“The Gospel According to…” – A Review (2018)

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The Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and the Count Leo Tolstoy: Discord (by Scott Carter)

A growing amount of the modern forms of entertainment lack that aspect that art and theater typically target and thrive upon: the demand for mental interaction and the inherent intuition on the part of the viewer or reader.  When Scott Carter was penning this impossible interaction between three of the world’s most famous and influential thinkers, he must have remembered that greatness comes from loss and mistakes; that it is also born out of perseverance and drive; and, perhaps most significantly, greatness stems from an absolute addiction to seeking and examining potential answers to the most cryptic questions of this world, regardless of the era in which one lives.

Luckily for theatergoers of First Presbyterian Theater’s final show of the 2017-2018 season, these cryptic questions are the crux of the exchange between Thomas Jefferson (d. 1826), Charles Dickens (d. 1870), and Count Leo Tolstoy (d. 1910).  Each man enters a solemn room with his most recent memory being the moment he died. Once they learn one another’s identity and general attitude toward religion and philosophy, the story shoots off in a flurry of intellectual perspectives mixed with light-hearted humor.  

Scott McMeen returns to this stage as Jefferson and provides an optimistic performance as the former president and framer of the Constitution.  This season, he warmed our souls as Ebenezer Scrooge in the modern take on A Christmas Carol.  Here, McMeen rations the widely accepted and respectable historic view of Jefferson with an introspective glance at a man whose morals on paper were, perhaps, not as sound in reality.  

Brian Enrnsberger treats us to a confident and quite humorously pompous version of Charles Dickens. While Ernsberger has performed with FPT and other Fort Wayne theaters in the past, his return to the Summit City stage fills a six-year void.  With occassional quips to “his” own works throughout the discourse among all three men, Ernsberger successfully captures the often-exaggerated aloofness of the British author.

Rounding out this tremendous trio, Thom Hofrichter enters as Count–but don’t call him that!–Leo Tolstoy.  With his convincing Russian accent, Hofricter exhibits his passion for language, philosophy, and religion in convincing fashion.  This play brings an end to Hofrichter’s twenty-first year with the theater as its Managing Artistic Director.

The story examines some of the most controversial issues of mankind, but the title is indictative of the premise of how each man had at one point in his life rewritten the opening four books of the New Testament.  The arc of this after-life summit of great thinkers examines how each man from his generation and region contemplated the biblical text and specific passages. Citations to exact verses are identified, but when some disparity and disagreement evolves, the action of the play ignites.  These men are humans after all, so even in death they find themselves desiring to be heard, wanting to be right, and verbally sparring over their points of view.

Director Chance Parker suggests that the play takes each character “on a journey through essential questions pertaining to life, truth, and faith in every meaning of the word.”   Parker, a recent graduate from IPFW, co-directed this season’s Red with Hofrichter.

Jeannie Pendleton’s resume in costume design is deep and respectable, and she brought her talents to this cast and performance.  Each character is not only distinctive in reputation and language, but each man’s clothing represents another facet of his personality and perspective.  

Rae Surface and Austin Berger return to FPT for this performance with positions as technical director/set designer and light board operator, respectively.  Surface’s simplistic set is suggestive of a cleared mind in the after-life. Though the props are minimal, they function appropriately throughout this dialogue-heavy performance.  

Bill Lane is the projection designer and operator, and Sara Ihrie–a freshman at Snider High School–returns to the sound board after a successful stint in the same position for the theater’s previous play, Hamlet.

One does not need to have a deep understanding or experience with each of these men’s accomplishments or publications for the story and its themes to resonate.  The universality of the themes shines through in each scene. Upon its conclusion, audiences are all but forced to contemplate the same issues for themselves and how the shared points of view apply to their surroundings.  This serves as a formidable end to another outstanding season from the various casts and crews who work tirelessly at the First Presbyterian Theater.

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Paste Magazine’s Top 50 Albums of 2017

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Here are my quick takes on this year’s list (a slow work in progress)

Here’s Paste Magazine’s list, in case you want to read how professional reviews are written instead of what’s below.

#50 – #46:

#50 – JD McPherson- Undivided Heart and Soul.   I’m going with “upbeat modern rockabilly”. It’s not at all like modern country, but there’s a tinge of down-homeiness going on here.  

#49 – Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer – Not Dark Yet.  This sister folk duo surprised me with the light lyricism and superb musicality.  A great listen to kick back to on a night at home!

#48 – Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings – Matter of Time.  I started off my treadmill action in 2018 with this beauty this morning.   Jones excels again with this record filled with positive vibes in a turbulent time in the US.   I highly recommend checking out this one when you need a boppy pick-me-up!

#47 – Julien Baker – Turn Out the Lights – I’m a sucker for soft-toned female singer-songwriters.  If that’s sexist, I’m sorry.  I’m among the newest Julien Baker fans, however, after listening to this gorgeous album.  There are suggestions that this album is about the ending of a relationship, but I also caught a glimpse of satisfaction and renewal intertwined in the lyrics.

