Yes, you there with the smartphone. Do you like twitter? And Facebook? And Google? Well then you’re a horrible, empty shell of a person and Dave Egger wants you to get off his lawn. And if you let him, he’ll spend an entire novel explaining why.
Maebelline “Mae” Holland hasn’t been doing so hot after graduating from college. An underachiever who worked hard to get good grades only to be stuck in a dead-end job at a utilities building in her hometown, she feels trapped and stifled by her surroundings. Then one day her friend Annie hooks her up with a job at the Circle, a combination of Facebook and Google with all the dials turned to 11. They’re the dominant economic force in a world that’s vaguely implied to be suffering near-catastrophic levels of decline, a crucible of hip young creatives and engineers who churn out world-changing software and scientific inventions on a more or less daily basis. Their campus is a sci-fi wonderland, Mae gets a 60k a year salary in her entry-level customer service job along with a more or less unlimited supply of prototype tech to play with, the company health plan covers her parents and pays for her father’s expensive multiple sclerosis treatment…..
Of course this is all too good to be true. Soon enough Mae realizes there’s something strange about The Circle. It starts with odd offhand comments and the realization that the company is taking its commitment to transparency and social networking a tad too seriously; soon enough Mae is deeply involved with cutting-edge technology that could change the world- and not necessarily in good ways.
Wait, did I say Mae “realizes there’s something strange about The Circle”? What I meant to say is that she just sort of goes along with all of this because she is, like 99% of the people who feature in this novel or are implied to exist in its fictional near-future, a complete fucking idiot.
The thing you have to realize about The Circle is that it isn’t actually a story. It’s a morality play. This explains why, when The Circle debuts a cheap, almost invisible, solar powered wireless camera and blithely announces plans to blanket every city on Earth with them under the guise of preventing crime and human rights violations no one bats an eyelid. One of Mae’s rotating cadre of bland sex-buddies has a scheme going to make kidnapping impossible by surgically implanting chips into kid’s ankles. Sounds like a perfectly legit idea! By the time one of The Circle’s founders is plastering scary Orwellian slogans all over the place it’s not surprising that this is met with literal tears of joy.
The characters don’t protest this because they’re not really characters- they’re chess pieces for Dave Eggers to shuffle around the board into whatever positions are most convenient for the story to proceed. When Mae encounters a shifty-looking guy who can get through any door, won’t tell her what department he works for, keeps asking her probing questions about her work and isn’t in the company directory she waves off her colleague’s concerns that he could be a corporate spy because he’s hot and she really wants to bone him. This is a near-constant thing with Mae- her libido and her brain don’t appear to be capable of functioning simultaneously. “Mae really wants to fuck that dude” is repeatedly used as the main catalyst for her to get into trouble and/or move the plot forward.
This sense of unreality extends well past just the characters and into the entire population of the world. There are vague mentions of politicians getting antsy about The Circle’s monopoly and Mae’s friend at the company jetting around the world to smooth over “regulatory matters” but apart from that everyone just goes with The Circle’s Utopian plans, even the ones that are obviously a bad idea or sound super shady. Those people who do protest conveniently end up getting busted with hard drives full of child porn or stolen military secrets, another obvious red flag that exactly one person notices. Even national governments don’t seem to exist in this setting, as The Circle’s plan to fill Pyongyang with invisible cameras doesn’t get the White House on their asses about this obvious diplomatic incident waiting to happen.
A fundamental problem with Eggers’ approach is that he seems to be taking the trappings of modern day cults (the “everyone who opposes The Circle is a criminal” thing is similar to a claim often made by Scientologists) and applying them to Google. But he sets up no groundwork for this. Mae is never indoctrinated or brainwashed into obeying The Circle- she walks in the door already essentially a head-nodding sheep, fully ready to go along with whatever obvious nonsense they feed her. The only conclusion I can come to is that Mae was already brainwashed, not by The Circle but by the internet and twitter and Facebook- j u s t l i k e w e a r e oh do you see how mind-blowing this is.
