Notable Books 2013: Dinosaur Porn vs. Dave Eggers’s ‘The Circle’
Which is more plausible?
Dave Eggers’ social media satire The Circle was selected as one of the New York Times’ Notable Books of 2013.
Taken by the T-Rex, a work of dinosaur erotica, was not.
This is a terrible mistake.
Both novels follow the lives of smart, independent women with really awesome bodies. Drin, the heroine of Taken by the T-Rex, has “pert breasts” and “was used to being stared at by men.” Mae, the heroine of The Circle, recalls how her “face had softened and curves appeared, curves that brought the attention of men of myriad ages and motives.”
As her story opens, Drin’s village has just been ravaged by a T-Rex, which has eaten most of the people she knows, including her mother. “A finger, a hand, a head, some hair; Drin found numerous pieces of the people she had known as she walked around as if in a trance.”
Mae has $234,000 worth of student loan debt and has been forced to work for the IT section of the local utility company. “The green cinderblocks. An actual water cooler…And the hours! Actually nine to five!” Worst of all: a cubicle, lined with burlap. “A bulk burlap, a poor man’s burlap, a budget burlap,” she groans. Her supervisor’s mustache was “furry and wayward, like two small paws emerging,” and his breath smelled “of ham.”
Luckily, both young women are immediately thrust into action: Mae joins The Circle, “voted the world’s most admired company four years running,” and must struggle to fit in. Drin schemes about how to avenge her family. These are both very dangerous activities: Mae will have to indiscriminately “like” other people’s status updates, and Drin will have to dig a pit and trap the T-Rex in it.
Some readers have complained about the “accuracy” of these novels.
Eggers, who said he purposefully avoided researching real tech companies, appears not to understand what an operating system is, suggests people might want to “forward” tweets, and confuses the FCC and the FTC, which suggests that also abstained from Google.
“Humans and dinosaurs did not co-exist — I understand that. Fine. I’ll suspend my disbelief,” one reviewer of “Ravished by the Triceratops” noted. “What I can not get behind, however, is the woman on the cover wearing a bikini. Bikini swimsuits were not invented until 1946, and even then not popularized until the 1960s.”
These readers are missing the point. As Dave Eggers put it, these works are pure speculative fiction!
The brisk pace of Taken by the T-Rex, which is only about 19 pages long, does not leave much space for evocations of scenery. There are some “purple and red innards” that villagers trip over. Also bodily fluids. Alara Branwen and Christie Sims, the pseudonymous dinosaur porn authors, also spend a bit too much time describing the various traps Drin builds to catch the T-Rex: pits, branches, pointy sticks. We’re pretty sure it’s going to ravish her anyway.
Eggers, in contrast, fills a plodding 491 pages with endless descriptions of the tech company’s campus: gleaming glass floors, gleaming wood panels works of art pillaged from bankrupt parliaments. This is occasionally fun—one of the executives of The Circle has a secret fireman’s pole that goes down seven stories from his wood-paneled library to the parking lot. (Plausible!) But more often these descriptions are tiring, especially because The Circle spends passage after passage explaining the bizarre workings of “futuristic” technologies like Twitter, Fitbit, and Google Glass.
The worst part
Eggers tries to convince his readers that our obsession with social media will make us less human. His heroine is overwhelmed with scores and stats and multiple screens, messages and pings and zings, her own voice saying in her ear, “Mae. Mae.”
The problem with this critique of social media is that Eggers doesn’t understand it’s actually social. Eggers imagines a world without subtweets or hate favs, a world where everything can be taken at face value. The act of communicating with other human beings is reduced to the act of hitting buttons and getting numbers back. Eggers constantly describes the quantity of messages that Mae receives, the rankings she is given, the number of emails she has answered, but almost never what they actually contain. Mae can climb the internal social ranking of 10,000 employees in a single night, because all it takes is sheer effort. We don’t know what persona she projects, because Eggers doesn’t tell us. He doesn’t bother to determine whether she wins followers by saying things that are interesting or stupid or crazy or catty or redundant, because in the fucked-up, inauthentic world of social media, your social influence is simply a function of the number of clicks you make.
It’s unclear why anyone would want to do this, so Eggers has to make his characters’ obsession with social media something that is imposed from above. Mae’s supervisors at The Circle reproach her when she doesn’t share every aspect of her life. They demand that she post more and me.
This is where we see the dangers of having a crank—even a precocious crank—project his opinions onto a nubile 24-year-old protagonist. Only a few categories of people experience social media as something that is imposed from above. Among them are established authors and journalists, whose publishers may start prodding them to promote their work on a new platform. Most people who joins social media do it willingly, because it’s the only platform they have.
