Ahad, 27 Oktober 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Circle


Could this be the most prescient satirical commentary on the early Internet age?

IN a recent essay, American author and social commentator Jonathan Franzen inveighed against what he sees as the glibness and superficiality of the new online culture. "With technoconsumerism," he wrote, "a humanist rhetoric of 'empowerment' and 'creativity' and 'freedom' and 'connection' and 'democracy' abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were."

I cite this because it chimes with the points that Dave Eggers is making in his latest novel, The Circle; we are at an interesting moment when two such significant figures of American letters have both independently been so moved to expound on the same subject. But my guess is that Eggers won't suffer the same online crucifixion that has subsequently been Franzen's fate. Why? Because although Eggers is saying all the same things as Franzen (and so much more), he makes his case not through the often tetchy medium of the essay, but in the glorious, ever resilient and ever engaging form of the novel.

The Circle is a deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication. That is not to say the writing is without formal weaknesses – Eggers misses notes like an enthusiastic jazz pianist, whereas Franzen is all conservatoire meticulousness – but rather to suggest that The Circle is a work so germane to our times that it may well come to be considered as the most on-the-money satirical commentary on the early Internet age.

This is the story of Mae Holland, a woman in her early 20s, who secures a job at the vast techno-sexy social media company, the Circle, an approximate combination of Facebook, Google, Twitter, PayPal and every other big online conglomerate to whom we have so far trusted our lives.

Run by the "Three Wise Men", the Circle recruits "hundreds of gifted young minds" every week and has been voted "most admired company four years running". Among their inventions is "TruYou", a single integrated user interface that executes and streamlines every Internet interaction and purchase: "One button for the rest of your life online." Their philosophy is total transparency and their campus is an architectural essay in glass, a temple to all the geek-chic entertainment and amenities that limitless profits can buy.

Mae is absurdly grateful for the opportunity to work in this brave new world. The novel tracks her own integration into the ethos and activities of the Circle, gradually illuminating a deeply disconcerting vision of how real life might soon be chased into hiding by the tyranny of total techno-intrusion. Mae herself ends up suggesting that an account with the Circle should be made mandatory by the government, this being the most effective way to increase voter turnouts.

There is much to admire. The pages are full of clever, plausible, unnerving ideas that I suspect are being developed right now. "SeeChange" is one such: millions of cheap, lollipop-sized "everything-proof" high-resolution cameras with a two-year battery life that can be taped up anywhere so that the video streams can be accessed by all. "This is the ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always." Meanwhile, there are some fine moments of description – Eggers portrays the mysterious Kalden as a man whose "skinny jeans and tight long-sleeve jersey gave his silhouette the quick thick-thin brushstrokes of calligraphy".

The book is also very funny. Dan, Mae's boss, is described as "unshakeably sincere"; he nods "emphatically, as if his mouth had just uttered something his ears found quite profound". One of my favourite passages describes Mae's frenzy as she attempts to raise her "PartiRank", her relative Circle social-participation score, calculated as the result of her digital interactions. After work, therefore, she sits for hours in front of her myriad screens and posts in 11 discussion groups, joins 67 more feeds, replies to 70 messages, RSVPs to dozens of events, signs petitions and provides widespread "constructive criticism" before realising that, in order to make real headway up the ranks, she had better stay up all night and manically comment, smile, zing, join, frown, befriend, invite....

Mae has a boyfriend from her past, Mercer, her main antagonist. Mercer spends hours thinking of ways to "unsubscribe from mailing lists without hurting anyone's feelings". He finds that the digital bingeing of the world leaves him "hollow and diminished", and that there is "this new neediness (that) pervades everything". Indeed, it is Mercer with whom Franzen might best get along; Mercer feels that he has "entered ... some mirror world where the dorkiest s*** is completely dominant", that "the world has dorkified itself". And it is Mercer's fate – when Mae tracks him down in hiding using Circle technology – that furnishes the novel with its most kinetic passage of satire.

There are a few weaknesses. Eggers struggles here and there to balance psychological plausibility with the outlandishness of his satirical flourishes; he sometimes needs his characters to behave in ways that seem – certainly when you put the book down – to be wholly implausible. There is also a clumsy metaphorical scene where a shark eats all the other fish in the aquarium tank.