#46 – Weaves – Wide Open.  This one didn’t really grab me, even though it had all the normal pre-requisites to be right up my alley:  A Canadian band with some boisterous lyrics and heavy guitars.  I’m glad I gave it a shot, but this album felt too teeny-boppy (hints of early Weezer and Oasis come to mind) for my taste.  Perhaps I was just in the wrong mood when I listened.

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#45 – Wand – Plum.  This….was interesting.  There were 2-3 intentional lulls of sound that acted as preludes to a tune.  Some of the songs were catchy and probably become more tolerable with consequent listens.  I wasn’t hooked, but there were some bright spots along the way.

#44 – Sallie Ford – Soul Sick.  This is overall some easy-going, boot-tapping, gritty rock.  There is some dark imagery and lyricism, but there are other very moments where the upbeat tempo gets me outta my seat and bounce around the room.

#43 – David Bazan –  Care.  I did about five minutes of research, but I couldn’t place where I know this voice.  I was very confident it was on a soundtrack from the late 2000s–possibly starring Zach Braff or Jason Bateman.  Anyway, I can see this type of singer-songwriter on those sorts of higher-budget indie films about 30-40 year-old men going through some type of crisis.  This pinpointed identity may not appeal to all readers, but rest assured, Bazan’s album is still worth the listen.   

November Fifth and It’s So Far Away (Revised 2017)

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Brittle leaves dance

Through Everytown and scatter

Little League infields where

Ghosts and memories steal signs and bases.

Gray takes over at First;

Charging Second, the first flakes drown mounds,

Rounding Third, the deepest snow

And lowest degrees,

And during all these months ahead, Home is where we tend to be.

 

Highlights reel inside me–inside us–

That 2-2 count,

An insurance run in the ninth,

The unmatched tension of extra innings on the road.

The

fan-favorite

make-up

day-night

double-dip.

We strain to recall single games, plays, scores,

But it all seems to be a rushed mirage now,

A complex continuum

Where the wisest men around

are outfitted like the outfielders.

 

Each player, each team,

And each fan

From box seat to bleacher bum

Wringing hands for October rings.

Rookies–babies to some–

Will breathe

Big League Chew in their most dormant moments.

Our noses fill with the scents of old cigars and fresh popcorn.

 

The game hibernates

And the players and specatators–

All of us Brothers, Mothers, Fathers, Sisters–

Invoke the patience of a September call-up

And trust that their eyes will find the lush green,

The damp brown, and the crisp white lines

That must hoist us through this chilly half of the year.

 

Just Wait

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Her:  Phew!  I’m exhausted.  You wouldn’t believe my day.

Him:  Hi there.  Welcome home.

Her:  Did you get the mail?

Him:  ….

Her:  Can you put down your phone and answer me?

Him:  Sorry.  What?

Her:  The mail.

Him:  No.  I was going to–

Her:  I’ll get it.

Him:  …

Her:  What a surprise.  Bills, bills, and more bills.  What did you do today?

Him:  Hm?  Oh.  Not much.

Her:  Did you look for a j– C’mon.  I’m trying to talk with you.  Can you stop playing that game?

Him:  I’m not playing a game.

Her:  Did you find anyone hiring?

Him:  Um…I tried.

Her:  You’re lying.

Him:  …

Her:  You can’t even look at me, can you?  I know you’re lying and you just want me to stop nagging you about getting a job, don’t you?  Fine.  Ya know what, fuck this.

Him:  Did you hear something?

Her:  What?

Him:  I think I heard something.

Her:  Don’t you dare pick up that phone!

Him:  Just a second.

Her:  Goddammit!

Him:  Please don’t!  I just called–!

Her:  Who the fuck are you calling?

Him:  Oww!  What are you doing!  Stop it!

Her:  You love this phone so much, why don’t you fucking shove it up your ass!?

Him:  Wait.  Please!

Her:  We’re fucking done.  You know that?  I just can’t anymore with this bullshit!

Him:  Don’t leave me!

Her:  Don’t you dare try to fucking find me!

Him:  (into phone) Hello?

Voice:  Sir?  Yes, we’re here.  This is the national suicide prevention hotline, and we’ve been listening for several minutes now.  Can you tell me your name?

Hamlet (Review)

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This year’s Shakespearean installment at First Presbyterian Theater in downtown Fort Wayne features an all-female cast that presents The Bard’s famous vengeful son in a truly refreshing manner.  Readers are probably familiar with the highly publicized footnote that men and boys were the only performers before-, during-, and shortly after Shakespearean-era theater.  Thus, what can any cast–five hundred years after Shakespeare’s death–do to breathe new life into this story of vengeance?  While this highly talented troupe of Hamlet remains true to the Elizabethan era language, the performance simultaneously serves as an appealing alternative to those familiar with the tragedy and as a progressive introduction to Shakespeare for any young audience member.  

