The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)
I have a feeling I picked the wrong novel for my introduction to Dave Eggers.
The Circle is five hundred fairly quick pages of good pacing and good (not great) narrative about Mae Holland, a woman just out of college who accepts a job at the Circle, a Google-like tech firm. The Circle began as either a search engine or a social media platform, but has since grown to include all manner of services enabled by its accumulation of information about its users. Geolocation, messaging, commerce, archiving, life streaming, entertainment, and quantified living services (among countless others) combine to attract users to its functionality while driving the company’s mission of knowing everything that can be known.
Mae cannot believe how fortunate she is to work at such a bleeding-edge company, on a campus providing everything she could possibly need, personally or professionally. She has onsite healthcare, free samples of consumer products not yet available to the public, nightly entertainment, free meals, and even on-campus housing for nights when it’s just more convenient to stay at work than to drive home. Her college roomie is among the firm’s elite, affording Mae a status the other newbies can’t claim, and although the adjustment to this new work environment is tougher than she predicted, she is determined to do what she’s asked in order to move up from her customer experience position. Throw in a couple of potential love interests and an increasingly visible online presence, and her increased alienation from her family seems a small sacrifice.
The Circle is Brave New World and Animal Farm for the 21st Century, with a dash of Candide thrown in, as Mae plays the wide-eyed apprentice learning to embrace the Circle’s “Secrets are Lies” doctrine. While Eggers spins his cautionary tale, he seems to be worried that the stuff of a good novel might distract from his almost allegorical message. His main character is well conceived but poorly developed, so that she comes across as admirable, pitiful, and insufferable according to the needs of the plot, rather than as the driving force behind the plot. Because the power of the Circle is greater than the personality of the character, we care about Mae but find her difficult to like, and while that may be intentional, it makes for an unsatisfying read.
Mae’s shortcomings as a main character might still have worked with a more intricate or suspenseful plot, but Eggers plays it right down the line as might any writer of minimal skill and a casual familiarity with current technology news. The result is overly simplified, with only a nod in the direction of some of the issues’ nuances. Yes, the era of Big Data has some conflicts between utility and privacy, and yes, younger generations seem eager to give their privacy up, but it’s just not as easy as that. Today’s young adults don’t devalue privacy; they merely have a different concept of it, but nowhere does Eggers attempt to see privacy through the eyes of Mae’s generation. Instead, Mae gives up her privacy as this concept is understood by the generation before her, and while that works for the novelist’s intended message for his intended audience, it does little to help us understand either the issue’s many colors or Mae’s real motivations.
Two of five stars, or in the Circle’s parlance, “Meh.”