The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Dave Egger’s The Circle is the 1984 of social networking. The book embraces the parallels between the totalitarian Party of Oceania and the ubiquitous Internet company known as the Circle, a next generation mash-up between Google, Facebook and Twitter with a healthy dose of Apple’s cult of superiority.

Mae Holland initially arrives at the prestigious company on the coat-tails of her high-powered former college room-mate Annie. Mae’s star rises quickly as she becomes the public ambassador for the company and it’s vision of total transparency, which she adopts with increasing fervor.

Eggers can be cruel to his characters. Poor Mae is the unwitting guinea pig in Egger’s experiments subject to one uncomfortable invasion of privacy after another until the end of privacy is taken to it’s dystopian extreme. Convinced that this is a necessary and good thing and eager to demonstrate her loyalty to the company, Mae comes to embody a fanaticism reminiscent of Mao’s Red Guard.


On behalf of the Circle, Mae coins these slogans: SECRETS ARE LIES. SHARING IS CARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.

The book creates a space in which to think about the potential dark sides of these technologies, to question blind faith in techno-utopian visions.  The competing forces at play are neatly represented by the leaders of the company known as the Three Wise Men – the hacker, the prophet and the capitalist. In a running metaphor, each has a corresponding creature from the deep sea. Like the Party’s will to power for the sake of power, the shark needs little reason to devour everything in its path.

Once you’ve read The Circle, you owe it to yourself to read Margaret Atwood’s wise and literate review in the New York Review of Book. On the other hand, if you’d appreciate the techno-utopian riposte, Wired reviews the book under the title What the Internet Looks Like if You Don’t Understand It.

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The Heart’s Tremolo

he couldn’t bear to be so careless
hiding a knife behind the lust
couldn’t bear to see the first scratches
on a polished perfect face of total trust

this is no time to be tentative
I raise me lips to the task
but I am not sure that I can afford
the honesty of the outcast

– Jenny Toomey, from the lyrics of The Heart’s Tremolo by Toomey’s 1990’s band Tsunami.

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The Book of Illusions

“You know you don’t have to finish it,” friends reminded me in response to my ranting about the protagonist acting like a jerk or the implausible motivations of the other characters. “How does this book get so much praise?” I wondered in exasperation.

The NY Times review aptly described the book’s subject matter as the “relationship between the creative imagination and the world and the word and salvation”. Sure, but the book dwells on the negation of creativity and the solipsism of creativity divorced from an audience.

One thing I can say for the book is that the ending is well played. Watching the threads connecting the book’s meandering lines snap taut in the final pages is impressive. Along the way, there’s a nod to the Los Angeles school of hard-boiled detectives and more than a nod to the self-flagellating characters of Nathaniel Hawthorne.

If you like the story within a story trick and won’t be tempted to roll your eyes at the unlikely beddings of grumpy old men by lustful young ladies, maybe you’ll have a fine time with Paul Auster’s “The Book of Illusions”. For me, the book was more successful in it’s structure than it’s sympathies.

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“Your ability to persuade is the single most important determinant of your quality of life.”

The organization can teach you a potent form of persuasion, primal syllables laden with the power to “hack the protocol” of human language and thought, to “compromise”, to implant commands into the minds of others. This is the premise behind Max Barry’s Lexicon (2013). The story revolves around a word so powerful that it amounts to a psychological Master Switch.

Lexicon is a fun read and high in action. Like all good science fiction, the book takes some aspect of modern life and turns it up to the nth degree. Here, it’s our vulnerability to manipulation by corporations and political interests – a vulnerability magnified by the trail of electronic data that follows us around revealing our hopes, fears and desires.

The germs of the ideas are laid out in Barry’s blog:

Privacy is obviously very important for reasons nobody understands. Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies and governments to want to know things about you than for you to keep your data private.”

Persuasion. This is the most valuable skill in the world, right? People who are good at persuading others become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this.”

Privacy + Persuasion. It’s easier to persuade people if you know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can get more information from them.”

Barry’s openness is refreshing, offering insight into his process and encouragement for aspiring writters.

