the term ‘dead weight’ comes from.” “Jokes will not be tolerated at this time,” responded Auntie Nadia. “I wasn’t joking, I was just commenting about how heavy the body is.” “We don’t comment about the body. Ever.” “Perhaps the DBWC isn’t the best place for you.” “But why?” “Because you say very inappropriate things during a very solemn occasion.” “I just have a bad habit of blurting out stuff that I’m thinking.” “And that’s exactly the kind of person we don’t need.”
Another riotous episode is when Zarqa is explaining to the construction worker why she needs to reach the sink from the toilet. She needs to be able to fill a teapot for washing. After the toilet paper comes washing.
When she first heard about the planes hitting the World Trade Center, she thought, “Please don’t let it be us.” But, of course, it was, and that evening she told her husband, “Life as we know it is over.” Other muslims had this same reaction to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Jian Gomeshi recounted that his father had the same reaction, “Please don’t let it be muslims.” This book helps us see muslims in a much different light. In Asia they have a saying, “Same, same but different.”
Rosie is a light humerous novel that all can enjoy and laugh with. Don Tillman has Asperger’s syndrome. He has a total of two friends, his colleague at a Melbourne university, Gene, and Gene’s psychologist wife, Claudia, who gently guide him toward normalcy. Tillman flinches from physical contact and cooks all his meals according to an unvarying schedule. He attacks courtship by handing women a detailed questionnaire to test their suitability. “Logically I should be attractive to a wide range of women.” He calls it the “Wife Project.” Until Rosie comes along. He finds Rosie to be “the world’s most incompatible woman . . . late, vegetarian, disorganized, irrational,” with her thick-soled boots and spiky red hair. Rosie wants to identify her biological father, and Don, a professor of genetics, offers to help surreptitiously collect and test samples of the candidates’ DNA. As they spend more time together their relationship deepens and develops.
I would say this is a must read.
“But I’m not good at understanding what other people want.’ ‘Tell me something I don’t know,’ said Rosie for no obvious reason. I quickly searched my mind for an interesting fact. ‘Ahhh…The testicles of drone bees and wasp spiders explode during sex.”
“Professor Tillman. Most of us here are not scientists, so you may need to be a little less technical.’ This sort of thing is incredibly annoying. People can tell you the supposed characteristics of a Gemini or a Taurus and will spend five days watching a cricket match, but cannot find the interest or the time to learn the basics of what they, as humans, are made up of.”
Eggers’s first major book was the much-acclaimed semifictional memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius(2000), which recounts the struggles of Eggers to raise his younger brother after the death of their parents. By that time he was already active in the underground worlds of comic strip writing, small-magazine founding, and columnizing in the then-embryonic realm of online magazines. He has continued along a multibranched road that has included the founding of McSweeney’s magazine and publishing house, and an associated monthly,The Believer; of 826 Valencia, a youth literacy charity; and of ScholarMatch, connecting non-rich college-age kids in the San Francisco Bay Area with donors.
Then there’s the writing: the screenplays, the journalism, and, of course, the books. These include two unflinching looks at man’s inhumanity to man, in Africa and America respectively—What Is the What and Zeitoun—and the novel A Hologram for the King, which glances at the decline of America’s international clout through the eyes of a sad salesman. Eggers appears to run on pure adrenaline, and has as many ideas pouring out of him as the entrepreneurs pitching their inventions in The Circle.
The outpouring of ideas is central to The Circle, as it is in part a novel of ideas. What sort of ideas? Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy. Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow-journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code-owners have the keys to the kingdom.
Marshall McLuhan was among the first to probe the effects of different kinds of media on our collective consciousness with The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) andUnderstanding Media (1964). Even then, before interactive technologies, he pointed out that “the global village” could be an unpleasant and claustrophobic place. As far back as 1835, Toqueville’s Democracy in America predicted the tyranny of public opinion, a tyranny that can be amplified immeasurably via the Internet.
The concerns that underlie The Circle are therefore of long standing, but have been much discussed recently, not only in newspapers and magazines both online and off, but in books. Misha Glenny has written eloquently about cybertheft and cybercrime in McMafia and DarkMarket, and, in Black Code, Ronald Deibert has detailed various cyberthreats to democracy and privacy. In The Boy Kings, a 2012 memoir that chronicles the early days of Facebook, Katherine Losse questioned the desirability of making personal information public.