The idea that your company might pick out your Twitter handle for you, without any consultation, as Mae’s does, is about as plausible as the idea that Google’s cafeteria might thoughtfully pre-chew your food.
The whole thing is massively confused, starved of a basic understanding of how people communicate through any medium: Facebook, LinkedIn, the telegraph, air.
And the worst thing about dinosaur erotica?
The worst thing about dinosaur erotica is that dinosaurs have tiny, pathetic arms.
The best part
After a 400-page tour of the Google campus, The Circle suddenly introduces a really great car chase. It involves the novel’s Dave Eggers stand-in, a “Sasquatch”-like ex-boyfriend who makes chandeliers out of sustainably sourced antlers. Mercer is not really a character. He says things like, “Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face you’re telling me what some strange thinks of me. It becomes like we’re never alone.” He gets mad when Mae posts a photograph of one of his chandeliers online to encourage more people to buy them. “My work exist in one room,” he says. “It doesn’t exist anywhere else. And that’s how I intend it.” (This is a crazy thing for a novelist to write, but whatevs.)
But there’s something fishy about Mercer/Eggers. Privacy, or space to think, is not really what he cares about. His real problem with social media is that he thinks it’s “fucking dorky.”
“Judgements like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high,” he complains. “The world has dorkified itself.…Now the movie stars beg people to follow their Zing feeds. They send pleading messages asking everyone to smile at them.”
Okay, first, this is not true. (See: Kanye.) But also, this is a very strange argument. All kinds of people use social media, from suave men who have “narratives” and always wear “a white buttoned-up Dior shirt, bluejeans and a black blazer” (@jack) to people who like birds (@AudubonSociety). Sometimes they are dorky. Sometimes they are not dorky. Why are we even evaluating this?
At the end of the novel, Mercer tries to go off the grid, and Mae, now a powerful force at The Circle, starts a crowdsourced manhunt to find him. It’s the FindBostonBombers subreddit as directed by Eric Schmidt. By the end, Mercer is fleeing wildly in a truck, while individual drones zoom above him, bellowing, in the voices of their owners, “I JUST WANTED TO SAY HI!”
The scene is beautifully executed and very funny. One woman shouts through her drone, “SUBMIT TO US! SUBMIT TO OUR WILL! BE OUR FRIEND!” It’s just the right level of plausible. For once, Eggers seems to be following dinosaur porn author Alara Branwyn’s pledge, that “ All of her stories are based on her own desires, or from personal experiences.”
Screeching crowds hunting a solitary, principled man? This is precisely the fantasy of men like Eggers or New York Times columnist Joe Nocera, established writers who don’t actually use Twitter or Facebook, but think it’s “creepy” that they get e-mails from the companies “saying that so-and-so is waiting for me to join them in social media land.”
The best part of dinosaur erotica
For the most part, dinosaur erotica is disappointingly like human erotica. What might be called, in human erotica, a “turgid staff,” or a “throbbing member,” is basically the same in a velociraptor— “so much like a man’s that it astonished her,” only “bigger, and colored like the dry, crisp grass outside the cave.” (That’s from In the Velociraptor’s Nest.) A pterodacytl—which, of all dinosaurs, seems like the one you’d want to keep in the friend zone—takes a blonde cheerleader to its nest. The triceratops uses its horn. It’s all pretty meh.
But Taken by the T-Rex stands out. It is vivid, inventive, surprising. Unlike the other books, it makes the basic assumption that human and dinosaur genitalia are not compatible. Not at all. When Drin finds the T-Rex she has tried to kill thrusting itself against her, she is faced with a genuine dilemma. “There was no way this creature would be able to shove that massive member inside her!” she realizes.
So, clutched in the T-Rex’s tiny arms, Drin does the best she can. “It seemed as if time stood still, there was nothing in the entire world except for this grunting, grinding, growling lizard.”
Drin climaxes twice, the dinosaur spews all over the valley, and then, to finish things off, the T-Rex eats a man from her village.
In two bites. GRRAKGRAGGkK.
After having sex with Drin, the T-Rex wanders off, and Drin goes back to her village looking for a young man with similar stamina. This ending shows admirable restraint. At the end of some of the other dinosaur porn stories, a terrible thing happens: women and dinosaurs curl up together and SNUGGLE. That’s right. In a cave. One of the heroines even adopts her velociraptor’s babies, and they all live together as one happy cave family. I don’t know why the authors are championing this weird interspecies domesticity.
