The Circle is a dystopian brain fart


About a quarter of the way into Dave Eggers’ new novel, Mae is summoned to the office of her immediate superior at The Circle. Mae’s presence has been requested at the behest of Alistair, a developer from another department who is peeved that Mae — after being sent three notices — failed to RSVP for or attend his brunch for staffers interested in Portugal. Her “non-participation,” a mortal sin in the world of The Circle, is grounds for a passive-aggressive tongue lashing from her boss, plus a note on record with HR. When it comes to “engagement,” The Circle don’t play.

As an Eggers fan and closet Luddite, the concept of The Circle appealed to me. The novel is set at a large tech company, whose efficient and superior services have come to dominate the Internet slash world. Mae, a 20-something desperate to escape her job at a local utility, is hired by The Circle on the recommendation of her friend Annie, who is a high-level executive there. Through Mae’s nascent and later significant experiences as a Circle employee, Eggers’ latest chronicles the company itself, a business darling whose thinly veiled aspirations of world domination are excused by its image as a benevolent superpower, intent on making the planet a better place. And while The Circle’s true motives are something of a narrative foil, they also – in the grand scheme of things – don’t entirely matter: Good intentions or bad, is there a point at which the price of omniscience is too high?

Let’s start with the technology. The Circle makes hardware (computers, tablets, phones, retina-powered eyewear, wristbands), software (search, commerce, advertising, data management, the world’s No. 1 social network) and everything in between. Within its overtly Google-esque campus, various Circlers are also working on a plethora of Big Ideas, many of which (an implantable tracking device, a thumb-sized solar-powered camera capable of streaming high-definition video) are geared toward the Circle motto: All That Happens Must Be Known. But most important is TruYou, The Circle’s catch-all online identify platform, which has eliminated digital anonymity, streamlined e-commerce and subsumed every other social network.

The novel’s prolonged introduction to the world of The Circle makes for a weak first hundred pages. For one thing, we’re years past being awestruck by the tauntingly progressive realities of working at a Google, past the “Hoodies in the office? Scooters!? FREE SNACKS???” wonder with which we daydreamed about eating unlimited candy in cheekily named conference rooms. Spending a third of the novel introducing us to a tech firm that’s already been the subject of a Vince Vaughn movie makes The Circle’s plodding start feel humdrum and unoriginal.

But my larger complaint is that The Circle’s characters seem strikingly unaware of mainstream concerns about privacy, despite the fact that said concerns have been debated publicly for years. In the book, an executive demonstrates the aforementioned thumb-cam (dubbed SeeChange) for staffers by showing them the feed from cameras secretly placed in his mother’s house; an engineer talks about implanting tracking devices in the bones of children that would store both their whereabouts and their complete educational history; a company doctor doles out bracelets that monitor and record everything from wearers’ digestive efficiency to their posture. Eggers explains away any debate about privacy by invoking the public’s thirst for convenience, which as the Big Ideas get bigger, starts to seem absurd. Even Mae, the initial foil to The Circle’s cheerleading technophiles, is a pretty flimsy voice of reason, far quicker to question herself than some of the company’s activities. Or its policies: during one meeting, she sits meekly by while a supervisor reprimands her for not attending an event the night her father had a seizure. I mean, I get drinking the Kool-Aid, but ch’mon.

And then there’s the writing. It’s been years since I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers’ first novel, but one of my strongest muscle memories is of a book written with flair, and a certain quirky attitude that earned Eggers both early admirers and critics. By contrast, The Circle veers between a completely flat tone, and one of almost comic grandiosity.

“In the days that followed, Mae knew that it could be true, that the sun could be her halo, that the leaves could exist to marvel at her every step, to urge her on, to congratulate her on this Francis, what the two of them had done. They had celebrated their shimmering youth, their freedom, their wet mouths, and had done so in public, fueled by the knowledge that whatever hardships they had faced or would face, they were working at the center of the world and trying mightily to improve it.”

Just, no.

The Circle wants to be other books. It wants to be Fahrenheit 451, or 1984, or a distant cousin of Super Sad True Love Story. And to a not-insignificant degree, the novel does raise the same or similar questions as those books, however less elegantly. In one scene, Mae is having a conversation with an ex who finds the whole Circle thing absurd. From him:

Every time I see or hear from you, it’s through this filter. You send me links, you quote someone talking about me, you say you saw a picture of me on someone’s wall … It’s always this third-party assault. Even when I’m talking to you face-to-face, you’re telling me what some stranger thinks of me. It’s become like we’re never alone.

This critique rings true, as does another brief commentary on how integral numbers have become to our sense of self: friends, followers, likes, comments, page views. So to some extent, The Circle is an updated version of the dystopian novel; it captures a modern totalitarian ethos without venturing into the truly fantastical (see: Hunger Games). Eggers Β also operates on the less-explored proposition that companies, not governments, will be the arbiters of the digital police state, an important and timely distinction to make. But the novel otherwise unfolds in a vacuum, a world where 2013 Google still has the doe-eyed admiration of a 2005 America.Β Β 


TITLE: The Circle
AUTHOR: Dave Eggers
PAGES: Kindled
ALSO WROTE: Zeitoun, A Hologram for the King
SORTA LIKE: 1984 meets Antitrust
FIRST LINE: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”

8 thoughts on “The Circle is a dystopian brain fart”

  1. I knew you’d manage to capture it : ) I found it compulsively readable because I was expecting the ‘big reveal.’ When that introduction was so ham-fisted, I still hoped for a powerful ending. But alas, it was just plain silly. Let’s face it, no one captured that better than George Orwell, especially the closing line!

    1. I can’t stand it when a book has an anti-climatic or silly ending when I’ve been waiting for a fantastic finale. It makes me so disappointed that I want to throw the book across the room. Thank you for the review Kira. It seemed promising, but I’d rather try the other books you mentioned in your review.

  2. I really wish I hadn’t started browsing your blog now, because I am in the middle of this book! I did the screen reading equivalent of sticking my fingers in my ears and shouting ‘LA,LA,LA’ but I did get an inkling that I may be disappointed at the end?!

  3. I was somewhat disappointed by your review, primarily because you managed to turn off so many readers who SHOULD be reading this book. You make a number of useful points–including that the writing isn’t stellar–but you downgrade the importance of Egger’s warning of the terrifying implications of corporate takeover of the US (the world?) Circle-style, and I strongly believe this is a warning that needs to be heard. Do you really think this is not happening, when in fact you can’t walk down the street or get on a bus or train without seeing everyone plugged in to some device, texting, tweeting and posting utter inanities about their lives as if everyone needs to know what they had for breakfast!? There’s so much serious crap going on in this world, and yet people have their heads so far up their social media that, to all intents and purposes, the Circle is already here. Why do anything about starvation in Africa if you can just digitally sign a petition and feel good about yourself, right?

    1. I totally agree with you.i don’t know what all these people thinking around why don’t they care about what we are facing today.we have to do something which will actually make us to feel good in real terms not this fake and happiness for the time being.

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