This, then, is the “real” world to which Eggers holds up the mirror of art in order to show us ourselves and the perils that surround us. But The Circle is neither a tract nor an analysis but a novel, and novels always tell the stories of individuals. In genre this novel partakes of the Menippean satire—distinct from social satire in viewing moral defects less as flaws of character than as intellectual perversions. It also incorporates passages of symposium-like Socratic dialogue by which the central character is manipulated, through rational-sounding questions and answers, into performing the increasingly outrageous acts that logic demands of her.
Some will call The Circle a “dystopia,” but there’s no sadistic slave-whipping tyranny on view in this imaginary America: indeed, much energy is expended on world betterment by its earnest denizens. Plagues are not raging, nor is the planet blowing up or even warming noticeably. Instead we are in the green and pleasant land of a satirical utopia for our times, where recycling and organics abound, people keep saying how much they like each another, and the brave new world of virtual sharing and caring breeds monsters.
The Circle takes its name most immediately from a fictional West Coast social media corporation that has subsumed all earlier iterations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It traces the rise and rise within this company of its female protagonist, Maebelline, a name that closely resembles that of a brand of mascara, thus hinting at masks and acting. (Names matter in The Circle because they matter both to its author and to its characters, some of whom go so far as to pick out new ones for themselves from the Internet.) Maebelline is commonly called “Mae,” and this nickname is then expanded by a coworker who’s bringing Mae up to speed on her Circle duties. She’s opened a “Zing” account for Mae—zinging being an amalgamation of tweeting, texting, and pinging. “I made up a name for you,” says Gina.
“MaeDay. Like the war holiday. Isn’t that cool?”
Mae wasn’t so sure about the name, and couldn’t remember a holiday by that name.
Clever Mr. Eggers. There is no real war holiday called MaeDay, but “Mayday”—from the French m’aidez—is a venerable distress signal. May Day was once a pagan springtime celebration, but was adopted in the nineteenth century as a workers’ holiday. It was then appropriated for military parades during Stalinism, a period noted for its hyperactive secret police, and satirized in Orwell’s 1984, a work that is echoed more than once in The Circle. Maebelline, Zing-christened as MaeDay: a makeup accessory, a distress signal, a totalitarian power-show. The reader feels a pricking of the thumbs.
At first Mae is winsomely innocuous. She’s recently been an Everygirl stuck in her own version of purgatory, the humiliating McJob in the gas and energy utility of her small hometown in California that she took out of the need to pay off her crushing college debts. Now she’s called back from the living dead by her college roommate turned Circle higher-up, Annie. Annie too is significantly named: Annies get their guns, being competitive, perky sharpshooting tomboys; they’re Orphan Annies, brave and adventurous and protected by Daddy Warbucks, who uses his wealth for Good. This Annie is a golden-girl scatterbrained “doofus” who slouched around at college in men’s flannel trousers, but then, after a Stanford MBA, was recruited into the Circle and has been soaring like a helium balloon, adored by all.
Annie comes from money and family class—Mayflower rather than MaeDay—not that eye-rolling Annie claims to take her aristocratic descent seriously. None of her privilege has been lost on second-fiddle Mae, who, as she enters the Circle, is suffused with gratitude toward Annie and wonderment at being actually there, part of “the only company that really mattered at all”; but as the reader may anticipate, an All About Eve girl-on-girl mud-wrestling glint soon flickers in her star-bedazzled eyes.
Eggers sets forth the players and ground of his novel right at the beginning, like a gamer setting up the board. The Circle, we learn, is run by a triumvirate known as the Three Wise Men. Like Melville’s Pequod and Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, the Circle is a combination of physical container, financial system, spiritual state, and dramatis personae, intended to represent America, or at least a powerful segment of it; so these three, like Melville’s three harpooners, are emblematic.
Tyler Alexander Gospodinov, known as Ty, is the “boy-wonder visionary” founder who, by inventing a system called TruYou, did away with passwords and fake identities and trolls, not because he wished to take over the world, but because he wanted things to be simpler and more transparent. The most telling element of his name is “Alexander”—the Great, of course, but also he who wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. Elusive Ty is seldom seen about the place except as an image on a screen, a hoodie pulled over his head. In the Circle, where the alleged mission is to render everyone and everything visible, he is hidden, shadowy: no one ever knows what he’s planning next.