But this is a prescient, important and enjoyable book, and what I love most about The Circle is that it is telling us so much about the impact of the computer age on human beings in the only form that can do so with the requisite wit, interiority and profundity: the novel. – Guardian News & Media

Never Go Back


Well plotted and tightly paced, the latest Jack Reacher book departs from the series' formula in a couple of ways.

IT isn't surprising that Jack Reacher appeals to so many people. The former army man turned hobo is living the life many folks dream about – free and easy, drifting from one place to another with no baggage, going wherever his fancy takes him.

And of course, the two-fisted adventures, spectacular (a common adjective Reacher employs) women and the chance to sample coffee across the length and breadth of the United States nicely fulfil our need to live vicariously through our literary heroes.

Perhaps Reacher's somewhat incongruous movie incarnation summed it up best in that scene in the Jack Reacher film when he asked Rosamund Pike's idealistic attorney to look at all the supposed "free" people living lives of voluntary enslavement.

"You tell me which ones are free. Free from debt. Anxiety. Stress. Fear. Failure. Indignity. Betrayal. How many wish that they were born knowing what they know now? Ask yourself how many would do things the same way over again, and how many would live their lives like me." +1!

Oh, for the open road and the freedom to punch idiots in the side of the head (violent lateral displacement of the brain is most effective at incapacitating a target, says a valuable nugget of information from the Encyclopaedia Reacherica) – strictly in the name of justice – and avoiding repercussions simply because you're way, way off the grid.

Getting back on that grid is a bad move, as book #18 in the series shows us. It is the finale of a four-book arc that began with 61 Hours, more or less continued into Worth Dying For, got interrupted by the flashback tale The Affair, and then went on in A Wanted Man.

Never Go Back marks the culmination of the ex-MP's (as in Military Police, not Member of Parliament, though Reacher would probably be a huge hit with some legislative assemblies in the region) quest/ mission/ seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time to meet Susan Turner, his successor at the Army's 110th Special Investigations Unit.

Turner was just a voice on the phone in 61 Hours, a significant factor in the story because of the assistance she provided – in an adventure that proved to be one of Reacher's more epic screw-ups (he's only human after all).

The trip has taken him a while, but Reacher finally gets to Washington DC in the opening pages of Never Go Back and almost immediately has cause to regret it. He doesn't find Susan Turner in his old office, but a different commanding officer named Morgan who proceeds to drop several bombshells on him.

Before long, Reacher has been re-enlisted in the army, and finds himself facing two obviously trumped-up charges. As for Turner, she's facing a cooked-up charge too, one bordering on treason. I was a bit disappointed that Reacher takes a whole lot longer to see through these than any reader who's finished at least a handful of Child's books.

Still, something's got to give in order to propel the plot along, no?

And the plot of Never Go Back, as thin as it ultimately proves to be, is propelled along quite nicely.

The page-turning momentum from Child's carefully structured plotting is never in doubt; the zippy pace and peppy dialogue will have you shooting through its 415 pages in hardly any time at all.

At which point you might notice there was something a little off about the whole story. No doubt as a way to break from formula, the author – spoiler ahead, but it has to be said for purposes of this review – keeps Reacher from ever interacting with the Big Bad(s) behind all the malfeasance, such as it is, here.

Instead, he tangles with henchmen a whole lot, and these encounters are a little different, or at least presented differently, from those in previous books (the 13 Jack Reacher books I've read since January). I especially liked the way he neutralises two goons in the cramped confines of a passenger airliner without alerting anyone else on board to the act.

Make no mistake, the Big Bads here do feel the relentless Reacher closing in on them, though the resolution just wasn't what I expected.

Reacher's eventual (and inevitable) liaison with Turner is, however, exactly what fans of the series would expect.

It's not detailed in as, umm, vigorous terms as his hooking up with Sheriff Elizabeth Devereaux in The Affair, nor do Turner and Reacher complement each other as nicely. Still, they do make an effective team (oops, wrong Tom Cruise film reference) in getting to the bottom of the mystery.

Never Go Back is a mixed bag in which the treats thankfully outnumber the tricks. I liked how Reacher's plan to get both himself and Turner out of army detention comes together, and their getaway is a seemingly uneventful affair that will have you holding your breath nonetheless.

