Book Reviews

The Circle

 by Dave Eggers         Knopf 2013               Adult fiction

Score:       6/10                             Genre: IT dystopia. Corporate intrigue

Mae has a shiny new job at The Circle, an information technology super company. The grand vision of its founders is total connectivity and accountability of all the world citizens via Circle accounts. Millions of static cameras, chips under the skin, wrist devices for messaging and the pinnacle of transparency – the personal video camera worn around the neck. Mae opts to go ‘Transparent’ and records all her work, personal and family life.

The technology presented in this book is entirely believable and fascinating however the characters were not. Mae is presented as an independent, risk taker (ie paddling alone in the dark, and having sex with near strangers) however in her role as Circle employee she is a gullible dupe. The cost of the insane workload and lack of privacy in her life mounts but Mae does not seem to have one iota of doubt in her role as The Circle poster girl. What does the rebellious, brillant Kalden see in her? And why doesn’t he take his own action against the Circle?

There are few chapter breaks in this book which makes the plot seem relentless. This may be deliberate to mimic the relentless nature of the constant texts (zings) and surveys thrust at Circle employees. I felt overwrought just reading about this communication overload. So why didn’t more of the employers have mental breakdowns?

Despite the flaws this is an important book to read about the totalitarian power which could be wielded by IT companies.

Recommend for: I would recommend this to everyone – for the warnings it contains. The lack of privacy is the main issue addressed but thankfully we are still quite a way from The Circle ideal of having everybody under surveillance. A more pressing concern for our society is the lack of downtime for individuals. In the Circle’s world everybody is always connected, always zinging, sharing and constantly seeking affirmation from others– often strangers. As I sit here on ‘holidays’ and my husband sorts a problem at work over the phone, my son texts and I check my twitter account I wonder if we are far from this dystopia.

I rarely use an e-reader, but for this text it seemed appropriate. Mainly because it suits the high-tech nature of the story but it is also easier to bookmark given the lack of chapter divisions.

Use to writers: Be careful not to contrive dialogue or character traits just to serve the plot. The characters should have believable motivations and human weaknesses. A great dystopian premise is not always enough.


Creativity is mind-altering Part 3

Talk to the stranger including that which lurks within

So here goes – ways to whip that imagination and those observational powers into shape.

Write it down: A writers journal is not an account of day to day life it is a random collection of observations, character ideas, snippets of conversation, epiphanies about life, the seeds of story ideas, funny incidents, interesting words and phrases. My journal would be gibberish to others but to me it’s an assurance that I haven’t wasted some good experiences or thoughts.

Stimulus-free time: Ideas are allowed to blossom when you are not being bombarded with other stimuli. I am an avid podcast listener but there is times when I turn everything off and let my mind roam free. Go for a ipod-free walk or do a mundane house chore in silence, drive with that radio off. This is not just beneficial for story ideas but for sorting through your current project. For instance I have found that these times allow me to have almost have a birds-eye view of my overall novel and see inconsistencies in structure and characters.

Free writing: I’ll admit to not using this tool for a while as ideas haven’t been so much my problem as the discipline of writing my middle-grade novel. However I have found this useful in the past for short-story ideas (which sometimes grow into longer forms). The idea of free-writing can be a bit daunting ie creating something from nothing. So I mostly employ a semi-free-writing approach and start with a word, or a phrase or a character. These can come from the innumerable websites/ebooks/apps that offer writing prompts (see some links below) or maybe something from your own journal. Allow yourself to write unstructured rubbish for 10 minutes, longer if you are getting in the flow. Nobody else will see it. Put it aside when you finish and reread at a later time. You may find a gem amongst the refuse and you’ll almost certainly find strange musings that you didn’t even know you were capable of.

Deliberate observation: make a decision for a period of time to be deliberately observant. Ask yourself questions about the people and things in your environment. Yes, public places like airports and cafes are fascinating. Why does that middle-aged couple appear so awkward with one another? Why is that man in arrivals looking so worried? Why are those children so fascinated by their food they’ve being served? Why? Why? Why?. But you don’t have to be in a public place. Even driving I sometimes play a little game. What sort of person would have a confronting car sticker like that?? How can that young woman afford a car like that? Look at that toy truck sitting on the balcony of the high rise. What sort of life would that be for a child?

If you find yourself staring at people with your mouth open or edging closer to people to catch their conversation you are becoming a bit creepy but anything less than this is fair pickings.

