The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

The Circle: so cool, but closing in on our private lives

Google campus scene 1

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

The revelations contained in the Snowden files alerted us to power of government surveillance to use the web to break our privacy and track our every move, our thoughts.  Tim Berners-Lee told the Guardian last year:

When you think about privacy you have to think about how intimate our use of technology has become. When someone is worried about a social or medical issue, about their sexuality or whether they have cancer, they can put their trust in the complete secrecy of the web. Maybe they are a minor, and too embarrassed to go through their parents. It’s important to preserve the ability to do things over the internet that are very intimate.

But what if the real threat to our privacy – indeed, our freedom – comes from the powerful corporations that now dominate the internet?  That is the question at the heart of Dave Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, a book so powerful and thought-provoking that I feel  everyone should read it.  (The issue is also the subject of ‘The death of privacy‘, a lengthy and thoughtful essay by Alex Preston in today’s Observer.

Dave Eggers The Circle cover

The Circle

In The Circle Dave Eggers imagines an internet company that we will all probably think of as Google, operating out of a shiny campus in southern California. However, Eggers’ company – called the Circle – has swallowed all its tech competitors and streamlined search and social media into one system that’s enabled it to rapidly become the biggest, richest and most powerful corporation on the planet. Setting his story in the very near future (weeks? months?), Eggers has written a novel that zips along and which raises urgent questions about the accumulation of data by private corporations, about surveillance, and transparency.  When you put the book down you realise that it’s not just NSA and GCHQ surveillance that should concern us.  We ought to be reading those long and boring t&c’s that we blithely tick ‘yes’ to when signing up to Google or Facebook, iTunes or Instagram.

In an article earlier this year,Salon magazine outlined ‘4 insane ways Google has been invading our privacy’.  The internet giant can already ‘vacuum up, scan, index and sell analytics based on the content of our texts, emails, searches, locations and more’, but now, with the purchase of Nest, a company selling wifi-controlled home appliances, Google now aims to track us not just in our homes, ‘but at work, in our cars and even when we’re walking down the street’.

‘The acquisition will help Google close the circle of search, people and goods in a broad Internet of Everything,’  wrote Wall Street Journal editor Michael Hickins. ‘With home automation, self-driving cars, robots, mobile, and life sciences, Google is setting itself up to own the 21st century.’

‘Closing the circle’ is the aim of the company at the heart of Eggers’ novel.  As the mysterious, subversive figure of Kalden puts it towards the end of the story:

I want you to connect these dots and see if you see what I see. Picture this. The Circle has been devouring all competitors for years, correct? It only makes the company stronger. Already, 90 percent of the world’s searches go through the Circle. Without competitors, this will increase. Soon it’ll be nearly 100 percent. Now, you and I both know that if you can control the flow of information, you can control everything. You can control most of what anyone sees and knows. If you want to bury some piece of information, permanently, that’s two seconds’ work. If you want to ruin anyone, that’s five minutes’ work. How can anyone rise up against the Circle if they control all the information and accesss to it? They want everyone to have a Circle account, and they’re well on  their way to making it illegal not to. What happens then? What happens when they control all searches, and have full access to all data about every person? When they know every move everyone makes? If all monetary transactions, all health and DNA information, every piece of one’s life, good or bad, when every word uttered flows through one channel?’

Referring to Bailey and Stenton, two of the ‘Three Wise Men’ who founded the company, Kalden continues:

Bailey believes that life will be better, will be perfect, when everyone has unfettered access to everyone and everything they know. He genuinely believes that the answers to every life question can be found among other people. He truly believes that openness, that complete and uninterrupted access among all humans will help the world. That this is what the world’s been waiting for, the moment when every soul is connected.

Stenton professionalized our idealism, monetized our utopia. He’s the one who saw the connection between our work and politics, and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, -soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite. Everyone becomes a citizen of the Circle.

That reminded me of an essay written for the London Review of Books last year by Rebecca Solnit in which she remarked:

We are moving into a world of unaccountable and secretive corporations that manage all our communications and work hand in hand with governments to make us visible to them. Our privacy is being strip-mined and hoarded.

Dave Eggers’ The Circle is both utopia and dystopia. For the central character, Mae, the Circle campus, beautifully manicured, with steel and glass buildings, each named after an historical era (‘Renaissance’, ‘Enlightenment’), and with every need met (places of entertainment, places to meet and party, shop, exercise, or have a health check), is a utopia.

