Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place

<em>Addlands</em>: the inescapable ties of geography and place

In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is an article by John Lanchester in which – although he’s writing about Brexit – he makes an observation that seems to resonate with a novel I read recently: ‘England’, Lanchester writes, ‘is both a small country and a big one …there is a lot of Deep England out there.’

Tom Bullough’s Addlands is set in deepest Radnorshire, a story of hill farmers battling with the forces of nature in one of Britain’s wildest, poorest and least populated areas. Historically a Welsh county, culturally Radnorshire has been a law unto itself, its people declaring their identity as neither Welsh nor English, but Radnor folk, people of the Borders; and fiercely-contested borders between fields and farms form one of the threads in a novel that spans the decades from the 1940s to 2011. Continue reading Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place”

Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud

<em>Satantango</em>: humanity flounders in the mud

There’s a DVD I’ve had for years but never watched, except for the first ten minutes or so. I’ve always been overwhelmed at the prospect of the long haul that lies ahead. Made by the director Béla Tarr, it’s a seven hour long adaptation of the first novel by fellow Hungarian László Krasznahorkai, called Sátántangó.

The book was published in Hungary in 1985, and Bela Tarr’s film came out nine years later.  But it was only in 2012 that an English translation of the novel appeared. Lent it by my friend Dave, I finished it in just less than the time it would have taken me to watch the film version. But what to make of it? Continue reading Satantango: humanity flounders in the mud”

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House

I’ve reached the half-way mark in my odyssey through the novels of Charles Dickens – his most ambitious work, and the one which is widely held to be his masterpiece: Bleak House.

Dickens began writing Bleak House in November 1851, towards the end of the year of the Great Exhibition, that symbol of the high-water mark of Victorian Britain.  Looking back on the year, the Manchester Guardian asserted that were ‘good grounds for satisfaction, for hope, and for self-approval’.  Dickens did not concur. Continue reading “Re-reading Dickens: Bleak House”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy

What does it mean to come home?
Home, page 106

Recently, I read the Marilynne Robinson trilogy that begins with Gilead (2004), continues with Home (2008) and concludes with Lila (2014). I don’t think I have read a finer suite of novels.  Collectively, in an undemonstrative fashion, they constitute an interrogation of America as a home, and of the obligations of religious belief in a society in which social justice and the care of others is not guaranteed for all.  The novels are set in the quiet and conservative rural America of the early 1950s, yet there’s an undertow of a country divided by race and prejudice. Continue reading “Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead trilogy”

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire

Just as the our century seems likely to be defined by the act of terrorism perpetrated in New York in 2001, so was the twentieth century defined by the shots fired in Sarajevo in 1914. In a brilliant passage in The Radestky March, Joseph Roth describes how the news of that world-changing event slowly seeps into the consciousness of a drunken outdoor celebration on the far eastern margins of the Austro-Hungarian empire as a storm breaks on one sultry night in July 1914.

But that is just one of many such superb passages in The Radestky March. I don’t know how I could have lived so long before reading such a marvellous book. Roth’s elegiac evocation of the slow decay of a way of life that disappeared with the collapse of the multinational Habsburg Empire and its dominant class might seem unexpected  from an author born to Orthodox Jewish parents who named him Moses Joseph Roth, and a man who began his journalistic career in Vienna after the First World War, writing for left-wing newspapers under the pen-name Red Roth.

Das bin ich wirklich; bšse, besoffen, aber gescheit
Joseph Roth

For that was Roth’s own story – born in 1894 in Brody, a town on the far eastern edge of the Empire, just a few miles from the Russian border in the imperial crownland of Galicia, where two-thirds of the population were Jewish. Galicia had become part of the Austrian Empire in 1772, when Poland was dismembered; it was a poor region densely populated with Ukrainians (then known as Ruthenians), Poles, and Jews. The circumstances of Roth’s birth begin to explain the vision of the novel he came to write in 1932, amidst the turmoil that had followed the collapse of the Dual Monarchy.

The title evokes the twin monarchy of Austria and Hungary and the music of Johann Strauss I, who composed the march in honour of a field marshal who won key battles that asserted Austrian domination of northern Italy in the 1840s, and which soon became the theme song of the empire. But, whereas the historical novel usually celebrates the triumph of the nation-state, in The Radestky March Roth reverses the trend, seeing in the nationalist movements that inspired the terrorists in Sarejevo and which contributed to the end of the Hapsburg Empire the force that destroyed his own heimat, his homeland. ‘His birthplace had been ceded to Poland,’ his translator Michael Hofmann wrote, ‘his country – the supranational Dual Monarchy comprising 17 nationalities – was a figment of history, and he lived off his wits, out of a couple of suitcases.’