I’ll spare you the synopsis for two clear reasons: You either know the play (probably from high school or college), or you don’t know the play.  Members from both of these camps should catch this two-week running because Shakespeare’s words and plotlines have a proclivity to offer more to an audience each and every time. This performance can be a fantastic opportunity to ease the uninitiated into the pinnacle of the classic tragedies.  For those who know the text but have yet to see it performed live, there may not be a better opportunity to have “See a Shakespearean play” struck from a bucket list.  Lastly, for those who have seen a film version, read the play, or viewed a mixed-gender live performance, please note that it is likely that this female cast will still impress and provide something different than ever before.  

Halee Bandt exhibits great range in emotion and presence as young Prince Hamlet from the opening sequence to the final critical moments.  Her masterful handling of multiple dense monologues establishes her among the elite performers to grace this historic stage.  Fort Wayne theater veteran Kate Black excels as Claudius, whose staunchy presence builds the required, obvious tension throughout each scene.  Nancy Kartholl, who recently appeared in Faith Healer as Grace, thrives as Polonius, whose protection of his daughter and whose loyalty to the king serves as a recurring battle with the title character.   Returning to the stage after a decade-long hiatus is June Rambo, whose performance of right-hand-man Horatio was among the most noteworthy of this large cast.  Additionally, newcomer Izzy Chilian proves she belongs in the theater with her impressive secondary role as the prince’s love interest Ophelia. Kira Downey, an admitted fan of Shakespeare, astounds as the Ghost.  Her passion for Shakespeare’s language is apparent and her performance arrests the audience in each of her scenes.  Finally of note, the roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are executed quite well by Tala Munsterman and Marissa Steiber, respectively.  The remaining actors of this outstanding twenty-member cast all serve as worthwhile catalysts throughout the play.  

Directed by Thom Hofrichter, Hamlet might be just what American society needs in 2018.  While it may be too soon to state that the play is experiencing a coast-to-coast resurgence, the themes within it could not be more relevant.   In his director’s notes, Hofrichter suggests there may be more to the opening line “Who’s there?” than just the curiosity of a soldier who is not sure if he’s just seen the spirit of a recently deceased king.  The play has existential undertones and guides audiences to find a part of themselves in Hamlet.   The oft-quoted reflection monologue (“To be or not to be…”) potentially encapsulates a second level of self-identity and self-worth when performed by a female.  

Not to be overlooked with this performance is the costume design of Jeanette Walsh.  Through an atypical, erratic pattern, each character’s clothes work well to suggest a profound sense of individuality–a theme that has always been apparent in this play but is even more so in this production.  IPFW theater professor John O’Connell lends his deep resumé as fight director.  Additionally, Rae Surface returns as the technical director and appears as two separate characters.   

This sturdy ensemble cast carries with it the shadows of generations of women who, it stands to reason, were unsung heroes on some level in society.  This direct challenge of theater traditions, especially with the expectations that accompany any of Shakespeare’s titles, sends a clear message that those traditions must stay in the past.  It further serves as a vivid reminder of what had to happen over the past several centuries for the public to have access to Shakespeare’s work performed by a cast of females who range from middle-school aged young ladies to seasoned stage veteran performers.  

 

(2018) Review of Red – Performed at the First Presbyterian Theater (Ft. Wayne, IN)

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Local Acting Mainstays Want ‘To Make You Think’

The new year at First Presbyterian Theater begins with a riveting performance of John Logan’s 2010 Tony Award-winning play Red.  This two-week stint at the venue features a duo of remarkable actors: Thom Hofrichter and Kevin Torwelle.  Hofrichter also co-directs this play with Chance Parker.  

Readers will no doubt recall the first of these two performers.  Co-starring as prolific American artist Mark Rothko, Hofrichter has been directing and organizing the FPT for twenty-one years.  Torwelle, a nine-year acting veteran, plays Rothko’s fictional young assistant Ken as Rothko prepares his largest and priciest commission for The Four Seasons restaurant in New York City in the late 1950s.  

Audience members may not immediately recognize the name Mark Rothko unless they have been involved in the study of American painting.  This review is not going to be a lesson on Rothko, but a slight understanding of his work and legacy can be useful artillery for those who attend this outstanding drama.  Regardless of your familiarity with Rothko, his contemporaries, or art history in general, the teacher-student dynamic swarms the stage from beginning to end.  