My God, Mae thought.  It’s heaven.

But before long, Eggers’ begins to reveal the dystopian reality of the Circle.  I particularly admired the way in which Eggers points up the exploitative labour relations that underpin the Circle’s glossy façade.   On her first day, Mae is introduced to her duties in customer experience.  She sits at the customary desk facing a screen and, once she has ‘opened the chute’, deals with an endless flood of support requests.  All her responses are monitored and rated.  Her supervisor tells her that she needs to aim for a rating score in the high nineties: ’99 is good, but I can’t help wondering why it’s not 100′.

During Mae’s first week at the workstation, more screens are added.  In addition to fielding support requests, she must simultaneously participate in both intra-company and external social networks because (as she learns in a wickedly satirical episode) ‘communication is not extracurricular’.  Her activity on social networks is integral to her work, and is monitored.  The Circle has absorbed some Facebook-like entity where participants ‘zing’ each other.  By the end of her first week, Mae is dealing with four screens (and her mobile) and is expected to maintain a high level of zings – her ‘Partirank’ in the company depends upon it.  Implicit in the atmosphere of the campus is the notion that if you are truly loyal to the Circle you will work long hours (striving to rise up the Partirank ratings), and preferably not leave the campus at all. (Anyway, why would you want to return to the public squalor that exists outside?)

Indeed, the campus is another world, compared to the public utility company Mae used to work for:

The utility building, 3B-East, was a tragic block of cement with narrow vertical slits for windows. Inside, most of the offices were walled with cinderblock, everything painted a sickly green. It was like working in a locker room. She’d been the youngest person in the building by a decade or so, and even those in their thirties were of a different century. They marvelled at her computer skills, which were basic and common to anyone she knew. But her co-workers at the utility were astounded. They called her the Black Lightning, some wilted reference to her hair, and told her she had quite a bright future at the utility if she played her cards right. In four or five years, they told her, she could be head of IT for the whole sub-station!

There are sharp echoes of Orwell’s 1984 (‘War is peace’. ‘Freedom is slavery’. ‘Ignorance is strength’) in Eggers’ depiction of the slogans that pepper very few yards of the campus (remember Google’s motto, ‘Don’t be evil’?): ‘Secrets are lies’. ‘Sharing is Caring’. ‘Privacy is theft’.  Circlers are regularly brought together for consciousness-raising sessions before giant screens from which the company’s leaders expound their philosophy and the latest technological breakthrough.  The Circle’s mantra is ‘ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN’, a philosophy whose implications Eggers pushes to the limits in order to expose the dangers in what is happening – now – on the internet.

Mae’s ex, Mercer, is a symbol of the old world and its restraints from which she has escaped.  Eggers gives Mercer some good lines:

I mean, all this stuff you’re involved in, it’s all gossip. It’s people talking about each other behind their backs. That’s the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it’s fucking dorky. … Listen, twenty years ago … judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest shit in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.’

To which Mae’s response is simply:

Mercer, is it important to you to be cool?

But Mercer has no wish to be cool – prefers not to advertise the chandeliers he carves from deer antlers on the web, has no interest in participation on social media, or being tied to screens for a good part of the day.  He just wants to get away from all that – with tragic consequences.

Google campus scene 2

Google campus, California: illustration by Karl Edwards Studio

Meanwhile, Mae learns the importance of 24/7 social media interaction and transparency when she is hauled before supervisors to explain a ‘lost weekend’ when she rushed off to her parents’ home after learning that her father had fallen ill.  Mae is informed that she ‘left campus at 5.42 on Friday’ and ‘returned at 8.46 on Monday’, yet left no trace of herself in cyberspace in all that time.

‘Was there work on the weekend? Did I miss something?’ asks Mae.  But what concerns her supervisors is her her failure to observe another Circle mantra: PPT.  Passion, participation, transparency.  What did she do while at her parents house? She watched women’s basketball.  Did you know we have a zing feed about the WNBA?  ‘I’m not that passionate about basketball’, responds Mae, stunning her inquisitors.  When she informs them that on her way home she took a kayak out into the bay alone, but did not zing news of her activity, or switch on her SeeChange video camera, they are appalled.  ‘I was just kayaking’, pleads Mae.  They respond: ‘Do you realize kayaking is a multi-million dollar industry?’