Deliberate Engagement: This one is the most difficult for the introverts among us. I won’t say – walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, because that’s not always easy. But, at least, next time a casual conversation starts or a joke is shared with a person in a shop or on a train be receptive to continuing that conversation. Ask a question of that person give something of yourself. Before you know it you may learn that that man or women has a fascinating story to tell. A story that is outside your normal sphere of existence. I find it very sad when people think this type if interaction is somehow odd. Recently I saw a women start talking to a couple on train station. She was an older women and looked a little untidy but what she was saying about the day and the train made perfect sense. The couple just stared at her as if she was an alien. When she walked away they remarked in a loud whisper “You get some real weirdos around here!” (You do indeed. Rude ones as well!) It takes nothing to be polite and there is much to be gained from learning other people’s life experiences. Be endlessly curious and judge not by appearance alone. Some of the people I have talked to in this way have been African refugees, ex-sporting champions and young world travelling backpackers.

Thus ends my ramblings (for the time being) about a creative mind. Now it’s time for you to ramble or even offer pithy comments to show me up. Do you find any of the above techniques useful? Have you had a chance encounter with a stranger that has broaden your horizons?


Creativity is mind-altering Part 2

Extrapolate Extrapolate

What I like about creative pursuits – any creative pursuits, is that they make you view the world in a different way.

For a short period in my life when my children were little I dabbled in watercolour painting. For the same reason as intricate adult colour-in books have become popular the gradual building up of layers of water colour took my mind from the fraught world of child-rearing to only what was on the palette before me. This self-imposed therapy was deliberate but what I wasn’t prepared for was the difference painting made to my visual perception. I began to see shadow and shine, light and shade that had previously gone unnoticed. I registered the sharp shadow on the inside of a cup that would require a straight-edged swath of grey paint or one side of a softly sunlit leaf translated to an area dabbed with white.

I went walking with my friend the other day and her particular form of creativity is photography and scrapbooking. We came across a colourfully graffited wooden gate which I would have passed without a thought. But she immediately saw the juxtaposition of the bush and the gate and its potential for a cool photo-shoot with her two teenage children.

In the same way writing has changed my perception of the world. Outings, emotions, conversations actions, interesting objects are potential grist for the mill. Scenes play out in my head as I drive the car or sit in a café. This heightened awareness is not always present but when it is it can add depth to even the mundane. After all what is more interesting sitting in a train carriage mentally giving everybody relationships, occupations, goals, or just seeing them as a faceless crowd.

Story possibilities are everywhere, you just have be honed to recognise them – then extrapolate. I’m not always switched on to be ultra-observant but sometimes it is interesting to be forced into this situation. This was perfectly demonstrated by an exercise I did in an Australian Writers Centre course some years ago. The presenter asked the class to write a mini story about an event that happened the day before. She was strict about this – it had to be from the day before the exercise. The results from my fellow students amazed me. Even those, like me, who thought their lives were basically boring and uneventful. There were poignant stories of family relationships and atmospheric road trips. In one story a simple act of baking a cake became a moving tribute to the writer’s mother. I wrote about my son’s apparent failure to gain entry to local high school advanced class. He had previously been assured that he would gain placement by a teacher at the school who’d looked at his results, so this was an unexpected blow. As it turned out later in the day we found out he did get in – it was a clerical error. The ups and downs of emotions that day made for the basis of a story. Furthermore a family discussion about other times clerical errors have sold us short led me to extrapolate to a fantasy element. So in my story there became a curse on our family name which made it disappear from lists and people’s consciousness. I’d never have thought of this if I hadn’t been forced to retrospectively look at my day with the eyes of a writer. That exercise only involved ONE DAY in our lives how many story ideas could we mount up if we did that exercise every day.

By listening to interviews with great writers I have often noted they are masters of extrapolating small observations. An example which always sticks in my mind is presented in an interview with Irish writer Colm Toibin on Selected shorts (see link below). He introduces his beautifully written, subtle story ‘A Priest in the Family.’ This is a short story set in a small Irish town told from the point of view of the mother of a disgraced priest. The whole idea for the narrative originated from a mere single image that came to Toibin. This was an image of a priest pulling up his socks. Now a picture like this may flash through the minds of us mere mortals without a second thought. In more finely tuned minds small acts can become nuanced with greater meaning. As in this story the town’s Father pulling up his socks becomes a symbol of unspoken truths, discomfort and the need to set things right. Listen to interview priest in the family (almost worth it if for Toibin’s lilting accent alone) Unfortunately the story itself is no longer available to listen to online but I would recommend Selected shorts as an good podcast for those interested in adult short fiction

Have you ever had a small observation expand into a whole narrative?

In the next blog post I will explore methods to facilitate your imagination and record it.