The Circle

by Dave Eggers

Part 1 of the 1-part series called "bookshelf"

It’s possible that my main problem with The Circle stems from its age: much of what Eggers wrote about in 2013 has come to pass, whether that be the giddy surrendering of our privacy to monolithic tech corporations, increased monopolization that has led to a dirth of commercial, economic, and political choices, or the ridiculous increase in the number of screens we stare at every day. I admit that I wasn’t thinking of the too-fast pace of technological advance that’s happened since 2013, and so the plot points that may have looked prescient from that vantage point looked merely naive from mine. However, the novel’s doomsaying is far from the only problem I had with reading it. The characters are, on the whole, as flat and lifeless as the screens they stare at all day; the plot lurches forward with strange interludes I couldn’t make heads or tail of, while staying stolidly predictable; and the allegories present (and there are many) are boring and too-obvious.

Let’s start with the characters. Mae is the protagonist, a newly-minted employee of the Circle, a big-tech company that’s basically Google, Facebook, Apple, and, well, every other tech company rolled into one. Somehow, the Circle has been able to procure a near-monopoly in nearly every industry, apparently mainly through its TruYou program, which forces users to use their real names and identities online.

This was the first point I found laughable about Eggers’s notion of the future: multiple tech companies (Facebook, I think Google+, etc.) have had real-name policies, and none of them have stopped the amount of spam or harrassment online. People are resourceful, and trolls doubly so: it’s too easy to circumvent real-name policies by creating new accounts with other real names for them to mean much of anything.

Anyway, back to Mae: she’s working at the Circle, mostly because her friend Annie, whose character is succinctly and completely summed up in the two words rich wunderkind, pulled some strings to get her a job there, albeit in Customer Experience. Mae’s promised that she’ll not be in CE long, however, and she quickly makes good on that promise, rocketing up the corporate ladder in weeks — or at least, it seems so. The problem is that she doesn’t, not really: the most power Mae ever gets is a sort of brand ambassador for the Circle after she goes clear, or wears a camera around her neck everywhere while she works. Naive, unknowing Mae doesn’t realize that her position carries no real decision-making ability, but the real problem is that the book doesn’t seem to realize it either. There is no point of the novel where her real position is made clear, and I had a really hard time believing that no one noticed.

The rest of the characters are similarly unrealistic. I’ve already mentioned Annie, who serves, at first, as a figure for Mae to aspire to, then a figure for her to pity, and then to disparage, as Mae’s own rank rises in the Circle. The other employees at the Circle are no more than base types of people: the most obvious are the three founders, or Wise Men, who have less definition, and are less believable, than the Olympians. There’s also Mae’s parents, who only serve as plot-tightening devices who make Mae feel guilty and trapped in her job and its free health care. The most tragic character is Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, a luddite who tries to run away from the all-encompassing power of the Circle and dies in the process, killed by Mae herself in a frenzied tech demonstration. However, Mercer, too, sounds only his one note of dissent against the ever-rising tide of tech, so much so that my fiancee described him as the John Galt of The Circle. He, like every other character, is a fantasy that serves only to further Eggers’s own agenda about the Evils of Big Tech, instead of being an actual character living in a rapidly-worsening world.

Mercer’s death brings me to another major criticism I had with the book, namely, that the Circle is able to continue all of its projects completely unabated by anyone, no matter what they do. There’s some hand-waving about how anyone who tries to criticize the company is mysteriously disgraced, but there’s big things, like an extremely public crowd driving a man to suicide, that would give anyone pause about a company. I understand that people within the Circle would be in a bubble about what their company’s doing, but it makes no sense that the rest of the world would be completely in thrall of an obviously ethically bankrupt corporation, unless the Circle’s reach is much more extensive than Eggers describes. In which case, Eggers did a bad job at world-building.

He also did a bad job at plotting the novel, which lurches forward and takes weird diversions into kayaking and parties without any real takeaways from either. Reading The Circle, I thought about what makes horror movies good: they lead the viewer slowly into the horror, building a false sense of security before they draw the knife. The Circle started with Mae in a bad position, and she continued to make bad choices throughout the book as she was pulled tighter and tighter into its tightening grasp, disregarding her own safety and that of the people close to her. And not only that, but every time there’s friction between her and her higher-ups, she immediately capitulates to the messed-up ideas of the Circle, without challenging their superiority at all. The reader, apparently, is supposed to do all of it for her.

Spoilers ahead! I mean, even more than there already has been. I’m going to talk about the ending here, so if you care to read it and don’t want to know it, stop here.

There’s a really clunky allegory at the very end of The Circle that involves three deep-sea creatures and the Three Wise Men. Basically, a mythical shark that can digest anything (Capitalism) is reintroduced to a deep-sea octopus (Connectivity) and seahorse (Creativity), and proceeds to eat them, proving Eggers’s point that Tech Capitalism Will Eat All of Us. The problem is, I saw it coming from a mile away, it’s introduced completely out of the blue (one of the Wise Men mentions he’s going on a dive to the Marianas Trench), it has nothing to do with anything else in the story, and it doesn’t technically work — the animals from the Marianas Trench would require great water pressures to even survive, and there’s no indication that’s even considered in the novel. It’s a slapdash, careless allegory that doesn’t even really make sense — the shark may work for capitalism, but the octopus and seahorse are my best-guess approximations for what Eggers is going for, since they don’t really map with other themes of the novel. No — the real problem is, the novel doesn’t have any other themes. It’s a one-note polemic on how Surveillance is Scary without any actual teeth.

I think Eggers was maybe trying to be Cory Doctorow, or even George Orwell, but The Circle has neither the true humanity of the former nor the all-consuming, righteous anger of the latter. I was actually bored while reading the third act of the book, holding my head in my hand and waiting for it all to end. It’s the kind of book that I don’t think can even be complained about well — I’m not happy with this review, but I don’t really want to revise it since that would mean I’d have to think about the damn book for even another second.

So I’ll leave it at this: don’t pick up The Circle. It’s really not worth the hate-read.