Strictly speaking, Mae stole the kayak, since it was midnight, and she took one left outside the rental compound.  When she returns to shore, police are waiting for her: removing the kayak, she had been picked up on one of the Circle’s SeeChange cameras.  This incident later informs a passage in which Eggers explores the question of transparency versus privacy. In one of the company’s briefing sessions, Mae is being questioned before a giant screen by one of the company founders:

“I have a question, Mae. Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?”

“Better. Without a doubt.”

“When you’re alone, unwatched, unaccountable, what happens?”

“Well, for one thing, I steal kayaks.”

The audience laughed in a sudden bright burst.

“Seriously. I do things I don’t want to do. I lie.”

“The other day, when we spoke, you had a way of putting it that I thought was very interesting and succinct. Can you tell us all what you said?”

”I said that secrets are lies.”

“Secrets are lies. It’s very memorable. Can you walk us through your logic with that phrase, Mae?”

”Well, when there’s something kept secret, two things happen. One is that it make,s crimes possible. We behave worse when we’re not accountable. That goes without saying. And second, secrets inspire speculation. When we don’t know what’s being hidden, we guess, we make up answers.”

“Well that’s interesting, isn’t it?” Bailey turned to the audience. ”When we can’t reach a loved one, we speculate. We panic. We make up stories about where they are or what’s happened to them. And if we’re feeling ungenerous, or jealous, we make up lies. Sometimes some very damaging lies. We assume they’re doing something nefarious. All because we don’t know something. ”

“It’s like when we see two people whispering,” Mae said. “We worry, we feel insecure, we make up terrible things they might be saying. We assume it’s about us and that it’s catastrophic.” […]

“For example, if there’s a locked door, I start to make up all kinds of stories about what might be behind it. I feel like it’s some kind of secret, and it leads to me making up lies. But if all the doors areopen, physically and metaphorically, there’s only the one truth.”

Bailey smiled. She’d nailed it.

”I like that, Mae. When the doors are open, there’s only one truth.

The words SECRETS ARE LIES appeared on the screen behind Mae.  Seeing the words four feet tall gave her a complicated feeling – something between thrill and dread.

The session ends with three lines projected on the giant screen:




Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

In The Circle, Eggers offers us a warning that Facebook, Google, Apple and the rest are leading us down a path which may ultimately cost us our rights to privacy and lead to every aspect of our lives being monitored, monetized and potentially controlled by giant private corporations.  As well as 1984The Circle reminded me of Huxley’s soma eaters in Brave New World. Where Huxley has the inhabitants of his perfect society blissed-out on their happiness-inducing pleasure-drug, oblivious to their control by the Alphas of the World State, Eggers paints a seductive portrait of the Circle campus in the bright Californian sun, where clever people invent new but threatening technologies in high tech glass and steel buildings, driven by the evangelical idealism of the Circle’s founding fathers.  But behind the day-glo facade lies darkness:

And there was a wonderful thing that tended to happen, something that felt like poetic justice: every time someone started shouting about the supposed monopoly of the Circle, or the Circle’s unfair monetization of the personal data of its users, or some other paranoid and demonstrably false claim, soon enough it was revealed that that person was a criminal or deviant of the highest order […] And it made sense. Who but a fringe character would try to impede the unimpeachable improvement of the world?

In today’s Observer essay, Max Mosley (a man for whom I would not usually have much sympathy) is quoted as saying (apropos of his current challenge to Google in the German courts to remove references to a ‘Nazi orgy’ that the News of the World splashed in a report later ruled in court to be lies):

I think, because of the Stasi the Germans can understand that there isn’t a huge difference between the state watching everything you do and Google watching everything you do. Except that, in most European countries, the state tends to be an elected body, whereas Google isn’t. There’s not a lot of difference between the actions of the government of East Germany and the actions of Google.

That’s a pretty good summary of the case put by Eggers in his fiction.  As Alex Preston comments in the Observer piece, we need to ask some fundamental questions about the role of search engines:

Is Google the de facto librarian of the internet, given that it is estimated to handle 40% of all traffic? Is it something more than a librarian, since its algorithms carefully (and with increasing use of your personal data) select the sites it wants you to view? To what extent can Google be held responsible for the content it puts before us?

But Google is more than a search engine.  It has developed Google Glass which enables wearers to surreptitiously film unsuspecting bystanders. It stores the content and details of email communications of millions of people (individual Gmail users, as well as employees of companies who contract Google to operate their email service – and users, like me of Virgin Media email, also operated by Google).  And, by means of Google maps and its Android operating system it can track our movements and transactions.  Towards the end of The Circle, Mae, challenged by the mysterious Kalden, exclaims:

”That’s so bad? If’everyone has equal access to services, to information, we finally have a chance at equality. No information should cost anything. There should be no barriers to knowing everything, to accessing all – ”

“And if everyone’s tracked?”