In under ninety minutes and with no intermission, Hofrichter and Torwelle successfully challenge a bevy of themes and aspects of human nature.  It’s irrelevant that the assistant’s character of Ken is fictitious because he is clearly representative of Rothko’s friends, fans, critics, and his subconscious.   Rothko, at this point in his life, had already enjoyed success and was one of the few artists who could live comfortably solely on the income his artistic work provided.  Thus, he has evolved from a “starving artist” to a “hardened artist” who is contemplating what future generations will consider to be his legacy.  Hofrichter’s performance surges throughout the play in this mentality.  Among the early remarks he makes to his new assistant is that art must have “tragedy in every brushstroke,” which embodies the artist and the performance.  Hofrichter exhibits Rothko as a pained and uncomfortable human being who has no interest in being anyone’s father, teacher, mentor, or friend.  

Torwelle counters as Rothko’s fictional foil.  His character’s mental growth and confidence blossom with each scene, leading up to the culminating discourse of their final moment together.  

Through five scenes, the play covers two years of time between artist and assistant.  The on-stage action is woven into the drama beautifully, but the powerful, inspiring language is what sets the trajectory for these monumental final few minutes.  

“What do you see?” Rothko asks Ken at the outset.  It becomes suddenly obvious that he’s not just talking to the young, enthusiastic artist who cannot believe he’s being hired to work with the living legend.  The question, it turns out, is for the audience to consider as well.  Rothko’s character further drops poignant takes such as “You cannot be an artist until you’re civilized!” and “That’s business, not art!” Torwelle’s Ken, however, emerges from the verbal assaults received early on and eventually matures into Rothko’s sparring partner about life, art, and philosophy.  

Later, in a visibly active moment between the two, they discuss the power of color and the connotations we build for the entire spectrum.  The assistant’s torrid past eventually unfolds and brings new depth to their relationship.  These elements are no doubt why the play won a Tony; however, the directors’ notes point out that some viewers “see this play as an impenetrable wall of philosophy.”  Thus, we return to the central question—What do you see?–but now with an emphasis not on the first word, but rather the third.  

Co-directing with Hofrichter is recent IPFW graduate Chance Parker.  He directed Ballad 423 and 424, and he has been a performer and stage manager in his young, promising career.  In the spring, he will direct the final show of the 2017-2018 season at FPT.  

Jeanette Walsh returns as costume designer.  In a play about artists, Walsh pieces together a perfect visual rendition of each character’s personality and mentality.  

Rae Surface and Sheila O’Rourke re the technical director and dresser/backstage crew respectively.  Austin Berger, who recently performed in last autumn’s Faith Healer is the stage manager and board operator.

One of the most tempting opportunities I had with this review was simply to write the words “Go see this play” a few hundred times.  Each of the moments spent viewing the action and dialogue between these two performers will remind anyone of the significance of being a mentor, a student, a teacher, a trainee, or anything in that realm.  

True Reflection and Depressing Vision

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On Friday, October 21, 2016, Netflix released six additional episodes of Black Mirror.  This was the third “season” for the show, now with a grand total of nineteen episodes including one holiday episode from 2015.

My wife enjoys cooking shows, baking contests, and true crime mini-documentaries.  I grew up on sitcoms, got hooked on police- and medical dramas throughout the 90s, and really enjoyed Lost (in its early years, at least).  With children now, I am aware of a cartoon who can cure stuffed animals, a talking train who weasels out of mischief episode after episode, and can recite all of the lyrics to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse, thanks to They Might Be Giants.

This past week, however, the missus and I have watched all six of the newest Black Mirror episodes.

My writing idol David Foster Wallace did not own a television in adulthood.  Another favorite named Dave Eggers always wiggles in the trivial nugget that he and his family are virtually tech-free at home (no smartphones, social media activity, etc.).  Ironically, one of the shows my wife watches features a home renovation couple from Texas who also do not have a TV in their own home.

Black Mirror, identified by Netflix as containing “near-future” settings, is equal parts riveting and terrifying.  To me, the episodes involving technology (and specifically social media) contain themes that most viewers already recognize as problematic.  While some of us can vividly remember a time before the internet and our supposed “connectivity” involved with it, can we really imagine our current lives without those luxuries?  Perhaps it’s not an all-or-nothing life we should live with regard to being connected or not.

Image result for secluded cabin meme

This is the point where I remind readers of Thoreau and Walden.  He purposely removed himself from a busy society (in the mid 19th century) in order to return (Romanticize!) to the more attractive natural settings accessible to him.  He desired a connection with the earth and a deeper understanding of his existence.  Most of us do, I would argue.  Yet, we busy ourselves with newer technological distractions and continue to think we’re postponing the inevitable.  By the way, this particular meme is worrisome to me.  What is the need for a million dollars if this is the proposed environment/lifestyle?  I’m also doubting the author’s proposed future of “CHOOSE”-ing to live.

What happens to you when your internet goes out?  What do you look like when an app won’t open?  How much stress have you incurred based on any post by anyone on any social media outlet?

What, we must ask ourselves, is the fucking point of it all?

Is this the legacy we wish to leave?

