Book Review | The Circle by Dave Eggers

the_circle_dave_eggers_novel_-_cover_artHoly frack, that was scary.

In the not too distant future, the Circle has replaced Google, Facebook, and Amazon to become the dominant information technology of the Internet. As the Circle becomes the central driver of content, the engine for 90% of searches on the World Wide Web, and the holder of patents for a whole host of future internet-based technologies that link email, searches, payment systems, and more, the world shrinks, transparency grows, and Utopia appears in reach. Mae Holland is so fortunate as to have found a job at the burgeoning company, and she soon becomes a true believer in the company’s vision for a new age of kindness and civility. As Mae leaps the corporate ladder from customer service rep to become a spokesperson for the “transparent” future the company is building, it becomes apparent that all may not be as it seems.

As I listened to the last chapter of Dave Eggers’ cautionary tale The Circle, I couldn’t help but feel like I was watching the replay of a video of a really bad car accident and you see it coming, but you know the people in the accident don’t, but the accident has already happened, and there’s nothing you can do. But you cringe anyway, because: it’s coming, and it’s going to be bad. And yet, at the same time, I’m in the car, as well. The social media train wreck–and the totalitarianism that it presents–is eerily credible.  Eggers is brilliant in his observations of what makes social media and the world wide web addictive, especially to the narcissist in each of us, and his powers of describing it are at times equal parts creepy and dull. The world of The Circle is so similar to ours and described in such excruciating detail that it is its very banality that makes it so horrifying.

Let me be clear (semi-spoiler alert): This is not a happy story, and the characters that populate its pages are morally gray, not unlike how many of us seem. Yet, Eggers manages to create sympathy for each, giving them pathos that allows sympathy, even while each makes choices that will inevitably carry them to the terrible car accident that apparently is approaching. I don’t know if Eggers believes in the terrible inevitability of his conclusions, but it is a depressing thought. In many ways, it is this overshadowing sense that the conclusion is inevitable that makes a number of the leaps–plot points–a little difficult to believe. The world is stumbling towards this tremendous Utopia where transparency is unlimited, where secrets cannot exist.

In this sense, Eggers seems to write with an ear towards how George Orwell or Aldous Huxley might describe the world we are moving into if they had seen and known the capabilities of the internet. Here are the utopian mottos, the guiding hand of a “benign” Big Brother, the absolute rule of the masses in the guise of democracy, and the sense that it is all for a better, more safe and civil society.

It’s scary and it’s believable if you can allow a few leaps in the process.

And yet, if The Circle is not exactly how it happens, Eggers doesn’t do a bad job speculating how it might happen.

I only gave The Circle three stars because while I felt the power of Eggers argument, I never quite lost myself in the story, struggled to empathize or make the logical leaps that Mae needed to make to lead us down the garden path. I had to wonder at times: could anyone be so stupid, vapid, or naive as to make the choices she makes? Perhaps I am underestimating the vacuous power of the approval of total strangers as conveyed over social media? Perhaps Mae is a conglomeration of a number of individuals collected as one?

I don’t know. It’s almost a four, but while Eggers is brilliant in his insights and description, as well as his plotting and even metaphorical use of the natural world, his characters remain prosaic…but maybe that’s the point?

A couple warnings for parents: there are brief scenes of sexual nature that, really, avoidable, but used more for demonstration rather than titillation. It is likely that it was Eggers’ blase treatment of sex that dropped it down a star for me.

The Circle Book Cover The Circle
Dave Eggers
Science Fiction
Vintage Books
April 22, 2014

When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

About Daniel

Daniel Burton lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night. He reads about history, politics, and current events, as well as more serious genres such as science fiction and fantasy. You can also follow him on his blog where he muses on politics, the law, books and ideas.