“Then there’s no crime. No murder, no kidnapping and rape. No kids ever victimized again. No more missing persons. I mean, that alone – ”

The Circle is cracks along like a thriller, its straightforward plot unhindered by character complexity.  But it’s an important – and disturbing – book for our time.  I think you should read it.

See also

A Hologram for the King: today we are not needed

A Hologram for the King: today we are not needed

King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah

King Abdullah Economic City, Jeddah: a hologram

Before Christmas I read Dave Egger’s latest novel A Hologram for the King, the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged, American businessman who is at the end of his rope: divorced and deeply in debt, with a daughter he can’t afford to support through college.  With a fondness for alcohol, and a horrible growth on the back of his neck, he has flown to Saudi Arabia to make a presentation to King Abdullah in the hope of selling the Saudis hologram technology.

Day after day Clay is driven to a large white tent on the outskirts of the King Abdullah Economic City (or KAEC) that is rising out of the desert.  There, he and three young colleagues sit around with laptops waiting to show a holographic teleconferencing system to King Abdullah, on behalf of Reliant, an American company that is the largest I.T. supplier in the world. Day after day, the king fails to arrive and the Americans lie around, worrying about the absence of wi-fi and trying to kill time in the emptiness.

The American businessman’s story that lies at the heart of A Hologram for the King is more than an individual drama. Clay’s story is closely intertwined with recent American economic history, in a narrative that Eggers has forged into a dark comedy, a kind of Waiting for Godot thing. This reflects the way in which, in his own career, Eggers has combined activism with writing that has increasingly had the state of America as its central concern.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers

I’m a great admirer of Dave Eggers.  Though highly mannered and conscious of its own bravura stylings, I  enjoyed hugely the wit and humour of his first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, in which he told the story of his parents’ deaths within weeks of each other, and of how he raised his kid brother while living out a Generation X lifestyle in San Francisco. I thought What Is the What, his non-fiction novel about Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese ‘Lost Boy’ who survives civil war and refugee camps only to meet with pain and heartbreak in America, was superb, while Zeitoun, was a brilliant account of an American heart of darkness in the aftermath story of Hurricane Katrina.

I admire Eggers, too, for the work his philanthropy and activism.  He co-founded the 826 Valencia project, a writing workshop for teens in a rundown district of San Francisco that evolved into 826 National, with writing workshops springing up around the country, and the non-profit organization ScholarMatch that connects donors with disadvantaged students who can’t afford to go to college (so it’s perhaps not surprising that Alan Clay, the protagonist in A Hologram for the King is anguished at the thought of not being able to support his daughter through college).

The new novel is a parable of America’s slow slide towards obsolescence in a globalized economy. Clay started out selling bicycles  for Schwinn bikes, the Chicago manufacturer – bikes made by American workers until the company abandons its factory in Chicago. Clay ponders the repercussions:

We’d tossed out a hundred years of expertise. You want your unit cost down, you manufacture in Asia, but pretty soon the suppliers don’t need you, do they? Teach a man to fish. Now the Chinese know how to fish, and ninety-nine percent of all bicycles are being made there, in one province.

Now Clay is facing an existential crisis. He’s divorced, he drinks too much, and the recession has worn down his earnings to practically nothing. He’s ‘virtually broke, nearly unemployed’, and needs to pull of this assignment in Saudi Arabia so that he can pay his daughter’s college fees. Reliant, a huge multinational, has sent him to Jeddah to pitch for the IT infrastructure contract for King Abdullah Economic City, a massive new development in the desert. Alan and his team aim to impress the king by showing him a cutting-edge holographic teleconferencing system, magically enabling a colleague in London to appear in 3D in their tent in Saudi Arabia.

Eggers makes everything about Alan’s crisis noticeably symbolic. During long hours of boredom as he waits for the king’s appearance, Alan muses that at Schwinn, he had been one of the executives who pushed for the bicycles to be manufactured outside America, in order to outflank the unions.  So the process was outsourced to Asia. The firm went bankrupt was Alan ‘left with nothing to sell’:

More efficient without the unions, cut them out. More efficient without American workers, period, cut them out. Why didn’t I see it coming? More efficient without me, too… I became unnecessary. I made myself irrelevant.