Except Dave Eggers really doesn’t seem to understand internet culture or social networking at all. The Circle’s shtick is that they’re into transparency and everything being known, thus we should plaster the world with cameras so everyone can watch everyone else at all times. Except here’s the thing, internet addicts might crow about “information wanting to be free” (a phrase that gets quoted more or less verbatim by one of the Circle’s founders) when they want to justify downloading shit for free, but they also tend to be paranoid to the point of absurdity about privacy, possibly due to said desire to download shit for free. Do you really think the same culture that made TOR would embrace the functional end of privacy?
Likewise, the culture at The Circle treats social networking as mandatory and more or less requires everyone to document all of their experiences at all times by uploading photos to the book’s twitter and tumblr stand-ins. To be fair this does neatly lampoon some of the downsides of online communication, such as the opaque nature of it sometimes causing misunderstandings about people’s intentions, but this weird kick Eggers’ is on about The Circlers wailing and gnashing their teeth because someone went to the zoo without uploading a million photos to Twitter is a sentiment I have seen expressed exactly zero times in the real world. Half the time Eggers goes on a little sermon (and he goes on a lot of them) it felt like he was parodying a version of the internet that only exists in his own mind.
All of this might have been tolerable if the book had any notion of being subtle about it, but it’s not, at all. Characters literally stand around for pages and pages giving lengthy speeches either presenting absurd strawman versions of social networking advocacy or giving counter-arguments that I think we’re supposed to find compelling but which mostly don’t make any sense. In order to facilitate the latter Eggers parachutes in a moutpiece in the form of Mae’s ex boyfriend, a sensitive artist type who doesn’t trust these new-fangled internets and their cameras and phones going off during conversations bah humbug and wants to live off the grid. I’m fairly sure we’re supposed to see this guy as the voice of reason, the only sane person left who has his head screwed on straight, except instead he just comes across like a sanctimonious git who hates fun.
On a similar note, The Circle’s influence over its followers is explained by the ringleaders being the most charismatic, funny, intelligent, well-spoken people on the planet. Here’s the thing, when you’re writing the world’s greatest genius and you decide to let us actually hear the guy speaking in his own words, you yourself must be the world’s greatest genius or your character isn’t going to be. I’m sure Dave Eggers is a perfectly nice guy, but he is not the most charismatic, funny, intelligent, well-spoken person on the planet and so neither are his characters. As a result we get scene after scene of people moved to tears by speeches that sound like they came from a motivational poster or chortling uproariously to completely unfunny jokes.
All of this aside, The Circle just isn’t a lot of fun to read. Eggers regularly sprinkles down a breadcrumb trail of clues and hints about the sinister shenanigans going on behind the scenes of the The Circle, but it’s not enough to overcome how crushingly repetitive the book is. Over and over again we cycle through Mae being granted some new nuance of her job, Mae getting yelled at for not uploading a million photos of her trip to the zoo to Twitter, and Mae having another chunk of plot dropped in her lap. Rinse and repeat, with occasional interludes so she can go kayaking, visit her parents and get criticized by her annoying ex for uploading too many photos of her trip to the zoo to Twitter and have sex with a mysterious asshole.
I’ll say this in The Circle’s defence, it might get social networking totally wrong but it does nicely skewer tech-focused startup culture and the bland Utopian aspirations often contained therein. If you’re the sort of person who enjoys reading Valleywags you’ll probably derive some small hint of enjoyment from this book. Likewise, speaking as someone who briefly worked for a large multinational company doing a job very similar to Mae’s Eggers absolutely nails the stifling atmosphere of the office and the way it sometimes leads to pettiness and mini corporate dictators minding other people’s business. This aspect of the book clearly seems to be coming from a greater depth of personal experience than the nonsense obout social networking, which makes me wonder why he didn’t just do Dilbert crossed with 1984.
Bottom line: The Circle is boring, The Circle is thematically confused and mostly just doesn’t make any sense. If you are a crotchety survivalist taking potshots at cell phone towers from your cabin in the Appalachian mountains you might get something out of it; otherwise avoid.