The power of words is the core of the story, but the one place were the author underplays his hand is with words themselves. On the run, hunted by the organization, the heroine studies a dictionary learning to derive for herself new keywords. Always keeping on the move, she discusses the derivation of the word awful with a sympathetic fellow train passenger. This scene hints at how linguistics could have been woven more deeply into the story. I know I would enjoy geeking out on that stuff but maybe I’m in a narrow demographic.

Barry advises against getting too hung up in research. “Research is useful in two phases: the idea phase and the rewriting phase. In between, […] research is a distraction from what’s important, which is story-telling.”

Similar themes are covered, maybe a bit more bookishly, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Don DeLillo’s The Names, for those needing a bit more erudition with their sex, violence and evil conspiracies.

Lexicon manages to be thought provoking without ever slackening the roller-coaster pace. The book offers a choice. Do we live in paranoid isolation guarding our every thought lest it reveal too much about us? Or, accept that being open carries the risk of compromise?

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The Trees

When Thomas brought news that the
house I was born in no longer exists,

Neither the lane nor the park sloping to
the river, nothing,

I had a dream of return. Multicolored.
Joyous. I was able to fly.

And the trees were even higher than in
childhood, because they had been
growing during all the years since they had been cut down.

(Milosz  373)

This passage from Czeslaw Milosz’ The Wormwood Star is quoted on Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks. Thanks to the Colorado Poets Center.

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A Hologram for the King

“There would be a time when the world created people stronger than them. When all of this got worked out. But until then there would be women and men like Hanne and Alan who were imperfect and had no path toward perfection.”

In the first pages of Dave Egger’s A Hologram for the King, we meet Alan Clay and discover that he is truly screwed. The story takes place in Saudi Arabia. Clay represents the Reliant corporation in a bid to supply communications gear for the construction of King Abdullah Economic City. His team is to present to the King, in person.


King Abdullah Economic City, satellite imagery from Google maps

The imperfect Alan Clay is middle aged, divorced, in debt, self-indulgent and self-deceiving, alternating between ruminations on his past failures and optimistic but unfounded visions of future success. His behavior ranges from unwise to uncomfortably bizarre. At every step, he does the wrong thing. The exasperated reader urges him, like a wayward brother, to get his act together, for once, to buck up and make something of himself. But, it’s too late. His path towards bigger and brighter things has come to an end and the inevitable decline begun.

The ruminations encompass Clay’s broken marriage to the spirited Ruby and the upbringing of Kit, their daughter, to whom Clay has promised another year of college tuition. Clay’s father, a stern World War II vet, makes disapproving appearances, especially when it comes to Clay’s involvement in outsourcing production for the Schwinn Bicycle Company and the aftermath of that decision.

The Reliant deal is Clay’s shot at redemption – his last opportunity to make good – to provide for his daughter, to pay off his debts and restart his flagging career. It’s supposed to be a cinch, but like Kafka’s hero struggling to gain access to the Castle, a thicket of baroque entanglements, obstacles and complications block the way.

Shame is the dominant emotional undercurrent of the story and this makes for disquieting reading, as does Alan Clay’s role as a symbol for an America in decline. The allegory for America is so tightly constructed that nearly every action or utterance of the character echoes with references to America’s missteps and the disarray in which she finds herself mired.

A book so heavy with shame and decline might be a tough sell. To the last, Alan Clay still clings to an ever slimmer thread of hope. But, by that time we’ve seen enough to know that it’s over. The punch at the end is all the harder knowing that the hero goes out with a whimper. After that, we’re left with shame.

It’s a shame that America squandered the incredible wealth of the 20th century. It’s a shame that the middle class is an endangered species. It’s a shame that the American dream turned out to be a cheaply made consumer product sold by the unscrupulous or deluded to the credulous and hopeful around the world. It would be a great shame if that dream was just an illusion all along.




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Sonny Rollins, the Colossus
By Mark Jacobson, Men’s Journal Sep 2013

At 82, Sonny Rollins is one of the last jazz originals. He still tours, records, and practices three hours a day, convinced he’s still got something to learn – and something to prove.

Legendary jazz master Sonny Rollins is the subject of a great profile by Mark Jacobson. Most of what follows is excerpted from Jacobson’s excellent piece, slightly remixed.


The image of the brilliant jazzman seeker – the lone figure amid the chaotic howl of the city, blowing his horn in quest of a bit of sanity.