He’s had a career as a salesman, selling things. Now he’s selling an illusion to a man who never appears.

Eggers writes here with great spareness and clarity, conjuring the hallucinatory, weightless sense of Clay’s team waiting to make a holographic projection in the empty landscape of a puritan kingdom where everyone seems to be boozing on the sly.  Egger writes from personal experience of time spent in Saudi Arabia and cleverly evokes the absurdities of the scenario, at the same time affording glimpses of connections with the world beyond the kingdom’s borders.  In a half-finished apartment block in the desert he finds, just two floors below the gleaming finished apartments, a squalid bare concrete room where two dozen foreign labourers are crowded into a tiny space and fight over a discarded mobile phone.

A review in the New York Times described A Hologram for the King as ‘a clear, supremely readable parable of America in the global economy that is haunting, beautifully shaped and sad’, and continued:

Eggers speaks for a new America that has to think globally and can’t be sure where the country fits on the planetary screen. … Eggers, with ferocious energy and versatility, has been studying how the world is remaking America.

Before the start of the novel Eggers offers an epigraph from Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett:

It is not every day that we are needed.

Egger’s message for Americans (for us Europeans, too, no doubt) seems to be: get used to it.

See also

Zeitoun: Doing Katrina time

Zeitoun, Dave Eggers’ latest book which I’ve just finished, is a horrifying indictment of the Bush era – a Kafkaesque story that illuminates how a government that pursued xenophobic, anti-Islamic, militaristic and belligerent policies overseas turned on its own people.

Eggers tells the story of Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Muslim immigrant from Syria, settled in New Orleans, who had built up a successful business as a respected building contractor and landlord, who refuses to leave the city when the hurricane Katrina hits in late August 2005.  After the storm, Zeitoun takes out his canoe and sets off through the drowned streets of the eerily-quiet city, paddling through the rising waters for several days, using his canoe to rescue people stranded  in their homes, feed abandoned dogs, and check on his properties. Then, on the seventh day, at one of his properties where the phone still works and the water is still on so he can have a shower, he answers the door to six men:

They were wearing mismatched police and military uniforms.  Fatigues. Bulletproof vests.  Most were wearing sunglasses.  All had M-16s and pistols.  They quickly filled the hallway.  There were at least ten guns visible.

He is seized, along with three other men – two friends and his white tenant – and taken to the bus station where, astonishgly, a complete outdoor prison has been constructed in the parking lot.  This was Camp Greyhound:

Chain-link fences, topped by razor wire, had been erected into a long, sixteen-foot-high cage extending about a hundred yards into the lot. … Looking atit, Zeitoun realised that it wass not one long cage, but a series of smaller, divided cages. … It looked like a giant kennel, and yet it looked even more familiar than that.

It looked precesely like the pictures he’d seen of Guantanamo Bay.  Like that complex, it was a vast grid of chain-link fencing with few walls, so that the prisoners were visible to the guards and each other.  Like Guantanamo, it was outdoors, and there appeared to be nowhere to sit or sleep.  There were simply cages and the pavement beneath them.

Zeitoun and his companions were flung into one of the cages. ‘Why are we here?’ he asked a passing soldier. ‘You guys are al-Qaida’, was the reply. Another soldier said as he passed: ‘Taliban’. After three days enduring these conditions, Zeitoun and his companions are moved to a high-security prison in upstate Louisiana.  During all this time the prisoners have been denied their basic rights – no phone call to family, no access to a lawyer, no charges laid against them.  No-one knows where they are.

Meanwhile, Zeitoun’s American-born wife, Kathy, and their four children have driven north to stay with relatives in Baton Rouge. She becomes desperate when the there is no pre-arranged phone call from the house, and, as the days go by, no inkling of where Abdulrahman is, or what might have happened to him. Kathy does not hear word of him for weeks, and given the hysterical media reports of looting and murder in New Orleans (later shown to be false), assumes the worst.

Eggers tells the unfolding story entirely from the perspective of Abdulrahman and Kathy Zeitoun, with no authorial overview whatsoever.  But this does not mean that he accepted their word for what happened without question: in an appendix Eggers details the methodology that he followed and the extensive sources that he drew upon to compose his narrative.