The second Wise Man is Eamon (“rich protector”) Bailey (as in Barnum). A Notre Dame graduate, he’s the company’s genial, uncle-ish public face, combining the flair of a showman with the suave persuasiveness of a Jesuit. “Loved by all,” says Annie, “and I think he really loves them back.” That “I think” should give Mae pause, but it doesn’t.
The third Wise Man is Tom Stenton. In literature, Toms are often scamps and boundary pushers, as are Toms Thumb, Kitten, Brown, and Jones; or they may be pig stealers, as in the nursery rhyme, or rich thugs, as in The Great Gatsby, or even imps or evil geniuses, as in Tom Tit-Tot and Tom Riddle, respectively. A Tom coupled with a Stenton (“stone enclosure”) is likely to be a hard customer. So it is with this shark-like Tom, the CEO, who revels in his money and influence, fights the company’s battles and squashes its enemies, and has eyes that are “flat, unreadable.”
Serving under the Three Wise Men are the members of the inner circle, known jokingly as “the Gang of Forty.” This might seem a nod to the Chinese Gang of Four, but there’s more to it: in scripture, forty is a highly significant number. It rained for forty days and forty nights during Noah’s flood, Moses spent forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus fasted for forty days while being tempted by the Devil, who offers him the world in exchange for his soul. “Forty” signifies a period of trial and testing, with high stakes in the balance, and not only Mae but Annie are indeed tested throughout the novel.
These, then, are the major players of The Circle. There are a lot of small fry, and even some “plankton”—outsiders who pitch their ideas, hoping to be hired. They are the krill on which the larger fish graze, and yes, the marine life metaphors culminate in a Big Metaphor. Not for nothing does the Circle possess a large glass aquarium.
Next comes the physical layout or “campus,” described in lavish, enchanting detail: readers of lifestyle sections will salivate over the adjectives, and are sure to make comparisons between what’s on offer here and what real life has already provided on other such company “campuses.” The Circle’s security walls enclose a paradise of green spaces, buildings, fountains, artworks, and game spaces, with luxurious dormitories for those who may wish to work late and stay overnight, not that there’s any pressure, mind you. The restaurants dish up gourmet but virtuous food, the parties are übercool, and there’s a sample room full of products that their manufacturers are dying to have the trend-setting Circlers adopt.
The different buildings are named after historical periods: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the like. (He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past, as 1984 puts it.) Artists, both starving and otherwise, are brought in to entertain, like the troubadours in the Middle Ages or Voltaire at the court of Frederick the Great; for such corporations are the modern equivalent of kingdoms and Renaissance dukedoms. Lest we miss the point, there’s a marvelous collection in the Circle, assembled by Bailey, who, despite his folksiness, is a “connoisseur.” He’s amassed all kinds of obsolete objects, such as leather-bound books and green-shaded reading lamps, loot he’s bought from “distressed estates”—the losers of capitalism, we gather. If you hear an echo of rich financier and art collector Adam Verver from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, you might be correct: one of the things money buys is the past, all the better to gloat over it.
The palatial buildings are made of glass, ostensibly to underline the Circle’s mantra of “transparency”—everyone should be open to everyone else in all ways, a goal within the Circle’s reach thanks to the ingenious schemes and doodads cooked up by its collective brain trust: the tiny “SeeChange” cameras that can be planted everywhere (no more rapes and atrocities!), the scheme to embed tracking chips in children’s bones (no more kidnapping!). Why wouldn’t any sane person want those things? People who live in glass houses not only shouldn’t throw stones—they can’t throw them! Isn’t that a good thing? And if you have nothing to hide, why get paranoid?
But literary structures of glass, or its close cousin, ice, are never reassuring. Glass buildings are halls of mirrors where one may become lost; or they are illusions that easily melt or shatter; or they are prisons that permit others to look at you unchecked, like the glass cage in which Billy Pilgrim is kept by the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The glass buildings in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We—precursor of both Brave New World and 1984—allow the totalitarian police to snoop on everyone all the time. To see everything without being seen is, needless to say, the prerogative of the biblical God whose eyes run everywhere, as well as the labor of spies and surveillance agencies, and the fondest desire of the voyeur.