On the bridge, 135 feet above the roiling East River, he could really let loose under the sky and the stars with the whole city laid out before him. Musicians all over town thought he was nuts. Why did he need all this practice? He was the best; wasn’t that good enough? But those people didn’t hear what Sonny heard. He was nothing but a glorified beginner, Sonny believed, a work in progress. There were places he needed to go. When he got there, that’s when he’d come back.

Between 1959 and 1961, at age 29, already widely regarded as the leading tenor man in the jazz world, he abruptly quit playing in public, instead practicing up to 16 hours a day on the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge. Here’s how Rollins describes it (in the FAQ):

In the 50s and 60s, Lucille and I had a small apartment on Grand Street on the Lower East Side of New York. It was a nice time. I had a lot of friends there and I was welcomed by the neighborhood people. Like most of New York, the Lower East Side has undergone gentrification but back then, it was a much more ethnic place.

I started practicing in the house because I had to practice, but I felt guilty because I’m a sensitive person and I know that people need quiet in their apartments.

I was walking on Delancey Street one day, not far from where I lived on Grand Street and I just happened to look up and see these steps that I decided to check out. And there, of course, was the bridge, the Williamsburg Bridge. It was this nice big expanse going over the East River. There was nobody up there. So I started walking acoss the bridge and said, “Wow. This is what I have been looking for. This is a private place. I can blow my horn as loud as I want.” Because the boats are coming under, and the subway is coming across, and cars, and I knew it was perfect, just serendipity. Then, I began getting my horn and going up there regularly. I would be up there 15 or 16 hours at a time spring, summer, fall and winter.

“It wasn’t like I was playing bad. I just knew I could get better, that I had to get better… All I wanted to do was play my horn, and get better.”

On Achievement

While acknowledging “top-shelf praise”, Rollins says, bristling “I haven’t been out here all these years for them to stick me in a museum. They can take me out and shoot me before I’ll allow myself to be some oldies act.” He presented several pieces of sheet music marked with tightly grouped musical figures. It was a new composition, Sonny said, an idea that had come to him when he was practicing only the day before. He couldn’t say for sure where the piece might end up, but he liked the direction. That was the key, moving ahead. The past could be “a beautiful dream,” Sonny said. But he wasn’t about to dwell on it. Forward, that’s where the Saxophone Colossus was heading.

“People say, ‘Sonny, take it easy, lean back. Your place is secure. You’re the great Sonny Rollins; you’ve got it made.’ I hear that and I think, ‘Well, screw Sonny Rollins. Where I want to go is beyond Sonny Rollins. Way beyond.'”

“You see, I’m going toward this breakthrough, this piece of music that is going to explain it all to me,” he declared. It could be a single note or new composition, but it was there, Sonny knew, inside of him, “it will matter.”

On Aging

On “the wrong side of 81,” he could feel the metronome inside his head ticking away, each instant too precious to be squandered on the puny minutiae of the day-to-day.

“Others might say, ‘Poor old guy; he’s doing his best.’ But I can’t cut myself that slack.”

Despite what he calls “the decrease in my physicality,” Sonny has always looked like a giant…his copious mane of gray hair combed out to appear as if flying electrically away from his outsize, coffee-light-colored skull, Sonny looked like nothing less than a madly hip Moses, fresh down from Sinai, forever larger than life.

On Technology

“Technology, man,” Sonny said with a shrug. “All this little stuff interrupts my chain of thought. Consequently, I haven’t been able to properly practice my horn the way I have to,” he said, emerging from the laundry room in a loose-fitting khaki shirt, a pair of baggy gray sweatpants, and thick white socks stuffed into open-toe leather slippers. “If I don’t get to practice, work on my embouchure and scales, then I can’t play correctly, and if I can’t play correctly, I can’t work out my ideas, and if I can’t work out my ideas, then I go crazy.”

On drugs, politics, and the jazz scene

“To me, jazz has always been about politics,” Sonny said. “You can read philosophy – and, believe me, I have – but no matter what you do, you can’t take the music out of life in the street.” This was why Harlem in the 1930s and ’40s was such a special place.

“Monk was my guide, my guru, the one who made me understand what it meant to be a true musician… the geometry of musical time and space,” said Sonny. “Monk always told me that without music, life wouldn’t be shit.”