Reviewing Michael Hoffman’s translation of Roth’s Collected Stories for the NYRB in 2002, JM Coetzee added this:

Nostalgia for a lost past and anxiety about a homeless future are at the heart of the mature work of the Austrian novelist Joseph Roth. “My most unforgettable experience was the war and the end of my fatherland, the only one that I have ever had: the Austro-Hungarian monarchy,” he wrote in 1932. “I loved this fatherland,” he continued in a foreword to The Radetzky March. “It permitted me to be a patriot and a citizen of the world at the same time, among all the Austrian peoples also a German. I loved the virtues and merits of this fatherland, and today, when it is dead and gone, I even love its flaws and weaknesses.” The Radetzky March is the great poem of elegy to Habsburg Austria.

In 1914 Roth enrolled at university in Vienna, which at that time had the largest Jewish community in Central Europe, some 200,000 in number. ‘It is hard enough being an Ostjude‘ (a Jew from the East), remarked Roth, ‘but there is no harder fate than being an Ostjude outsider in Vienna.’ Ostjuden had to contend not only with anti-Semitism but with the aloofness of Western Jews. Roth was an outstanding student, but his education was terminated by the war. Although he had pacifist leanings, he enlisted in 1916, at the same time abandoning the name Moses. In 1917, ethnic tensions in the imperial army led to him being transferred out of a German-speaking unit to a Polish-speaking unit in Galicia.

Galicia, the most distant and northernmost province of the Hapsburg Empire, is the setting for the scene referred to earlier in which a celebration, organised by the local army unit, is taking place outdoors. As a summer heatwave breaks, thunder draws closer and sheet lightning illuminates the night sky:

No one heard the rapid gallop of the orderly who raced across the forecourt, came to a sudden stop, and in full regulation kit, with glittering helmet, rifle across his shoulders and cartridge pouch on his belt, white lightning flashing around him and purple clouds darkening him, looked not unlike a herald of war in a play. The dragoon dismounted and asked for Colonel Festetics. He was told the Colonel was already inside.  A moment later, the Colonel came out, was handed a letter by the orderly, and went back inside. He stopped in the circular hall, which had no ceiling lighting. A footman came up behind him, with a branched candlestick in his hand. The Colonel tore open the envelope. The footman, though trained from earliest youth in the great arts of serving, was nevertheless unable to keep his hand from shaking. The candles he was holding started flickering violently. He made not the slightest effort to peer over the Colonel’s shoulder, but the text of the message came within view of his well-trained eyes, a single outsize sentence written very clearly in blue copying pen. As incapable as he would have been of ignoring through closed eyelids one of the flashes of lightning that now were quivering in ever faster succession in every quarter of the sky, so he was averting his eyes from the terrible, large, blue letters that spelled out: ‘There are unconfirmed reports that the heir to the throne has been assassinated in Sarajevo.’

The words struck home, like a single, unbroken word, into the consciousness of the Colonel and the eyes of the footman standing immediately behind him. The envelope slipped from the Colonel’s hands. The footman, holding the candlestick in his left hand, stooped down to pick it up with his right. When he stood up straight again, he found himself staring at Colonel Festetics, who had turned round to face him. The footman took a step back. He held the candlestick in one hand, the envelope in the other, and now both were trembling. The flickering candlelight played over the Colonel’s face, alternately lighting it and darkening it. The coarse, flushed face of the Colonel, graced with a grey-blond moustache, was now purple, now chalk-pale. The lips trembled slightly, and the moustache quivered. No one else was in the hall, only the Colonel and the footman. From the interior of the house came the sounds of the first muffled waltzes from the two bands, the jingling of glasses, and the murmurs of conversation. Through the door that led out to the forecourt they could see the reflections of distant lightnings, and hear the feeble echo of distant thunder. The Colonel looked at the footman. ‘Did you read that?’ ‘Yes, Colonel!’ ‘Not a word to a soul!’ said Festetics, applying his finger to his lips. He walked off, tottering slightly. Perhaps it was the uncertain illumination that made his walk seem unsteady.

Joseph Roth in Berlin

Joseph Roth in Berlin

The Radetzky March brims with such brilliant passages.  The novel follows the fortunes of three generations of the Trotta family, loyal servants of the crown.  The first Trotta is a simple soldier who is elevated to the minor nobility for an act of heroism at the battle of Solferino in 1859 (the last major battle at which all the armies were under the personal command of their monarchs).  This man of lowly rank dares to push the Emperor Franz Joseph to the ground, taking in his own body the bullet which would have struck the Emperor. But Roth instantly (in only the fourth sentence of the novel) gives us a foretaste of the grandiosity and ridiculousness of an empire that will decay:

Fate had elected him for a special deed.  But then he made sure that later times lost all memory of him.

The Hero of Solferino is celebrated in a textbook for the schoolchildren of the Empire.  But the account is exaggerated, and Trotta seeks an audience with the Emperor to ask for things to be put right:

“Listen, my dear Trotta!” said the Kaiser.  “The whole business is rather awkward. But neither of us comes off all that badly.  Let it be!”

“Your Majesty,” replied the captain, “it’s a lie!”

“People tell a lot of lies,” the Kaiser confirmed.

