Review: The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle by Dave Eggers (2013)

the_circleI 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.”

Review: The Meaning of Maggie

The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern
Chronicle 2014
It’s easy to fall into a reading rut, which isn’t so bad when unread novels by your longtime favorites are stacked next to your bed in teetering piles, small monuments to the nights of your childhood when you were first introduced to the characters by the glow of a flashlight beneath the blankets. At this moment, recently published books by Lynne Rae Perkins, Cynthia Kadohata, and Rebecca Stead lie within armsreach of my pillow, but as eagerly as I anticipate diving into their pages, I felt the desire several weeks ago to bring home from the bookstore something I was unfamiliar with, by a writer I’d never heard of, as kind of an injection of newness into my reading life. This is why I picked up The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern.

I carried it around for three weeks before getting through chapter two, seriously regretting my moment of spontaneity. Its setup was interesting enough: a fifth-grade girl sits at her ailing father’s bedside in a hospital room, explaining in her tween voice how they both got there. She quickly introduces us to her older, hotter sisters (“So I called Tiffany and Layla and they opened their doors at the same time because they’re pretty much the same person. With the same brain. And the same bra size”), her classic-rock-loving, wheelchair-bound father, and her no-nonsense, ex-hippie mother, and leads us through a recollection of her tenth birthday exactly a year ago.

Maggie’s voice is instantly recognizable as that of a smart, inquisitive, overachieving pre-adolescent girl, eager to satisfy her own lofty ambitions despite very little urging by her parents or teachers, one of those self-driven, self-centered young people who hasn’t yet discovered her own limitations, except those limitations imposed on her by the grownups (and sisters) in her life. My problem with getting from chapter one to chapter two had everything to do with that voice. So well does it represent the mannerisms of typical (smart) fifth-grade girlspeak that it was just about unbearable in large doses, at least near the beginning of the book. I love listening to children tell me their stories, but not for four hours, which is what I predicted would be necessary to read this to the end.

When I finally got tired of carrying the book around, and when the call of those other unread books shifted into urgency, I made up my mind to power through, and before I reached the midpoint, I discovered that I had not only gotten used to Maggie’s voice, but I had grown fond of it. I was amused by the (certainly intentional) anachronisms, Maggie’s keen (yet naive) attention to detail, and her ability to let us see situations from other character’s points of view even while she, as narrator, is completely oblivious to them herself. I stopped noticing how many of Maggie’s sentences begin with conjunctions, and I started noticing how skillful the author is in painting one picture for young readers and a different picture for older readers.

Maggie’s father is seriously unwell in a way that makes this story an easy tear-jerker of sorts, but Sovern doesn’t earn sentiment with greeting-card syrupiness. Instead, she gives us flashes of revelation as we see how his condition affects each member of his family. Maggie is being kept largely in the dark when it comes to details of his illness, but when Maggie describes for us how her sister, not her mother, comes to an awards breakfast at school, we see a bigger picture that Maggie herself hasn’t opened her eyes to.

The Meaning of Maggie should appeal to a pretty wide range of tweeners, but it will be special to overachieving students who feel alienated because of their love for learning. I was won over by Maggie’s cluelessness with social situations and by the author’s great skill in creating her narrator’s self-centered view while giving her readers a wider angle.