Our Dystopia Is Now: The Circle (Eggers) and Feed (Anderson)

For twenty-first century readers and students, George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 poses, I think, a temporal paradox.

1984, George Orwell

Orwell’s “other world” appears simultaneously a horrifying totalitarian future possibility for humanity as well as a technological mutt of what someone in the past speculated about the future (consider the pneumatic tubes).

As I read The Circle by Dave Eggers, I began to imagine that my experience with this novel published and read in 2013 was repeating what readers during the late 1940s and early 1950s (especially British readers) may have felt turning the pages of Orwell’s Big Brother nightmare, a Kafkan dark satire of their lived England.

The Circle, Dave Eggers

My reading experience with The Circle has at least two problematic elements.

First, I read about a third of the novel before I lost interest and picked up Feed by M.T. Anderson, which I read completely before returning to and finishing The Circle.

Feed, M.T. Anderson

And second, I never felt fully engaged with The Circle because I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel details that our dystopia is now.

Both The Circle and Feed provide readers with a genre carnival of sorts—dystopia fiction, young adult fiction, science fiction, and speculative fiction. But I struggled with The Circle in ways that I did not with Feed, despite my usual measured disappointment with many young adult novels.

Since Adam Bessie has explored the importance of Feed, especially as it informs education reform, I want to examine more closely The Circle in the context of Feed as well as my struggles to engage fully with Eggers’s important novel.

Just past the middle of The Circle, I began to see that Eggers’s dystopia is a contemporary 1984. When the main character, Mae, serves the will of the Circle by producing three slogan (Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, Privacy Is Theft), Orwell’s “War Is Peace, Freedom Is Slavery, Ignorance Is Strength” echoed in my mind’s ear.

I feel compelled to place The Circle, then, within a dystopian tradition including 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale—speculative works that weave contemporary social satire (albeit very dark satire) with imaginative logical extensions of what if that holds up one possible future for humankind. [1]

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood

While The Circle reminds me of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale [2]—including the slogans above alluding to 1984 and elements of zealotry along with totalitarianism’s dependency on currency manipulation (Atwood’s prescience about debit cards) shared with The Handmaid’s Tale—Eggers’s other world is not removed nearly as far from the reader as in Orwell’s and Atwood’s novels.

Since I use and know a great deal about google, Twitter, and Facebook, the Circle as a speculative logical extension of our real-world social media feels less speculative than our dystopia is now.

For the privileged in 2013—and those on the edge of privilege wanting in—smartphones, tablets, and computers connected through the Internet have blurred almost every aspect of the human condition—social with professional, entertainment with commerce, etc.

We don’t flinch when google completes our typing as we search the web or when gmail reads our emails in order to push product banners. We reduce our conversations to 140 letters with glee and among hundreds, even thousands of people we have never met in person. We retweet, favorite, and like (verbing all the way) while double posting on Twitter and Facebook—even clicking “like” under a Facebook post about the death of a dog, or a grandmother.

So when Eggers introduces the more fantastical elements of the novel, and there are some, I remained fixated on my lack of compassion for Mae and my inability to shake the feeling that Eggers is simply cataloguing the world the privileged have created, the lived world of the privileged in 2013. (I must add that The Circle and Feed focus on main characters who are compliant “insiders” of the dystopia, and both have sacrificial radical characters. I found Mae in The Circle really hard to embrace, but did feel compelled by Titus in Feed. I had the same bland response to the radical in The Circle, while caring deeply for Feed‘s Violet, my favorite character of the two novels.)

So far, I suspect, my view of The Circle may feel like less than a ringing endorsement; however, I do believe The Circle is a 1984 for our time, an important and insightful work. Let me, then, offer a few reasons why.

At its essence, The Circle is the fictionalizing of concepts explored in Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze: surveillance, “infinite examination,” “societies of control.” While Foucault and Deleuze are inaccessible in many ways for the general public, Eggers’s other world, even as close as it is to now, is stark in its clarity. At times, The Circle reads with the same sort of dispassionate camera feel that Ernest Hemingway uses in “Hills Like White Elephants.” In both works, there lies the danger that readers will fail to confront what has been placed before them—that the dispassion will read as endorsement or at least could be embraced by the readers.

While true of any artwork, Eggers allows readers to close The Circle in much the same mindset as Mae (Book III is a mere three-pages long in its twist-style ending).

As with Feed, The Circle also speaks directly to education reform, particularly as that overlaps with our current era of mass incarceration (see Education Reform in the New Jim Crow Era):

  • With fervor, the possibility of the Circle’s role in education is championed—and the discussion sounds eerily close to home:

“That’s the idea,” Jackie said. “…[S]oon we’ll be able to know at any given moment where our sons and daughters stand against the rest of American students, and then against the world’s students.”

“That sounds very helpful,” Mae said. “And would eliminate a lot of doubt and stress out there.”…  “And it’ll be updated how often?”

“Oh, daily. Once we get full participation from all schools and districts, we’ll be able to keep daily rankings, with every test, every pop quiz incorporated instantly. And of course these can be broken up between public and private, regional, and the rankings can be merged, weighted, and analyzed to see trends among various other factors—socioeconomic, race, ethnicity, everything.” (p. 341)

  • In possibly the most disturbing section of the novel, the Circle is characterized as a potential law enforcement tool that can erase crime and racial profiling, by color-coding everyone on the ubiquitous monitors invented by the Circle: “The three men you see in orange and red are repeat offenders” (p. 418). This plan, however, works under the assumption that previous arrests are fair, themselves not the result of race or class bias.

In the end, The Circle is a warning shot about the end of privacy, universal surveillance. If readers feel uncomfortable while reading with their smartphone dinging nearby, it is likely because our dystopia is now, and The Circle is a nearly 500-page pamphlet saying, Welcome to the Machine:

[1] I highly recommend Atwood’s essays—”Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections”—in Writing with Intent and In Other Worlds for Atwood’s brilliant confrontations of science fiction and speculative fiction genre(s). See also Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction: Challenging Genres.

[2] I wonder what the fascination is with red covers and dystopian literature…

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Our Dystopia Is Now: The Circle (Eggers) and Feed (Anderson) – @ THE CHALK FACE
  2. Pingback: Papa | the becoming radical

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