Memorial Service speaker:  Tony was a good man.  He was a father, a brother, and a son.  He had 49 likes on his 21st birthday status.  (waits for crowd to settle down).  A tweet on September 30, 2014 was shared by none other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.  (waits longer…)

Mercer’s Crucial Role as “Lifesaver” in Dave Eggers’ The Circle

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Though the central theme of Dave Eggers’ 2013 technology-driven dystopian novel The Circle jars readers and indirectly instructs them to disconnect electronically from a world where a single American company has far more control than any fascist dictatorship in real life, the author includes a tragic character named Mercer, whose morals are in line with what many readers believe theirs to be.  In just four years since its publication as of this writing, the novel has garnered more and more attention from those who identify the trajectory of American culture to be poisoned by an ever-increasing addiction to social media presence.  As the number of unique–and presumably human–users create accounts on enormously popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, the real-life “Circle” discussed in the novel is arguably coming closer and closer to completion and reality.  Paradoxically, and perhaps unintentionally, many of these human users submit public and semi-public posts pining for simpler times.  Parents and grandparents are prone to post commentaries about how young children spend too much time staring at various screens for far too long.  Conversely,  public- and private school students in early elementary school are assigned electronic tablets with built-in smart technology to use in the event of a weather cancellation or professional development day for the faculty.  

There is a very real, very effective change in world culture due in large part to the sharing of information.  “We have seen a shift between someone’s right to know and someone’s right to privacy,” the author said during a free talk at Indiana University in October of 2015 (Church).  The addiction to read and share has rapidly altered our existance, and Eggers, through the vehicle of Mercer’s character, is showing us that it is not too late to turn back and enjoy the simple act of face-to-face interaction.  

The novel’s central character is twenty-four-year old Mae Holland, whose expensive private college education has launched her into the unengaging world of her city’s utility company.  The novel begins with Mae being granted an opportunity to work at The Circle, a vastly growing technology company whose IPO has already surpassed an astounding $3 Billion in earnings (Eggers 20).  The company rolls out earth-changing ideas on a regular basis and has even more in the works that are occassionally announced during their monthy Dream Friday meetings, led by one of the “Three Wise Men” founders, Eamon Bailey.  Mae’s initiation into the company is utterly overwhelming, both to her and the reader.  Everything from the idyllic landscape to the countless on-campus learning/gathering opportunities impresses upon Mae and the world that The Circle embodies the future of the biz-tech world. It is where Mae, beginning with her first steps on the grounds, finally feels a sense of worth that, it must be noted, she clearly lacked at the utility company and has never experienced on a personal level, especially when she was Mercer’s girlfriend years earlier.

Mae’s father has obtained Multiple Sclerosis, resulting in her parents having to devote a large portion of their income toward medication and doctor visits.  It is during a visit home that the true impact of the disease makes its unfortunate presence known to Mae. Shortly into her tenure at The Circle, that same sense of worth extends to her parents being granted top-shelf medical coverage–coverage that is far from customary in mainstream America.  Yet, this unforeseen perk does not come off as bribery or anything sinister.  If anything, the gesture of parental coverage further proves to Mae that this company is purposefully unlike any other American company in history.  They genuinely care about the well-being of their employees, their employees’ families, and the citizens of the world.

 Furthermore, in the first major scene where Mercer and Mae are present, the reader is sated with an exposure to their tumultuous relationship.  Eggers establishes the central character’s new-found positivity through a conversation she has with her parents shortly after beginning her new career.  Her salary has escalated to a respectable “sixty-two” [thousand] and, in her mother’s view, that Mae works for “the hottest company…and has full dental” (Eggers 73). Her father, who has exhibited little more than constant exhaustion and aggravation, chirps up when he learns that she has stock options (Eggers 74).  They express their adoration for their daughter and her friend Annie, who helped secure the position.

Mercer is first mentioned a breath later.  Readers learn that he is a craftsman who “makes chandeliers out of antlers”, which, presumably Mae is mocking as unimportant or insignificant, especially when compared to the massive, global changes The Circle is making (Eggers 75).  Her father lassos his daughter’s tone by suggesting that owning and operating one’s own business is far from easy work, but Mae quickly shifts the discussion of one of her ex-boyfriend’s career to her own early success at The Circle.  This snippet of information about Mercer clearly establishes him as the “anti-Mae”, and the reader cannot help but become curious if he will unfold as a foil, a rekindled love interest, or a bold antagonist–should the plot continue to display Mae’s (and The Circle’s) positive impact on the world.