Eggers’ post-coital scenes are even worse. As part of getting acclimated to The Circle, Mae sleeps with Francis, a developer. He’s supposed to be some impressive hacker, but we never hear much about his actual skills. All we know is that he’s awkward and that he wears a leather vest. In The Circle, developers are mentioned, but almost never seen, their work not even described. A lot of projects are going on at The Circle —retrieving marine animals from the depths of the ocean, counting the grains of sand in the Sahara, embedding tracking chips in children, forcing all elected officials to constantly livestream themselves —but Eggers never tries to talk about code. Maybe he thinks that would be boring?
For Mae, two terrible things happens after she sleeps with a computer nerd: once he records them without permission, and once, after they have terrible sex, he asks her to rate him, customer-service style, on a 1 to 100 scale.
This is a perfect example of how Eggers simultaneously undersells and oversells the “dangers” of technology. While the thought of the sex tape creeps Mae out, Francis never actually uses it against her. He doesn’t post it online. He doesn’t try to ruin her life. For a novelist trying to explore the “dark side” of social media, Eggers is stunningly blind to its actual and present dangers.
On the other hand, Eggers wants us to think that Francis’ request to rate his performance is truly horrific. We’re supposed to understand that he’s been warped by the company’s constant demand for metrics and productivity, and that this has been extended, grotesquely, into his sex life. But the real problem is that Mae and Francis have bad sex and can’t talk about it honestly. When it comes to sex, why is lying using a 1 to 100 metric any worse than lying with adjectives?
I kept hoping that Eggers would introduce some some scrap of actual social media culture. Lying there, naked and nerdy, Francis might ask Mae, “Which would you rather fight, one hundred duck-sized horses, or one horse-sized duck?” Or they could argue over the pronunciation of GIF. Anything—any small token—to suggest that Dave Eggers had once read the Internet.
Nope. They can’t argue about how to say GIF, because in The Circle, there is only bad sex in a world without GIFs.
The idea that there would be no sexism in the Neolithic era of dinosaur porn is also plausible, because, as we know, humans and dinosaurs never actually coexisted.
But to read about a Silicon Valley company, even an imaginary one, where women never encounter any sexism—weird! The Circle is run by the “three wise men” but gender plays only the most muted role within the company. Everyone is cheerful and respectful. Even when Mae starts broadcasting every part of her life—even her time in bathroom stalls—to anyone who wants to watch, no one comments about her looks, or threatens her, or eggs her on to increasingly transgressive behavior. She doesn’t have to starve herself. She doesn’t shave her head. Eggers wants us to understand that this is possible because The Circle’s real-name-only policy has eliminated trolls. In Eggers’ mind, a real name policy essentially transforms the Internet into your mom—a series of benign, watchful strangers you tell you to eat healthy food and send you supportive messages.
Mae herself never has to give the idea of sexism much consideration. Other than imposing, father-like mentors, she only encounters two kinds of men: men she sort of likes and then discards, and men she finds REALLY attractive who are secretly CEOs!
Drin, for those keeping score, encounters only one kind of man (Grul, a village elder, who gets eaten) and a dinosaur.
Hopes for the future
Taken by the T-Rex should replace The Circle on all “Notable Books of 2013" lists, including, but not limited to, the ones produced by The New York Times, Slate, and National Public Radio.
Dinosaur erotica should go mainstream and make its co-authors (by their own report, humble college students in Texas) millions and millions of dollars. Fantasizing about a dinosaur is objectively better than fantasizing about a tortured millionaire who makes you go to the gym.
Eggers should take the two good scenes in his novel and condense them into a zippy short story, instead of a bloated 491-page equivalent of a Tom Friedman column. He could name it “The Seahorse, the Octopus & the Shark,” or maybe, “Sex in a Google Bathroom.” Besides the car chase, The Circle includes a fun little parable about the “three wise men” who founded The Circle. At the end of the novel, the three founders watch as the three sea creatures are put into a tank together. First there’s a sea-horse, the “boy-genius visionary” founder; then an octopus, the jolly tech utopian who truly believes in the end of privacy; and finally the shark, the company’s CEO, who is motivated only by a blind lust for power. The shark kills and eats the other creatures, obviously, just as the greedy CEO transforms their idealistic company into a authoritarian dictatorship.
People who actually want to understand the inner workings of a social media company should read Kate Losse’s memoir, The Boy Kings, instead of The Circle. Readers who want an apocalyptic potboiler should turn to Gary Shteyngart, whose novels combine all the virtues of Dave Eggers and dinosaur erotica. In Super Sad True Love Story, which came out in 2010, people rate each other’s fuckability in real time, individual credit scores flash on poles as people walk by, and a protest that now seems like a premonition of Occupy Wall Street is unfolding in the parks of New York.
Shteyngart tweets with no visible signs of duress. He tested Google Glass. It makes you think, reading his “speculative fiction,” that imagination is sometimes improved by knowledge.