It’s fitting that a company whose motto is “Don’t be evil” would find a fictional alter ego depicted as a ruthless corporate predator bent on controlling every aspect of human life in THE CIRCLE, Dave Eggers’s fourth novel. The eponymous company (seasoned with a dash of Facebook and a pinch of Twitter) comes to symbolize all that Eggers seems to believe is dangerous in our increasingly open and interconnected electronic world. And while this dystopian thriller is a diverting entertainment, he never quite succeeds in evoking a true sense of dread about where all our friending, following and, above all, our sharing may be taking us.
THE CIRCLE is set in an undefined near future on a bucolic campus in Northern California: “Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected.” To this pristine environment comes Mae Holland, a 24-year-old college graduate whose friend,Annie Allerton, one of the “Gang of 40” who runs the Circle, has rescued her from a soul-destroying job with a utility company. Mae is assigned to Customer Experience, where she proceeds from answering routine client queries to total immersion in an increasingly demanding social media world, quickly aligning herself with the company ethos as the computer screens on her desk multiply from two to nine.
Mae soon learns that the Circle is involved in a vast array of projects, some serious and others whimsical, like counting the grains of sand in the Sahara. But even the most noble-sounding have a sinister edge. ChildTrack, a program intended to locate missing children, requires permanently implanting a chip into the child’s body. Another, PastPerfect, is designed to recover and compile information about a subject’s ancestry, with disastrous results for the character who becomes its guinea pig. These and myriad other intractable social issues become simply one of “a thousand problems correctible through simple enough algorithms and the application of available technology and willing members of the digital community.”
"[T]he novel is more appealing as a technothriller than it is engrossing as a serious exploration of some looming technological danger.... Dave Eggers is less concerned about government intrusion into our private lives and more worried about how much of our privacy we’re willing to surrender without a whisper of protest."
After she commits a minor transgression, Eamon Bailey engages Mae in a Socratic dialogue, smoothly persuading her that complete transparency in a world that no longer harbors any secrets (a status she achieves when she agrees to wear a camera that broadcasts her every action to millions of viewers) is the ultimate good. “It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear,” Mae concludes. For her, and the other acolytes of the Circle, “full transparency would bring full access, and there would be no more not-knowing.”
Pitted against the Circle’s growing power is Mercer Medeiros, Mae’s old boyfriend, a man who handcrafts chandeliers from deer antlers. He’s an advocate for the world of human connection he sees undermined as the company’s tentacles extend their reach. And more than that, he vainly tries to persuade a skeptical Mae, “Don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders.”
As Eggers peels off the Circle’s friendly mask to reveal the danger he believes lurks beneath it, he strives for a story of Orwellian power. 1984’s “War is Peace” has its analogues in the Circle’s creepy slogans, “Secrets are Lies/Sharing is Caring/Privacy is Theft,” and the omnipresence of cameras, called SeeChange, evokes Big Brother. But THE CIRCLE is more of a piece with the plot-driven novels of Michael Crichton, and not the equal of Gary Shteyngart’s darkly comic SUPER SAD TRUE LOVE STORY. The Wise Men---Tom Stenton, Eamon Bailey and Ty Gospodinov (a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in, complete with hoodie), who “devised the initial system, the Unified Operating System, which combined everything online that had heretofore been separate and sloppy” --- are mostly caricatured. Even the novel’s protagonist has the emotional depth of a Facebook profile.
Eggers, who has been at the forefront of hip literary culture since his 2000 memoir, A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, obviously is a skeptic when it comes to the value of the online world. But it’s a vast leap --- one he doesn’t make persuasively --- from what for most of us is a rewarding experience to imagining there lies behind it a sinister intelligence, scheming to intrude on and manipulate every aspect of our existence, from the commercial to the political. As a consequence, the novel is more appealing as a technothriller than it is engrossing as a serious exploration of some looming technological danger.
The revelations about the NSA’s surveillance activities have provoked a firestorm of controversy, even among many who don’t fully grasp their implications. Dave Eggers is less concerned about government intrusion into our private lives and more worried about how much of our privacy we’re willing to surrender without a whisper of protest. While he may not have succeeded in undermining our affinity for social media, perhaps he will induce us to feel just a small twinge the next time we “like” a friend’s photograph on Facebook or “favorite” one of her tweets.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 16, 2013