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Losing out on the pleasures of Hitler's Youth, in "The Circle"



The most interesting thing in Dave Eggers' novel "The Circle" hadn't anything to do with technology. It was that he seemed to take a "manifestation" concerning how humans relate to one another that bubbled up in production of his previous work, "Hologram for a King," and gave it full extension here. Specifically, in "Hologram for a King," while writing to his daughter, the principle protagonist, the salesman Alan, makes reference to himself as once akin to Hitler's Youth or Khmer Rouge, in that, once having found out his parents were hypocrites, he "lorded it over them," did the emotional equivalent of "shooting the adults in the rice paddies." In the novel "The Circle," Mae Holland has parents who, no matter what she does, always ostensibly know just a bit more than she does. They are always a bit her moral superior. They keep around them her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who, too, feels he's much better moral-grounded than she is. And so every time she returns to them, she's back in the lap of people who feel justified in not quite recognizing any genuine growth she is making afield from them; who always see some error in the choices she is making. It is pretty obvious that the book explores how, then, becoming part of something as potent as the great Circle organization, that enables her to be the one who provides medical assistance to her father that would otherwise be far, far outside his reach, enables her in a sense to feel what it is, not to cringe before but lord over her parents, to watch them, in effect, having to back off of "you," despite their every urge to keep their tentacles hooked and menace in a way everyone feels obligated to overlook. The book explores how great it can feel to be a Hitler Youth, if you're in an environment where its the only way a young generation can stand tall before their own parents, because it's not then actually about that but about what normal self-activation must look like when outside those periods of time where youth get to shake off parental authority with all semblance of it being morally justified, like the 1920s and the 1960s.

Not so the movie. The parents are instead absolutely respectful of her daughter's choices, are not her moral superiors -- they're modest, truly restrained in their claims on her. Her ex-boyfriend is not the overbearing jackass he is in the book, but soft-spoken and mild, if not timid (in fact he's not even her ex in the book, but rather an old loyal friend -- he's not even that pretentious, but rather acquitted to what little she was willing to grant him, despite his long loyalty to her). And the Circle organization isn't as overtly, obviously villainous. They don't chastise Mercer as a "deer killer," but rather appreciate his work -- specifically, chandeliers made of antlers -- and try and spread good word of it. In the book, Mercer hates that Mae dragged him into a world of strangers accosting him with "likes," but it isn't a world of disparagement but of knowledge that he and his work exists. There is a kind of villainy involved in this, because Circlers would want to control what he produces henceforth... keep it shaped in aspects they like, that fit their self-narrative needs. But if he is being raped here it is a kind of rape that has been suffered by numerous great artists whose work would have otherwise been unknown to the world. It's a bit more complicated. Mae was trying to get back at Mercer in promoting his work through her huge network of friends -- for she knows he takes great pride in being "independent" from this childish world she belongs to of forever administering "likes" and "frowns" -- but in the book it seems much easier to use his violent, angry backlash against her as further supporting her claim of grievance against him, whereas in the movie, it immediately serves up only guilt -- "Mae, I've got people threatening to kill me for being a killer of harmless deer! Death threats, Mae, I've been getting death threats!"

In the book it is her friend Annie who gets ID'd immediately by some in the Circle as someone intrinsically sordid, but this is out of a discovery of her estimable Mayflower background being actually one of generation upon generation of callous, cruel slave owners, not of having made art out of deer parts that every genius Circler would know had been collected from off the ground and not actually from the heads of personally slain deer. If this had been inserted into the movie, would the audience be aghast at the Circlers as they are made to be with Mercer's disclosure. Not likely -- they'd be with the Circlers, some of them at least, catcalling Annie, the descendent of slave owners, who still finds herself oh-so neatly positioned way above everyone else in the world.

In the movie, Mercer is driven off of the bridge. In the book, he more chooses this course; it maybe demonstrates what he wants to of the world in a way better than any! -- it's a wild source of self-affirmation and pompous, childish revenge. And our last sense of him isn't of someone who paid such a terrible price for so quietly trying to wake Mae up to "reality," but someone who wrote her a long self-righteous letter about how she represents everything that is foul about the world, and about how he represents one of the few pure people left who's going to try and set up a frontier world opposed to it, full of the only worthies left. It's pompous and better-than-thou as much as it is instructive and usefully challenging. It's also him in sync with the moral position of her parents, who are looking at her, as she has found ground in this new life, as someone who has gone finally astray -- and how frightening but also liberating is that! In the book, when he deliriously drives off the bridge, to showcase just how absolute the powers against him are, how malign they are, how absolutely total in reach and evil, by making suicide now ostensibly the only avenue left for genuine freedom, it's horrible but also comic -- not only something that would awaken Mae as to how foul her involvement with the Circle has become. He malignly ingratiated himself as much as possible upon her, kept pouring his big gut out onto her in a way she would feel obligated to have to withstand, in a way he could justify as otherwise -- as actually a benign service on his part -- and she unleashed the hounds in return -- that is, became more explicit and overt, to counter him even more effectively by pointing out his narcissistic self-understanding of himself. He transformed what she offered him into a situation which would in his own mind, show up his opponents finally and completely -- driving off the bridge was his seen avenue for accomplishing this. It was his means of spiting her with a revenge she wouldn't be able to quit guilt from, owing to her still feeling instructed to conceive of parental morality as something maybe a bit old-fashioned but otherwise wholesome and benign.

In the book, it's not actually entirely evident she couldn't shake Mercer's death off. It also feels less evident that she would ever want to feel free of the Circle, what it offers -- ongoing self-affirmation. For doing as requested, for obliging her authorities, she'll get absolutely everything else -- be a lord of a kind. There is something along these lines which seems to be keeping the contemporary world moving, after all -- it's called careerism. There's a path for you, stay on it, and you'll feel free of the pain everyone else is obligated to have to withstand, while knowing professional success, a husband/wife, a family. In the book, Dave Eggers made her more overtly Hitler Youthian, whereas the "update," the movie, has her as Katniss Everdeen, ultimately turning the tables on the powers that be, a white male two-some, at the very moment that is supposed to be their final coronation... in the book, she willingly becomes part of "Hitler," whereas in the movie she's the heroine who shoots that obvious monster straight in the head. This pretty much fits for what we expect out of good, liberal male writers right now. It's Eggers, as script-writer at least, shaping his art to accord him moral approval, to make him seem truly less independent in spirit, rather than the novel-writer who had been beginning to piss people off with his sanctimony and inopportune truth-telling. It's a sad act of self-eradication on his part, after society had given him the hard glance. "The Circle" is that much more complete, for "Circlers" clearly having gotten to him. They're not social network people, but his true friends -- maybe some who carve craft goods near his Northern Californian home -- telling him not to work against their moral cover -- strong, empowered, professional women are not eager to be co-opted lest they find themselves outside approval, let alone people mad with matricidal and patricidal intentions. They love the baby boomer parents who empowered them with their education and who wanted nothing more for them to be strong and feminist, and are committed to catching out hypocritical male power everywhere it resides. Our society will collapse completely if this narrative breaks; what we will find ourselves saying and what we will find ourselves doing will go in unaccountable and horrible directions, if what gives us our mental equilibrium falters; so you will tow the line, Mr. Eggers.





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