FICTION / REVIEW

The Two Faces of Google

We’ve read two books, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and Dave Eggers’ The Circle,

The CircleMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore and they do make interesting companions.

Clay Jannon, a capable but down-on-his-luck web designer, responds to a HELP WANTED sign in a window:

Late Shift

Specific Requirements

Good Benefits

 “I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something. It was on Broadway, in a euphemistic part of town.”

Clay enters the strangely narrow and tall building, housing three stories of books – “the shape and volume of a normal bookstore turned up on its side,” for a perfunctory interview with Mr. Penumbra, who seems most concerned with his ability to navigate a perilously tall, rolling library ladder. Clay learns that his graveyard-shift job primarily consists of fetching volumes from the tall shelves at the back of the store. The books, nowhere to be found on Amazon, are catalogued by name in an ancient Mac Plus, which reveals the shelf coordinates of the volumes. Odd visitors present cards marked with the store’s symbol and a code number to check out the books, which Clay is admonished not to read. As required, Clay carefully logs detailed descriptions of the borrowers in the store’s ancient journal, and as an extracurricular activity, replicates the layout of the bookstore on his own laptop.

Mysterious visitors, secret codes, old volumes. For readers who have not quite gotten over graduating from the Harry Potter books, this all feels auspicious. Although Sloan peppers the mysterium with plenty of grown-up sounding, Silicon Valley memes(set design, programming with Ruby, venture capitalists), this is a wizard-themed quest.  As Clay says, “I have waited my whole life to walk through a secret passage built into a bookshelf.” Haven’t we all?  It’s not long before Clay recruits his fellow magicians, who include Google employee Kat Potente, (an au courant Hermione with a knack for data visualization, and an obsession with life extension and the Singularity), a (book) pirate named Grumble, and best-friend-from-middle-school, tech entrepreneur Neel Shah.  They will use miraculous Google technology and gentle derring-do to solve the mystery of the stacks.

Author Sloan has created an ostensibly reality-based novel that hints at wizardry. But – not to dash your hopes – there can be no actual “real magic,” so Sloan relies on the solid conventions of a gumshoe novel (with a few lapses into improbable, technology-abetted luck), and the consoling themes of pluck and friendship. In this quest, Google is portrayed as the Ur-source of modern magic, with human persistence and ingenuity being no match for massive servers, a few adept algorithms, and the ability to get your project green-lighted. But it’s all good: Sloan’s bright and optimistic tech world is creative, complementary to art and antiquities (“OK,” or “old knowledge”), and eventually leads to everyone –even old people – getting the jobs of their dreams in a hipster workspace.

In Eggers’ edgy dystopia, a band of hubristic millennials are also trying to solve a mystery, but it’s how to run up their popularity and commerce numbers via a social-media duel to the death. Seduced by the fervid, evangelical acolytes populating a Utopian corporate campus that is also open 24-hours, new recruit Mae Holland – a young woman with some sentiment, but no philosophy – quickly becomes enmeshed in a culture that seeks to solve the world’s efficiency problems by initiating a system of total surveillance. If the premise seems outlandish, Eggers’ description of the Circle’s step-by-step program of fascistic logic feels frighteningly familiar. (The Circle seems to be just like Google, only called the Circle. Maybe it’s the rounded typography, so reminiscent of apocalyptic numerology.)

In each book, written against the animating structural force underlying our communication (and by extension, culture), both writers have hit upon the same solution to the nerdy tech guy cliché: they make their “Googler” a woman. What are the odds? While Kat is brilliant, obsessive, and nice-girl cute, Mae is more amorphous. By context we determine that she’s athletic and sexy, but we never get a sense of what she actually looks like. She’s morally ambiguous as well, a recent graduate resentfully stuck in a dead-end job (although her unsparing contempt for her doofus boss hints at a darker side), who must swallow her pride to enlist the help of her privileged former college roommate—elfin, belle-of-the-ball, blue blood Annie—to get her a coveted job at the Circle. The position not only brings a healthy paycheck, but the gold ring of healthcare coverage for her ailing father. So it’s no wonder she begins as an eager-beaver-go-getter recruit to her new “Customer Experience” position, where she is taught to love her callers, connect with the Circle community, and get her numbers up, as she competes to monitor an ever-increasing number of screens. Without qualms, Mae is bedazzled:  

“Everything was done better here. Even the fingerprint ink was advanced, invisible.”

Mae is all about the surface; entranced that her thumb remains clean, she remains incurious about the “why?”

We sense where this is going, but Eggers is a master of pacing and suspense, and readers will sweat it out with Mae, wondering if she will sink or swim. But by the time Mae is narrating the events of her day to millions who follow her fully transparent life (a live cam hangs around her neck), we realize that she’s processing experiences differently. With its boundless acquisitiveness, the Circle has constructed a gigantic aquarium to display rare, previously unexamined ocean-bottom creatures, and, animal spirits to the Circle founders, a gigantic octopus, vicious transparent shark, and nurturing male seahorse (that spawns babies which attempt to hide in the undergrowth) demonstrate what feeding time really means.

The Gimme: You’ll likely share Sloan’s affection for his characters. Charming and witty, a rare side benefit of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is that other than a few off-hand mentions of boobies (friend Neel’s company has developed the software for anatomically-correct modeling of them), it’s clean, so you can let your intelligent children read it.They will not only be entertained, but painlessly learn interesting stuff about museum storage (really), typography, and the history of printing.

The Circle is a riveting, page-turning Faustian drama, a skull-rapping attack on the booboisie, concatenated bottle rockets lobbed at the shrine of Steve Jobs. Prepare for a day off and a cool compress, then read it.

***

Speaking of Eggers, an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s If,

via a (hopefully tongue-in-cheek) compendium of Manly Poems:

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ‘em up with wornout tools

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