Abdulrahman Zietoun in the New Orleans Greyhound bus station where he was held after ­being arrested

Eggers met the Zeitouns through Voice of Witness, a charity he set up in 2004 to record human rights abuses. He was immediately intrigued by the family and the symbolic significance of their story. Abdulrahman was born on the coast of Syria in 1957 and was a sailor for ten years before settling in Louisiana. There he met Kathy, brought up as a southern Baptist in Baton Rouge and a recent convert to Islam. They married and moved to New Orleans, where they built up a successful business.

Zeitoun was detained for almost a month before he was released on £50,000 bail for having looted his own house. The other three arrested with him fared worse, spending between five and eight months in prison, despite Zeitoun’s efforts to prise them out. Eventually, the charges against all four of them were dropped.

Their experiences were just a blip in the civil rights catastrophe that was Katrina. Camp Greyhound held a total of 1,200 detainees in the aftermath of the hurricane, most of whom were African-Americans and all of whom suffered the indignity of having their right to habeas corpus removed.  Due process and civil liberties were nonexistent, with no access to phones or lawyers.   So Zeitoun is not a story about the hurricane, instead it concerns the Bush administration’s two most outrageous policy disasters – the War on Terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina – as they collide with each other and come crashing down on one family.

In Dave Eggers own words in an interview:

It’s a legacy of the war on terror, this mentality that an overwhelming military response was the solution to a humanitarian crisis. It just felt like a real manifestation of the Bush years. FEMA was folded into Homeland Security and that became a disaster. And then, because of the military response and the perception that law and order was the first order of business, you had the suspension of pretty much all rights. Martial law was more or less enacted in New Orleans, and then you have one man who is just caught between all these lines, all these lumbering forces.

Zeitoun was among thousands of people who were doing “Katrina time” after the storm. There was a complete suspension of all legal processes and there were no hearings, no courts for months and months and not enough folks in the judicial system really seemed all that concerned about it. Some human-rights activists and some attorneys, but otherwise it seemed to be the cost of doing business. It really could have only happened at that time; 2005 was just the exact meeting place of the Bush-era philosophy towards law enforcement and incarceration, their philosophy toward habeas corpus and their neglect and indifference to the plight of New Orleanians.

This is the third remarkable book by Dave Eggers that I have read.  He called his 2006 novel What Is the What fiction but it was based on the true story of a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, one of the ‘Lost Boys’, called Valentino Achak Deng. I regard that book as one of the finest to emerge in the first decade of this century.  His first book, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, told the story of how, at 21, Eggers was left to bring up his eight-year-old brother, following the death of both of their parents from cancer within the space of weeks.

Eggers is fast becoming the conscience of liberal America.  Profits from What Is the What went to a foundation that has built a new school in Valentino Achak ‘s village.  Eggers will not personally make money from Zeitoun: funds from the book are being distributed by the Zeitoun Foundation, a nonprofit organisation set up by Eggers and the Zeitoun, to projects involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans and in taking up human rights issues.

In the final section of Zeitoun, Kathy recalls a female clerk at the prison who refused to tell her where Zeitoun’s hearing was taking place. “That this woman, a stranger, could know her despair and desperation, and simply deny her. That there could be trials without witnesses, that her government could make people disappear. It broke me,” Eggers continues: “She finds herself wondering, early in the morning and late at night . . . Did all that really happen? Did it happen in the United States? To us?”

Democracy Now special on Zeitoun, with Dave Eggers


Reading list 2008

Books I read this year that have left an impression include:

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski

Kapuscinski’s homage to Herodotus, another great traveller and reporter. It’s a great book, full of insights. Here, Kapuscinski tells how he acquired his travelling companion and embarked on his foreign travels:

One day I encountered my editor in chief in the hallway. She …asked me about my plans for the near future. I named various villages to which I would be going, the issues that awaited me there, and then summoned my courage and said: “One day, I would very much like to go abroad.” …This was only about crossing the border-somewhere. It made no difference which one, because what was important was not the destination, the goal, the end, but the almost mystical and transcendent act. Crossing the border. A year passed following that conversation. The telephone rang in our newsroom. The editor in chief was summoning me to her office. “You know,” she said, as I stood before her desk, “we are sending you. You’ll go to India.” At the end of our conversation, during which I learned that I would indeed be going forth into the world, Tarlowska reached into a cabinet, took out a book, and handing it to me said: “Here, a present, for the road.”

The book ends with Kapuscinski standing in a Turkish museum and a powerful image that seems to sum up his approach to other cultures, other human beings: we stand in darkness surrounded by light.