As we move deeper into The Circle we may recall the Snow Queen’s palace in the Hans Andersen tale, where hearts are frozen, the cold queen rules from her throne on the Mirror of Reason, and the puzzle of “eternity” cannot be solved without love. We may also be reminded of the “stately pleasure dome” from Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” The poet dreams of recreating this fabled edifice through art, but others find something demonic about his enterprise. “Weave a circle round him thrice,” they chant. The woven circle is to protect others from him, because he’s entranced; in modern parlance he’s been drinking the Kool-Aid and is, like, totally out of his mind.
Which brings us to circles. Both the reader and Mae encounter the Circle first through its logo, which is obligingly depicted on the book’s cover and then described through Mae’s eyes: “Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo—a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center—were already the best-known in the world.” Looked at by someone unfamiliar with it, the logo would surely suggest a manhole cover. I certainly hope Eggers intended this: as a flat disc, the thing might imply a moon or a sun or a mandala—something shining and cosmic and quasi-religious—but as a portal to dark, sulphurous, Plutonian tunnels it is much more resonant.
The circle motif may be Eggers’s wink at Google’s “Circles,” a way of arranging your contacts on its counterpart to Facebook: but it’s much more than that. The circle is an ancient symbol that’s had a variety of incarnations. There are divine circles—the Egyptian sun, the vision of the poet Henry Vaughan, who “saw Eternity the other night,/Like a great ring of pure and endless light”; in case we overlook the point, inside Eamon Bailey’s private lair is a stained glass ceiling with “countless angels arranged in rings.” Bailey himself weighs in on circles: “A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it, nothing can improve upon it, nothing can be more perfect. And that’s what we want to be: perfect.” A man with Bailey’s Catholic background should know that he’s verging on heresy, since perfection belongs to God alone. He ought to know also that circles can be demonic: Dante’s Inferno has nine circles. Maybe he does know those things, but has discounted them.
As the story advances, our view of the Circle moves from bright to dark to darker. At first, viewed through Mae’s eyes, the place seems wondrous:
The rest of America…seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?
But if this is utopia, why is Mae so anxious most of the time? True, her workload in “Customer Experience” is crushing, as she answers questions, sends “smiles” and “frowns”—the Circle equivalent of Likes and Dislikes and Favorites—to other websites and accounts, fields an avalanche of messages and invitations from other Circlers, and is under increasing pressure to spend all her time “participating.” But her main terror is being cast out of the Circle: she’ll do almost anything to stay inside, and worries constantly about what sort of impression she’s making. Is she getting enough approval, a substance she measures by messages, Zings, “smiles,” and online watchers? Is she making the grade?
The Circlers’ social etiquette is as finely calibrated as anything in Jane Austen: how fast you return a Zing or your tone of voice when saying “Yup” can matter deeply, and missing someone’s themed party is a lethal snub. Every choice is tracked and evaluated, every “aesthetic” ruthlessly judged. The nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin—who famously said, “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are”—viewed bad taste as a moral offense, and the young Circlers subscribe to this dogma: nothing gets you the brushoff more quickly than a pair of uncool jeans. Utopia, it seems, is an awful lot like high school, but with even more homework.
Just as there are Three Wise Men, there are also Three Inadequate Boyfriends: a conforming wanker who wants to post recordings of his ersatz sex with Mae online; a hapless, arts-and-crafts Jiminy Cricket conscience from her previous life who tries to warn her about the unreality and inherent totalitarianism of the Circle’s proceedings; and a mysterious, sexually charged older man who pops in and out of tunnels like the Phantom of the Opera. It’s this third one who plays demon lover to the Circle’s sunny pleasure dome, and who shows Mae the caverns measureless to man, in this case the underground river cave in which people’s total data profiles—call them souls—are stored in red boxes. His name—not his real one—is Kalden, Tibetan for “of the golden age.” Point being: the golden age is over.