“I can’t, your Majesty,” the captain choked forth.

Trotta requests his discharge from the army, though Imperial favour does not abandon him. He is made a Baron, 5,000 guldens are allocated for his son’s  education, and – thanks to the Emperor’s casually expressed wish – the offending textbook disappears from the monarchy’s schools.

Trotta’s son – partly because of his father’s legendary status – obtains a secure post in the Civil Service, eventually becoming a prominent District Commissioner, conscientious, totally dedicated to routine and order, but lacking all imagination His son, Carl Joseph, is an army officer who begins to feel a growing sense that his life is dissolving into futility as the Habsburg mystique he is reminded of each Sunday when a military band plays the Radetzky March, loses its hold on him.  Finally, he perishes without issue in the Great War. The trajectory of the Trottas mirrors the decline of the empire.

Continue reading “The Radetzky March: elegy for an empire”

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt’s ‘The Goldfinch’: simply a good read

Donna Tartt, author of 'The Goldfinch'

Donna Tartt, author of The Goldfinch

I enjoyed reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, remaining gripped throughout its 800-odd pages.  Whether the novel amounted to a great deal more than a thoroughly good read: of that I’m doubtful.  The question only arises because of the serious issues hinted at, but not developed in any significant way, in the novel’s powerful opening chapter, and by the Macguffin at its heart – the precious and exquisite work of art which accompanies the narrator from his childhood bereavement, through teenage dissipation to a chilling endgame in Amsterdam.

Readers had been waiting a long time for a new book from Donna Tartt – eleven years to be precise – so, not surprisingly, The Goldfinch has a bestseller, as well as garnering  much critical acclaim.  In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, called it ‘a glorious Dickensian novel, a novel that pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole’. However, the critical reception hasn’t been wholly rapturous: a review in the London Review of Books described it as a ‘children’s book’ for adults.

It really depends on your expectations.  Having read (and enjoyed) Tartt’s two previous books (The Secret History and The Little Friend), I was not expecting great literature that probed the urgent moral and social of our time.  The Goldfinch, indeed, shares many characteristics of the two earlier novels: situated for at least half its length in a childhood or adolescent milieu, and turning out to be, basically, a superior sort of thriller. Tartt is especially good at getting inside the minds of pre-adult males, and is acutely observant of teenage mores and amoral behaviour.  To that extent, the first two-thirds of The Goldfinch follow the pattern of her earlier books.  In the opening chapter it seems as if it might offer more.

Donna Tartt, 'The Goldfinch'

After a brief prologue in Amsterdam, Tartt begins by rewinding 14 years to the day when Theo, the novel’s narrator, loses his mother when a terrorist bomb explodes as they are visiting  New York’s Metropolitan Museum. This chapter, written in gripping prose, reminded me of the astonishing first chapter of Don de Lillo’s Underworld.  Theo and his mother are in separate rooms when the bomb blast occurs, and the descriptions of Theo regaining consciousness in the wreckage, and trying to find his way out of the ripped-apart museum before returning home, expecting to find his mother there, are brilliantly written.

There’s a sense here that themes of great significance may be unfolding.  No reader could fail to sense some sort of parallel with 9/11.  And when Theo leaves the wreckage of the museum with a painting – one that actually exists in the world, ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius – the anticipation grows that Tartt’s novel might resonate with the concerns of a time that has seen the treasures of great cultures destroyed in acts of war and terror. For surely, Tartt means us to recall the explosion, in Delft in October 1654, when a gunpowder arsenal blew up, killing hundreds of people, among them the young painter, Carel Fabritius. Perhaps her intention is that we should meditate on the destruction by the Taliban of the Bamiyan buddhas?

But it’s not to be, despite the fact that, minutes before her death, Theo’s mother tells him as she stands before the painting, ‘Anything we manage to save from history is a miracle’. This may be what irritated some critics: apart from a couple of paragraphs at the end of the novel that feel tacked on, the miraculous survival of Fabritius’s painting in two explosions (one real, one fictitious) matters to Tartt only insofar as it provides the motor for the art-world crime thriller that makes up the final third of the book.

The longest section of the The Goldfinch is one which has led some critics to compare the novel to Dickens’s Great Expectations. A motherless child, Theo is first taken in by the wealthy Manhattan family of a nerdish school friend, presided over by the Miss Haversham-like figure of Mrs Barbour. But, after a few months his estranged alcoholic gambler of a father turns up to whisk him away to a barren suburb of Las Vegas.  There, Theo meets the boy who will become his lifelong friend: Boris, a thieving, drinking, drug-taking teenage Ukrainian who leads Theo into a world of excess.

Along with the opening section, this was for me the best part of the novel.  Theo’s friendship with Boris – the son of a crooked Russian businessman, portrayed in vivid terms by Tartt –  is the backbone of the story.  It is this friendship, not anyone’s devotion to art and its ideals, that saves ‘The Goldfinch’ – and Theo himself.



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