Before returning to her new life and job, Mae realizes she has some extra time before needing to be back and spontaneously elects to go kayaking.  We learn that Mercer is responsible for teaching Mae the ins and outs about the water activity, which creates the sport as an obvious symbol for two major themes of the book: Independence and The Past.  By assigning an activity for one person to be able to enjoy alone, Eggers cleverly shows how Mae still clings to the solace of being on her own without any responsibilities beyond staying alive.  Furthermore, the choice fits Mae very well because she has already been established as one who is drawn to challenges and has an apparent undying drive to prove herself to the world.  The note that Mercer is the one who turned her on to the sport also suggests that Mae is not willing to completely abandon any and all connections with Mercer.  Though it is reasonable to believe that Mercer was not at the forefront of her brain every time she stepped into a kayak, he remains a constant in her subconscious.  Similarly, many people today–in this social media culture of recording and publishing for limited and widespread audiences–might feel an obligation simply to enjoy the experience without the incessant postings to prove they are enjoying the experience.  Yet, the number of social media users continues to grow.

A short time later, after Mae has adjusted to her new role with The Circle and has adapted to the social structure of after-hours parties and gathering with her new co-workers, she receives the same short repeated message from her mother: “Come home” (Eggers 126).  Her ailing father had suffered a seizure, and rather naturally, Mae rushes home to see him.  Upon arrival, she learns that “Mercer was a lifesaver” (Eggers 128).  Though Mae downplays the potential hyperbole in the comment, it becomes evident that she is more upset with the fact that she dropped everything at work, frantically rushed back to her hometown, and found her father sitting casually on the couch viewing a baseball game than she is with the fact that this disease is adversely affecting her father in the way it is.

This is a major turning point in the novel and in the relationship between Mae and Mercer.  Eggers is examining the two main viewpoints of the usefulness of techonology through the vehicles of the central character and her former lover.  Mercer is the only one of her four long-term former boyfriends who is still even in her life in some capacity.  His continued friendship with her parents allows him to remain tethered to her, regardless of how much she wishes he was completely out of her life.  Eggers, thus, is dangling the possibility that Mercer represents her subconscious moral perspective, but her life has become clouded and overwhelmed with the incessent need to share everything and like everyone and smile at all good causes.  It’s the sharing that becomes central to the sub-plot of how she and Mercer develop as civil adults who once dated.

During a meal at her parents where Mercer is the lone guest, Mae notices that one of his antler chandeliers is now hanging in the home in which she grew up.  Without his permission or knowledge, Mae secretly takes a picture and adds some complimentary notes.  It is fair to assume she had the best of intentions by doing this.  Mercer, she must have concluded, was not able to live a very extravagent life as a craftsman of woodsy home decor.  Before the evening has concluded–and well after Mae is slightly ostracized by her parents for being unable to simply enjoy the company and meal–she reveals that the picture has been sent out and is receiving very positive feeback.  

Almost childishly, Mae has, by this point, been swept up into this Otherworld while still in her parents’ house talking with her ex-boyfriend.  She’s out to impress them all with the connections she has and potential impact she can have on the future of his sales.  The problem, of course, is that Mercer does not want anything remotely close to this.  She excitedly reports to him that he has earned “122 smiles”, which is “an incredible amount to get so quickly” (Eggers 258).  Furthermore, she tells him that he’s “in the top fifty for today” on a site named DesignMind that apparently ranks the popularity of designs (Eggers 258-9).  Then, in a selfish turn of events, Mae realizes that this amount of late-evening online activity will boost her “PartiRank into the 1800s” (Eggers 259).  

Eggers here is clearly displaying how quickly the addiction of online presence and popularity so quickly replaces the thirst for human interaction.  Mercer stands with Mae–notably without a phone in his hand–and, at first, is calmly asking her to stop, but Mae is already talking faster than she’s thinking.  The device in her hand was designed for communication, but she cannot even put it down long enough to appease her guest in her parents’ house.  Discouragement toward her device comes from Mercer and her mother, but Mae is oblivious to Mercer’s departure from the dinner.  When she goes out to catch him, he reluctantly puts the car in park.  

This scene, in the literal center of the book, is agonizingly crucial to Eggers’ central theme.  In what becomes a heated discussion about the trajectory of each of their lives, we witness what might be years of suppressed angst toward one another rise to the surface and toward one another.  This relationship, arguably, is a microcosm of this crossroads Eggers identified early in the smart technology age–especially among young people whose homes have had internet access their entire lives.  

Among the most cutting lines toward Mae is that Mercer reveals that he has “never felt more that there is some cult taking over the world” (Eggers 260).  He continues to describe receiving a sales pitch of a product called “Homie” that, in essence, is an application that informs stores and distributors that a consumer is low on a product, thus removing the need to shop–online or in person–for a replacement item.  Predictably, Mae comes to the defense of her company and dismisses that it is not on the agenda of The Circle or any other company to seek “world dominiation” (Eggers 261).  Though Mercer provides multiple examples of this enclosing circle being masked as a “utopian vision,” his claims fall on Mae’s deaf ears (Eggers 261).  She calls him “paranoid” and “ignorant,” and she compares these ultra-fast tools such as Homie to primative, recognizable images of milkmen and butchers (Eggers 261).  What is overwhelmingly present during this staunch argument emerges as the central theme of the book: As convenient and as progressive as the claims of The Circle (or other companies and possibly governments) are, is it morally appropriate to allow it to continue solely on the notion that “They” have no ulterior, devious motive to do so?

