BOOK REVIEW: Dave Eggers, "The Circle"

Many of the publications I subscribe to have been discussing Dave Eggers' new novel, "The Circle", so I decided to read it and see what all the fuss was about.  "The Circle" is ostensibly a satire of the Facebook-Google universe and how social media companies are slowly encroaching upon all aspects of everyday life, laced throughout with a clear panic about the amount of access we give these companies and how we as a society are letting them control us.  As someone who uses social media often on both a personal and professional level, I was eager to delve into this book and to ponder the questions it raised.  However, I was sorely disappointed with "The Circle".  The ideas the book contains are incredibly potent and do merit serious consideration, but "The Circle", in style and in plot, fails to live up to its promising premise.

The book opens with the description of the "heaven[ly]" sprawling Bay Area campus of The Circle, a company that combines aspects of both Google and Facebook with its near-monopoly of the internet and its services.  The protagonist of the novel, Mae Holland, is a new hire in "Customer Experiences", and we experience the world of The Circle through her eyes.  Every aspect of working at The Circle seems perfect: the compensation is good, the superiors and coworkers are kind and supportive, and there is no end to the fun extracurricular activities offered on campus.  The company is run by three "Wise Men" (one of whom, with his youth and his ever-present hoodies, is an obvious fictionalization of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg), who are revered and loved by all the employees.  

The Circle's endgame is to combine all aspects of a person's daily life--their photographs, their passwords, their money, and even, eventually, their vote--on their servers, becoming an inescapable presence in everyone's life, all for the greater good and with only noble intentions.  As Mae rises up in the hierarchy of the company, she begins to be isolated from everyone around her, including her family and friends, and she becomes one of the staunchest proponents of everything the Circle has to offer.  Mae begins to agree with and parrot the Circle's eerie philosophy: "Secrets are Lies.  Sharing is Caring.  Privacy is Theft."

While the idea and message of this book are indeed important, the execution fails to match the potential.  Firstly, Eggers, who admits that he did no research prior to writing, does not exactly have a grasp on basic computer science or the way the Internet works.  Apparently, in the universe of "The Circle" (which is not meant to take place that far into the future), the Circle has ended all anonymity online and thus ended all "trolling" and online bullying/hate speech-- a claim that is patently absurd and wholly unrealistic.  People will still engage in hate speech and bullying without the cloak of anonymity, and to think otherwise is naive.

Additionally, Eggers has faced criticism for his basic misunderstanding of not only what an operating system is, but also how companies like Facebook and Google treat their own employees.  Instead of grounding what are very prescient and relevant fears about technology's role in our lives in something resembling one of the systems he wants us to be wary of, the Circle is a vague nightmare bound up in a misunderstanding of the very technology it champions.

(salon.com)

Lastly, while the back of the book features blurbs from authors praising Eggers as a writer, I honestly did not see any such writing in "The Circle".  The writing itself was not at all memorable, and the plotting, instead of focusing on the main arc of the story and how Mae ascends ever higher into the Circle and loses her desires for privacy and personal space, takes wholly unnecessary directions vis a vis her love life.  Throwing in quasi-relationships with a coworker and a mysterious man who hangs around the Circle do not add anything to the story.  The writing of said relationships lack any kind of passion or heat.  The tone throughout the book does not vary.  Mae assisting customers at her desk and Mae engaging in a tryst with her secret lover in a bathroom stall are given the same vague, breezy treatment.  Indeed, Eggers must have written one tawdry scene with the purpose of winning the "Bad Sex in Fiction" award-- it's just that cringeworthy.  However, a subplot featuring Mae's privacy-loving ex-boyfriend Mercer is given more central weight, is paced well, and ends on a truly engaging note. Yet this subplot is the only such example.  

As the novel progresses, The Circle unveils product after product designed to promote safety and transparency in all aspects of life at the cost of privacy.  Children are implanted with tracking chips, essentially bringing down all child kidnapping; public officials adopt (or are pressured into wearing) cameras through which anyone, anywhere can see what they are doing and hear their conversations, thus eliminating dishonesty.   The idea is that eventually everyone will wear these cameras; everyone will forfeit all privacy in their lives in exchange for security.   This book demonstrates the incredibly slippery slope both in thought and in action, and the ease with which I could imagine a similar real-world company proposing such measures is rather frightening.

Ultimately, as we allow more and more technology that we don't understand into more areas of our lives, the message of "The Circle" is truly something to consider. Somewhere in this book's 490-odd pages is a much more gripping treatment of the subject that is not hindered by the writing style. Someone will write a book that gives this subject both the urgency and the slyness of satire that it deserves. "The Circle" captures the first element nicely, but "The Circle" is not that book.

Comments

  1. This review is really good! I am planning to read this book and I will be curious to see if I agree with your analysis. I think the idea of the book is great...the loss of anonymity through social media is truly scary. I will have to see what I think of the presentation!

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