I also read his Shah of Shahs and The Soccer War. I’m looking forward to reading his last book, The Other, in 2009.

What Is The What by David Eggers

For me, this was the book of the year, maybe destined to be one of the key books of this century. The books’s subtitle is The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, but we know that it was actually the outcome of a year of meetings in which Deng told his story to Eggers who then crafted this beautifully-written and moving novel. Remarkably, all profits from What is What go to The Valentino Achak Deng Foundation, which distributes funds to Sudanese refugees in America, finances projects in southern Sudan, and supports the college education of Valentino Acheck Deng.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

Anam’s debut novel tells the story of a widowed mother’s fight to keep her son and daughter safe during Bangladesh’s war for independence.

“I thought I would write a sort of epic,” she says – “a very muscular narrative that had battle scenes and political rallies and all the sorts of big moments that you see in war novels. But actually, when I sat down to write, I ended up really thinking about what it was like for ordinary people to survive that war.” Tahmima Anam

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A powerful novel dealing with the impact of the war for Biafran independence in the late sixties.

“Vividly written, thrumming with life, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun is a remarkable novel. In its compassionate intelligence, as in its capacity for intimate portraiture, this novel is a worthy successor to such twentieth-century classics as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River.” Joyce Carol Oates

Children of the Revolution by Dinaw Mengestu

In some ways a companion to Dave Eggers’ book, Mengestu’s first novel tells of Sepha Stephanos who left Ethiopia as a teenager, fleeing repression that had already taken the life of his father. Now he lives in Washington DC, owner of a failing store.

What lifts Children of the Revolution beyond the bounds of an immigrant’s misery memoir is the captivating acuity of Mengestu’s prose. Upon these “children of the revolution”, whose expectations were so vast, and whose experience has been so entirely unsatisfactory, he bestows an immense dignity, never sentimentalising their plight. Despite, or perhaps because of, the attritions of his years in exile, Sepha has remained astonishingly tender. Although occasionally despairing, he has not yet lost the ability to love. In the end, it is this human warmth that triumphs. Olivia Laing, Guardian

Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers

Powers’ first book (1985) tells of three young men represented in the photograph by August Sander from 1914. The novel contains three alternating threads. The first is a fictional story about the three young men in the picture during World War I. The second is about Peter Mays, an editor for a technology magazine, who is obsessed with the photograph. The third is the author’s own critical and historical musings, mostly concerned with the mechanics of photography and the life of Henry Ford. Technology and photography are major themes.

This year I also read The Echo Maker, another novel of big ideas – but nowhere near as interesting a read. Several years ago I read In The Time Of Our Singing – a very impressive novel dealing with music and race in America.

Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

I caught up with this book by the 2000 Nobel Prize winner, Gao Xingjian. It’s a delicious, unclassifiable book – part travelogue, part inner quest, part sexual journey with a mysterious woman. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) Xingjian was sent to a re-education camp and felt it necessary to burn a suitcase full of manuscripts. Not until 1979 could he publish his work and travel abroad, to France and Italy. The search for Daoist writings, many of which were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution of the 70’s in China, is one of the threads in the book.

  • Biography at Nobel Prize site
  • Gao Xingjian’s Nobel Lecture 2000: ‘a writer does not speak as the spokesperson of the people or as the embodiment of righteousness. His voice is inevitably weak but it is precisely this voice of the individual that is more authentic’.

This was one of several books dealing with China in the 20th century that I read this year:

In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

During 1999 the Dutrch writer Geert Mak travelled around Europe visiting the places where 20th century Europe’s history was made: Verdun, Auschwitz, Gdansk, Warsaw, Srebrenica. The result is this book – perhaps one of the best in the crowded field of 20th century European history.

The book is not a call for unity, but a call for peace. It is a testament to Mak’s warmth and skill as a writer that even in a chronicle of unrelenting barbarity he has portrayed a humanity worth saving. Time


Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

So many aspects of Obama’s campaign in 2008 were stunning and inspiring – this memoir was one. Dreams From My Father is a remarkable book, not only in terms of the story it tells but also the way it is beautifully written. It is surely exceptional among American presidential memoirs. The way that Obama draws out his ideals and aspirations from his divided family history is inspirational. The message – of the importance of family, community and national unity – is summed up in this passage from one of his beautifully-crafted speeches:

If there is a child on the South Side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child. If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription drugs and has to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent. If there’s an Arab American family being rounded up without benefit of an attorney or due process, that threatens my civil liberties. It is that fundamental belief – that I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper- that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams and yet still come together as one American family.