Mercer serves as an literary anomoly in this novel.  His is a secondary role overall, but he is by far the most developed human in these 500+ pages.  He’s not a true antagonist either because he represents the moral compass.  It has been argued that Eggers’ style and development of these characters falls far short of what he had produced in previous novels such as Zeitoun and What is the What, but it is painfully obvious that Eggers, in The Circle, has yet another trick up his over-forty sleeve.  By relying on our conditioned expectation that Mercer will eventually pull Mae out of this twisted screen-obsessed, privacy-limiting world, he simultaneously leads the reader through a series of traditional complications that are eventually upended and unsettling.

Mercer’s role is downplayed by other critics, however.  Fernanda Moore notes the growing disparity between the former lovers, but views the chandelier artist as a “tendentious drip” (62).  What Moore might fail to realize is that Eggers uses Mercer–rather mercifully–in order for his young audience to comprehend the mentality.  In short, of course he’s a bit of a “drip” but this information-obsessed generation has, through no fault of their own, been conditioned to receive information as quickly and as succinctly as possible.  In order for The Circle to work and affect those born with a silver modem in their bedroom, Eggers realized he must not and cannot make Mercer a cryptic character.  

The brilliant underlying method behind all of this is the rather simplistic nature of their thoughts, actions, and statements.  As Mae becomes more and more flustered by Mercer’s case after the ruined dinner gathering, all she can muster in response to the Mercer’s meticulous aresenal of diminuitive statements about her job and her unexciting existance toward her is “Fuck you, Mercer” and “You’re such a fucker, Mercer” (Eggers 262).  These sharply tongued responses are not from someone who has been deprived of an education.  They are, however, snippets of how a world of limited response time and space online is transferring to a generational regression of substance in face-to-face communication.  Mercer, whose use of the Internet is limited to an email account and a website, formulates articulate, evidence-laden statements and Mae is limited to the childish, defense mechanism of downplaying his claims and resorting to vulgarity.  

Mercer falls back into the depths of Mae’s past for some time before he surfaces in Book II.  By this point, the two former lovers have not had any contact whatsoever.  Mae has shot through the ranks at The Circle and has all but become the fresh face of the newest innovation from the company: Transparency.  This willingness–notably through the charming and cunning acts of Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, two of the original Three Wise Men who founded The Circle–leads to an evaporation of anything Mae might have at one point in her life deemed private, boring, or insignificant.  By wearing a device that enables viewers to see (and virtually “do”) whatever she sees, Mae rallies for followers and smiles under the direction of her superiors.  At no point does Mae consider Bailey or Stenton to be devious puppeteers parading her around as a human laboratory experiment, which, it seems, is so very obviously what they are doing.  

Coincidentally, during a visit to Mae’s parents’ house, Mercer caught one of his former girlfriend’s Circle video feeds, and it spawned from him a letter that he later placed in her vehicle while she was inside the home.  In it, Mercer-slash-Eggers seems to be desparate in his plea to Mae (who by now clearly represents a generation of untalented-but-famous twenty-somethings).  The letter includes far fewer cutting commentary and serves more as a request for her to look at herself and her company in a philosophical manner.  Among his questions to her are the following: “Did you ever think that perhaps our minds are delicately calibrated between the known and the unknown? That our souls need the mysteries of night and the clarity of day?” (Eggers 434).   Interestingly, the letter is interrupted because Mae’s audience can read it with her and have begun chiming in with negative commentary about being bored and comparing Mercer to Sasquatch. Moore dismisses this exchange as an example of how Eggers has “so much contempt” for this “lost generation” and that the author has basically evolved from a “literary wunderkind” to a seedy “curmudgeon” (62).  However, the scene serves well as Eggers’ continuing commentary on the shortening of attention spans and unwillingness to simply experience–in this case, read–something without feeling the need to offer a snarky line or any comment whatsoever.   

Mercer letter continues, and in it he expresses his plans to leave his hometown and is “moving north” (Eggers 435).  There exists a somber, failing tone as he goes on.  It seems as if he already knows his fate, but he continues on, as if he has not quite come to terms with what the world around him is becoming.   He tells Mae that “[she] and [The Circle] have won,” that “[i]t’s pretty much over,” but that he has “held out some hope that the madness was limited to” The Circle (Eggers 435).  What the author is doing here is showing us the bed our society is on track to make for itself.  The reader yearns for Mercer.  The reader wants Mae to rip off her Transparency device, throw her car in Drive, and go find this one man who still appreciates the wonders of this world far from any screen.  Mercer is admirable.  Mercer is honest.  Mercer is what humans always claim they want to be.