“Well….let me put it like this: At that time, we were all using dope. And Monk, he would never take more than his fair share. He was also the single most honest man I ever met in my life.”

“It gave me that celestial feeling, like being attached to everything in the universe. So why would I stop? All my idols were using it, so it seemed the normal thing to do. All we did was play and get high: existence broken down to the basics.” But, the heroin life had “negative lifestyle aspects,” Sonny ruefully acknowledged. “I stole, I lied. I did things I will always regret.”

“John Coltrane was my great friend and my great rival”



More Colossus

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FADE IN SOMETIME IN THE FUTURE – SPACE Silent and endless. The stars shine like the love of God…cold and remote.

The opening of the screenplay for ALIENS

Thanks to Radiolab’s episode on parasites for this one.

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The Dog Stars

If the end of the world is like the apocalypse described in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars, I stand little chance of surviving for long. Of course, the same could be said for Hig, the story’s unlikely hero.

Hig loves flying, fishing, poetry and his dog. He is not cut out for the chaos that ensues after a pandemic wipes out most of humanity. His partner, Bangley, gun nut and survivalist keeps him alive. This darkly hilarious pairing is like Henry David Thoreau meets Mad Max. Together they defend a rural airport against a regular onslaught of human predators, the desperate and deranged remains of a lost civilization.

The writing is sparse and clean, evoking side-by-side the simple beauty of nature and the charred wreckage of the world. Much of the story comes as dialog. Hig and Bangley, Hig and Jasper, the dog. Hig and himself. Hig and the voices of the dead. Those voices echo loud in the emptiness. Finally, Hig leaves the relative safety of Bangley’s protection and embarks on a quest for living voices.

From the cockpit of a 1956 Cessna, Hig views the aftermath of the end with a degree of philosophical detachment – a panorama of loss, and of what lies beyond.

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Jazz is dead… again

Scott Timberg, writing on Salon, asks “Did the American Songbook kill jazz?” Benjamin Schwartz of the Atlantic declares, “The End of Jazz“.


The occasion for this who-dunnit with jazz as the victim is the publication of Ted Gioia’s The Jazz Standards, by Oxford University Press. The argument goes that they just aren’t writing standards like they used to – many standards derive from 1940’s and 50’s pop tunes – so jazz is doomed to forever rehash the same old songs.

The thesis is based on the supposition that jazz is defined as a high-art meta-layer over pop culture. If that’s true and if pop culture has become dumbed down and repetitive, you’ve got a problem. Pop culture is going to hell in a handbasket these days. Then again, pop culture is always going to hell in a handbasket.

Someone once said that true beauty is that which remains beautiful on re-examination. People typically remember the pop culture of some time back-in-my-day as being superior to the crap they’re putting out today. The thing is, they’re putting out mostly crap at all times, including the mythical way-back-when. It’s just that, over time, we forget about the crap. Then, the good stuff shines through and the bygone era appears to have been a lost golden age.

Anyway, I’m not sure they’ve got the defining characteristic of jazz right. The standards are great songs, but they’re not everything. To the musicians, the freedom and interplay of improvisation might be closer to the core. To the listener, it might be more about empathy with the feel of the music, the musical vocabulary and instrumental virtuosity. Experiments with complex song structure, odd time signatures and raw melodies careening on the edge of disaster is definitely part of the appeal.

Those things all apply just as well to original compositions, which form the bulk of new jazz. There may be some truth to the assertion that jazz has lost its connection to pop culture. But, even in this respect, an obituary might be a little premature. The Bad Plus covers Smells Like Teen Spirit. Stanley Jordan does a surprisingly cool and bluesy I Kissed a Girl. Brad Mehldau covers Radiohead.

Many rightly point out that there’s a lot of talent and vibrance in the current jazz scene. In these times of super-fragmented culture, there are many niches where jazz and its influence are doing just fine. Is another Kind of Blue or Giant Steps going to come out tomorrow? Probably not, but those don’t exactly grow on trees.

The jazz of the 1950s and early 60s will be remembered among the greatest artistic achievements of modern times, long after our empire has crumbled to dust. I’m not worried about jazz being a relic. It’s a relic that still has a lot of mojo left in it.


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