30,000 Years of Art: The Story of Human Creativity Across Time and Space

I loved this book –  a Christmas gift last December. You gain a fresh perspective on the whole of art history from 28,000 BC to the present day because conventional art historical classifications are subverted by presenting 1,000 key works of
art in chronological order, demonstrating what was being created all over the globe
at the same timeand juxtaposing works of art from different cultures.

Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing

Earlier in the year, following her award of the Nobel Prize for Literature , I re-read Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence sequence. This from her acceptance speech:

I was brought up in what was virtually a mud hut, thatched. This kind of house has been built always, everywhere where there are reeds or grass, suitable mud, poles for walls – Saxon England, for example. The one I was brought up in had four rooms, one beside another, and it was full of books. Not only did my parents take books from England to Africa, but my mother ordered books by post from England for her children. Books arrived in great brown paper parcels, and they were the joy of my young life. A mud hut, but full of books…But here is the difficulty. Writing, writers, do not come out of houses without books.

Dave Eggers: What is the What

I’ve just finished reading this astonishing book – I think the most important novel published so far this century.  Novel? Well, yes, for although the novel’s subtitle, The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng’, refers to a real-life Sudanese refugee,  this Valentino informs us in a brief preface that ‘over the course of many years, I told my story orally to the author. He then concocted this novel, approximating my voice and using the basic events of my life as the foundation’. Dave Eggers has transformed Valentino and the people he met on his journey into characters in a book with the imaginative sweep, the scope and, above all, the emotional power of an epic.

Two stories unfold simultaneously in What Is the What. It begins, vividly and against expectation, in America, with the arrival of a stranger at Achak’s apartment in Atlanta. ‘I have no reason not to answer the door so I answer the door.’ The ‘tall, sturdily built African-American woman’ who rang the bell asks if she can use his phone to call the police because her car has broken down. He lets her in, and she’s soon followed by a man with a gun. They crack his skull, tie him up, and empty his apartment of valuables. But the thieves don’t have room in their van for the TV, so they leave a young boy to watch over both it and Achak until they can come back. Lying on the floor of his apartment, bound and gagged, his head bleeding and aching, Achak begins to imagine telling his life story to the boy, whose name he discovers is Michael.

This is a brilliant opening section to the novel that lets us see the violence and strangeness of American society through Achak’s eyes and his memories of a tranquil childhood among the Dinka tribe in the village of Marial Bal. There his father, who owned a shop, used to tell the story that gives the novel its title. After God created men and women, according to local legend, he gave them cattle, the source of ‘milk and meat and prosperity of every kind’. But God offered mankind a choice: ‘You can either have these cattle, as my gift to you, or you can have the What’. The Dinka chose the cow. But others picked, and continue to seek, the mysterious, unnameable, destructive and possibly unattainable What.

It was five years ago that Dave Eggers met Valentino Achak Deng. Achak, then in his early twenties, was one of 4,000 ‘Lost Boys’ who had washed up in adulthood in the United States having seen their childhood homes in southern Sudan destroyed in war, their families murdered. Orphaned, starving and having walked 1,000 miles across West Africa when he was eight or nine, under constant threat of random slaughter from militias and wild animals, Achak had lived for nearly 15 years in squatters’ camps in Ethiopia. In America, where he had finally been transported by charity, he was working to put himself through college.

Egggers listened to Achak’s story and in the months and years of their friendship that followed, he travelled to Sudan with Achak to witness the remains of the life he had left behind and became determined to write his story. Eggers has his own experiences of losing parents as a child. His first novel, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was about coping as a very young man with his younger brother after the sudden death of their parents.

The initial plan was essentially for Achak to write his autobiography, while Eggers would assist him with his English and ‘straighten the narrative out a bit’, taking on a more or less conventional role somewhere between editor and ghostwriter. But, after a year, they realised this wasn’t going to work: ‘What we had from our recording sessions . . . was fascinating, but it did not transcend the many human rights reports and newspaper articles already available to the world.’

Eggers came to realise that for him to tell the story in the third person ‘would be distracting and tonally incorrect’. So Achak would have to tell his own story. But, ‘as a journalist’, Eggers was ‘trained not to put any dialogue between quotation marks unless it was on tape’. So the only way to tell the story in a way that stood a chance of appealing to a wide general readership was to write it as fiction.