There's an amusing detour into redneck country, where Reacher makes a withdrawal from one of the many "ATMs" that society has seen fit to put in his path, though this sojourn – together with its consequences – has little to do with the main plot.

Ultimately, Never Go Back is up there with the best of the series in terms of plotting and pacing, but has a rather lightweight story and central mystery.

It works better if you look at it as being more about Reacher and Turner, with everything else merely incidental. This relationship, and one of those bombshells that gets dropped on Reacher early on, may lead you to wonder, as the story unfolds, if this could be the one that makes our wandering hero hang up his walking boots and settle down. Here's a non-spoiler: Naaah.

Mother, Mother


Two days of intense reading went by in an instant.

SOMETIMES an author wins by creating a plot so wacky and mindboggling that you hope such things do not exist in real life.

And sometimes, an author can be so unrevealing, and we as readers so unassuming, that we are taken for a ride, thrilled to death and frightened by the author's sneaky antics.

And then there are also authors who love to pamper us with their figurative descriptions, so the images of gore and awe emanate endlessly from the pages.

The scary moments are scariest by these types of authors, and our brows knit tighter at every turn and twist, knowing we once again have been misled.

Koren Zailckas (don't ask me how to pronounce her last name, please!) is such an author. For me, she seems to have come out of nowhere but actually, she has under her name two previous bestsellers – Smashed and Fury – books I have not read but I will, soonest possible.

Her third offering, Mother, Mother, is freaking me out with her immense talents, having woven a story that is simple yet profoundly dark, elegiac and mortifying. This book is like vodka – a genteel burn that scorches throughout but fans love it.

It is an understatement to say that I love this book.

It captivated me right from the beginning with a bang when matriarch Josephine Hurst sends her daughter to a mental hospital and accusing her of harming her on-and-off-and-on-again epileptic brother, Will. And right from the beginning one may be sympathetic towards Josephine, a seemingly devoted mother whose voice is always one pitch louder and whose persona seems way too refined to be vicious.

But slowly, one deception calls forth another, and Josephine reveals herself in the most menacing way.

Whenever the book is put down for a hiatus, I wager you'll think about Josephine, trying to puzzle out what makes her the way she is and what stunt she'll pull next to shock us once more. Though addicted to her lies, you'll think of ways to help her, to talk sense into her or to ask her to stop altogether.

But you can't, for Josephine does not speak for herself, as the book is told in the alternating voices of her daughter Violet, the one that is supposedly mentally-ill, and her epileptic (as well as autistic) son Will, the one allegedly harmed. Reading this book, therefore, is dizzying. Just as we find enough reasons to believe in Josephine, she turns darker and more vindictive.

And you may even groan at the book as I did when it lured me from the depths of sleep, making me crawl out of bed to continue from where I left off just a couple of hours ago, and keeping me guessing with every page and at every corner and every turn.

Such thrills, so incessant and mindboggling, coupled such exquisite prose and such descriptive language, make this book frustrating and tempting.

The epileptic Will "gasped for air" in the wake of a brutal revelation, while I gulped hard before turning a page to begin yet another chapter in the wee hours of the night. That kind of forcefulness at the end of every chapter is what makes this book a page-turner.

"I have got to read on, dammit!" you'll hear yourself saying as I did.

That being said, though Mother, Mother turned out to be darker and way more addictive than I expected, the book, by and large, is somewhat predictable.

As an author, Zailckas is still young and has yet to reach a depth of storytelling at which she can be hailed as the next queen of thrillers.

Her ability to withhold the truth is contrived and the way things fall into place seems too convenient.

The crime is solved almost too easily (as it is at last confessed) and the most interesting character, Rose, the eldest daughter who was driven to death by the narcissistic Josephine, was not well developed – a pity.

Still, I see it as not only a novel with high potential to be adapted into a movie but also a story that will have readers reflecting on their own lives and searching for happiness of their families.

In an interview, Zailckas discloses that her own family is totally un-Hurst-like though she grew up in a family very much like them.

It is her hope that readers will recognise with a shiver that a character such as Josephine can exist and that such an intense neediness, manipulative nature, grandiose sense of self-importance, tendency to play favourites between her children are common traits of narcissism.

At last, I turned the last page after two days of intense reading, and realised it had been as gratifying as it was an eye-opening experience.

Psychological thrillers are not at all as boring as I had previously thought.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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