Eggers treats his material with admirable inventiveness and gusto. The plot capers along, the trap doors open underfoot, the language ripples and morphs. Why has he not been headhunted by some corporation specializing in new brand names? Better than reality, some of these, and all too plausible. But don’t look toThe Circle for Chekhovian nuance or thoroughly rounded characters with many-layered inwardness: it isn’t “literary fiction” of that kind. It’s an entertainment, but a challenging one: it demands that the reader think its positions through in the same way that the characters must. Some of its incidents are funny, some of them are appalling, and some of them are both at once, like a nightmare in which you find yourself making a speech with no clothes on.
And there’s quite a lot of that: who has the right to see whose dangly bits, and under what circumstances? If everything must be accessible to everyone else—if you’re on camera all the time, so to speak—what times and places can be private, apart from sex and bathroom functions? Sure enough, it’s not long before sex is taking place in toilet cubicles, though not for the first time in either literature or life. Private communication is driven in there too, and those aware of the fact that all their e-mails are potentially monitored—and who can be more aware of that potential than the Circlers?—are driven back on a pitiful Stone Age technology: the note scribbled with some obsolete mark-making device on that despised substance, paper.
But apart from the moments of almost farcical discovery—among them the discovery by the characters themselves that there is indeed such a thing as TMI, or Too Much Information—Eggers has a serious purpose, or several. One of them is to remind us that we can be led down the primrose path much more blindly by our good intentions than by our bad ones. (He’s entitled to speak about good intentions, having manifested so many of them himself, in his various other lives.) A second may be to examine the nature of looking and being looked at.
A face with a direct gaze is said to be one of the first images a baby recognizes. It’s a primary pattern. The human gaze, when languorous, is much celebrated in love poetry, but a blank or hostile stare is intimidating at the biological level. Who can look at whom, and at what, informs not only the parental admonition “Don’t stare” and the insulting childhood challenge “Who’re you looking at?” but a wide range of other human behaviors, from the use of mandatory body and head coverings to PGlabels on films to Peeping Tom legislation. “Don’t make a spectacle of yourself,” kids used to be told; but in the world of the Circle, people must make spectacles of themselves: to refuse to do so is selfish, or, as Bailey leads Mae to declaim,PRIVACY IS THEFT.
Publication on social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.
Maddaddam is a story of myth making as Toby explains the past to the Crakers the bio-engenireered creatures created by Crake before he killed everything else in the first book of the trilogy Oryx and Crake. Thanks you to Atwood for providing a synopsis of the first two volumes. I found it a great way to start Maddaddam with a refresher course. Toby tells the story of Zeb and his harsh upbringing by the Rev of the Church of PetrOleum and his eventual escape into a life on the run, first to San Francisco’s “pleeblands,” then to a job as a magician’s assistant, to survival in the Canadian wilderness after a “Bearlift” mission goes wrong, to New New York (on the Jersey Shore) and at last into work at a HelthWyzer laboratory compound, where he meets characters familiar to us as members of an underground movement. Toby’s telling of Zeb’s story is interspersed with the present-day defense of the compound and the unusual partnership they develop for mutual protection. Toby teaches the Crakers to read, write and to tell their own stories.
Maddaddam is a book of hope and healing and renewal.
Read this book but do read the trilogy in order. It is terrific.
Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University, one of the great mathematical geniuses of our time, has just discovered the secret of prime numbers, thereby finding the key that will unlock the mysteries of the universe, guarantee a giant technological leap for mankind and put an end to illness and death. Alerted to this amazing breakthrough on the other side of the universe, and convinced that the secret of primes cannot be entrusted to such a violent and backward species as humans, the super-advanced Vonnadorians dispatch an emissary to erase Martin and all traces of his discovery. The book that opens with our alien narrator finding himself in the body of the professor, whom he has just assassinated. But the instantaneous intergalactic travel hasn’t turned out quite as expected. Instead of finding himself in Martin’s office, our nameless Vonnadorian has arrived in the middle of a major highway , with no understanding of human culture and wearing his victim’s body but not a stitch of clothing. He is run over but rapidly heals himself and stumbles off to a gas station where he peruses a Cosmopolitan magazine to learn the local language.
The beginning is laugh out loud funny as the alien learns about post-millenial earth culture and comments on it as a visitor from a far. But as he becomes more human the novel changes tone to warm, welcoming glow.