Yet, even though he plans to “be off the grid” and live “underground, and in the desert, in the woods…like refugees, or hermits”, two things become frighteningly clear: his quest/escape will not last long and, quite miserably, Mae will have no change of heart based on any of his thoughts or warnings.  With this inaction, her last real attempt to get him back in her life, Mae is fully formed as a one-dimensional being who is far more satisifed with a rocket-fire increase in online fandom than accepting her friend’s words as poignant and shedding this obsession with virtual popularity.  Here, she has lost all credibility and any remaining hope for moral goodness.  Eggers masterfully uses Mercer to provide multiple opportunities for Mae to become deep, honrorable, and sound.  However, because none of those attributes ever come to fruition, Mercer’s character is highlighted as one of the few remaining sane members in a rapidly evolving insane world.

Weirdly, his death is almost comforting to a reader.  No longer will Mercer fight a daily battle with a society that is closing in on completing The Circle but who lack general sense and traditional manners. Gone for him is this ever-increasing pressure to “get connected” or “be active online”.  Never again will Mercer have to click several links on a web page in order to have a customer-service representative assist him with a bill or a warranty.  

Reviewer Alexander Nazaryan has another intriguing take on Eggers’ attempt to offer a visual aid to what he deems to be the trajectory of the world.  “This is a novel about the silence in your head,” he writes, and notes the drone-led search for the escaping character as “worthy of Orwell” (Nazaryan).

A character like Mercer actually must die in a dystopian novel such as The Circle for the reader to grasp any real hope for the future.  What emerges as the most disconcerting conversation in the novel.  Typically, the wiser, older character who has watched over a traditional protagonist proffers sage advice and perspective after the sudden loss of a friend or family member.  Here, however, Eamon Bailey coldy–though it is not recognized as such by his single-member audience–tells Mae that “[g]rief doesn’t arrive on schedule, as much as we’d like it to” (Eggers 466).  He doesn’t want her to blame herself for Mercer’s death, but suggests that she should instead remember that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man” who turned away from “the embrace of humanity” (Eggers 466). Bailey later reflects aloud on his own frustration about similar situations and finds himself telling her that Mercer would still be alive if he’d been in a self-driving vehicle.  This cold, distanced commentary is a preview of what Mae will be bound to experience throughout the remainder of her life.  Sympathy and empathy appear to be absent from those who are within The Circle.  Mourning an avoidable death is, essentially, an infringement on their time and might affect onine activity or presence.  The fact that moments later Bailey and Mae are discussing the financial cost of rebuilding the bridge where Mercer died is chilling.  What is even more offensive is that Mae continues to nod and agree and accept these discussions as normal.  

Ultimately, Mae “meets” the third Wise Man, Ty Gospidinov.  During their tense exchange, he reveals that he has had a change of heart and is working to keep The Circle from completing.  Mae is astounded to learn this and ends up regurgitating much of what Bailey had just discussed with her, defending The Circle to no end, all the while suppressing the death of her former boyfriend and the withered condition of her former roommate.  Here, Eggers shows the utterly shocking lack of personal growth that Mae has experienced.  

Ty eventually asks her directly, “[w]ho wants to be watched all the time?” (Eggers 490). Her response is succinct, just like her personality: “I do.  I want to be seen.  I want proof I existed.”  She needs validation, not experience.  She prefers online followers to a cozy sunset.  Mercer was once her lover and had become her anti-self.  Through her undeniable obsession with being acknowledged, liked, followed, or smiled upon by millions of strangers across the world, she has set herself up for a life that is not worth living.  

Mercer, like so many people today, grasped what Mae never could: our lives are so precious that we are on track to miss out on life’s most amazing treasures because we cannot stop ourselves from sharing pictures and comments online about life’s most amazing treasures.

 

Works Cited

Church, Haley.  “Dave Eggers Discusses Pitfalls of Living Life Online.”  Indiana University Bloomington.  8 Oct. 2015.  http://mediaschool.indiana.edu/news/dave-eggers-discusses-pitfalls-of-living-life-online/. Accessed 16 Oct. 2017.  

Eggers, Dave.  The Circle.  Vintage,  2013.

Moore, Fernanda.  “These Rotten Kids Today.”  Commentary.  Vol. 137, no. 1.  Jan. 2014, pp. 61-62.  

Moore, Fernanda. “These Rotten Kids Today: Dave Eggers Hates Them.” Commentary, no. 1, 2014, p. 61. EBSCOhost, fortwayne.libproxy.ivytech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com.fortwayne.libproxy.ivytech.edu.allstate.libproxy.ivytech.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgbc&AN=edsgcl.355249979&site=eds-live.

Nazaryan, Alexander.  “Digital Dystopia: On Dave Eggers’ ‘The Circle’.”  Newsweek Global.  Vol. 161 Issue 38, 25 Oct. 2013