Tasteful Nudes, is a collection of short, comic, autobiographical essays. They skip around in time and subject: One chapter about meeting a fan (a.k.a. “Hottest Naked Chick on the Internet”) in real life segues into another about his love of playing guitar. The title is from a story about spending time at a nudist resort—when Hill opens Tasteful Nudes with an essay about a nudist boat trip. Hill writes with a winking bravado, making bold statements (his intro boasts that he told St. Martin’s “to go fuck themselves” when they approached him about a book because he’s “an artist”) that he quickly undercuts. (He changed his mind when St. Martin’s offered him $400 to write it.) Hill mixes ironic boastfulness with genuine heart. “A Funny Feeling” comically details his battles with depression while slipping in references to the real severity of the problem. “The Time I Went to Prison” describes his thoughts and feelings about doing a comedy show at Sing Sing. The prisoners loved his show, chanting his name as he left the building. “Big in Japan” chronicles his rock band‘s tour consisting of four gigs. All the audience new the lyrics of this unheard of band, and sang along as they played. He makes some of his funniest points describing the unreality of losing a parent: “Learning that my mother had died sounded about as ridiculous to me as if someone said, ‘Hey Dave, did you know your mom used to play for the Knicks?’” When he couldn’t wrap his head around his mom’s death, Hill decided that she’d just moved somewhere, not died. “‘Mom, I’ve been looking all over for you,’ I’d say once I found her. ‘Why Akron?’”
Caleb and Camille Fang are performance artists who like to use their kids as human props for the nerviest, most chaos-inducing stunts that they can devise. They refer to the children, Annie and Buster, as “Child A” and “Child B.” Wilson explores the damage inflicted on children raised in an atmosphere that is intentionally confusing. They have been told that their parents do important things; they have been told that their own feelings do not matter. They have learned the hard way that either of them might be betrayed in an instant by parents who bring a lofty, arty, guilt-free approach to everything they do. So as “The Family Fang” begins, Wilson shows just how badly the adult Annie and Buster have been damaged by Fang ideas of fun. He also makes it clear that the senior Fangs can be amusing. And then, all of a sudden, they are not.
As adults wherever the Fang children go, they encounter situations that make them re-examine their parents’ values. Buster is a journalist, sort of. He has been working for a men’s magazine called Potent, for an editor who is seven years younger but still likes to tell him what “manly” means. “After two years of writing about skydiving and bacon festivals and online virtual-reality societies that were too complicated for him to even play, Buster was on the verge of quitting his job,” Mr. Wilson writes. For one assignment Buster had a two-hour argument with his editor about whether to participate in a group orgy that he had been assigned to cover. Annie has grown up to be a film actress. This, in her parents’ minds, means that she has become a willing participant in a lowly art form that is not worth her time. And Annie is a pawn to whoever gives her orders.
Annie and Buster don’t know what, if anything, about their own lives has actually been real. They now know that one of their most excruciatingly shared moments, in which Buster was forced to play Romeo to his sister’s Juliet at the last minute and had to kiss her in public, was just another one of their parents’ little tricks.
An interesting read despite the weak ending. It should have ended ten pages sooner.
Steven begins by clearly asserting that he is absolutely, positively not gay. He is able to rationalize with great aplomb his attraction to men, his love of square dancing, and the fact that he’s never shown an interest in girls. But when he begins to question his own excuses, Steven launches into a hilarious series of events in an effort to assert his heterosexuality. But everything intended to bring what he believes to be his “latent” attraction to girls to the forefront — a dismal attempt to bond with the overly-manly hockey team, a series of dates with as many girls as he can round up — ends in complete failure. When he invents a girlfriend named Kelly to take to a school dance in order to throw his mother off the scent (he ends up taking his best friend’s golden retriever named Kelly as a “statement”), he is forced to at last confront the fact that he is gay.
When he tells his best friend Rachel that he is gay, her reaction is finally! In fact her whole family parents and little brother think it is about time he realized that he was gay.Rachel is a real go getter. She immediately want to form a gay-straight alliance in their high school which horrifies Steven.
Steven reminds me of Raj in The Big Bang Theory who in one show will exclaim to himself, “I am so not gay” but in the next episode he will be the only one who raises his hand when the group is asked who likes puffy sleeves for bridesmaids.
It’s a great coming out story for teens. It won an American Library Association Best Book for Young adults.