I’m a big fan of dystopian fiction and so when I came across The Circle in the library I snatched it up with the enthusiasm of a kid invading Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.
The story is very much a dystopia for the digital age. The plot follows Mae, a 20 something woman eager to land a job at The Circle which is a company that bears more than a passing resemblance to Google, Facebook, Apple etc. The company is headed by a trilogy of male bosses and run by a gang of 40 senior executives whom the numerous Circle employees look up to with a kind of rabid devotion. We quickly learn that the Circle is a company that intends to have Mae, body and soul, attempting to absorb her fully into the community. While initially she does her job and does it well, her bosses worry and query why she isn’t a full participant in the group. Mae’s best friend Annie is one of the 40 senior exec’s and since she has no intention on letting her down (working for the Circle is a dream come true after all). Mae throws herself not just into her work but also head first into the company. She agrees to attend all manner of social events and zings (nee tweets), comments and posts her way up the company’s community rankings. In one particular scene we watch Mae tailspin as she tries to fully participate in the community. She is chided by her bosses for working hard but not participating – which is done though engaging in online message-boards, answering surveys and attending afterwork activities. Mae abandons the outside to live ‘on campus’ and stays up into the small hours of the morning to guarantee herself a high rank.
Her ex boyfriend Mercer and her parents provide the book with its key antagonists. Digital age luddites, the three become deeply baffled by Mae’s ongoing indoctrination into the Circle’s lifestyle. One of the best aspects of this book is the juxtaposition between the conversations that people in the outside world try to have with Mae and the superficial interactions that she has with her colleagues. At one point Mae is encouraged to start participating in surveys – hundreds of questions a day but her responses are largely restricted to ‘smile’, ‘frown’ or ‘meh’.
The Circle tries to be a 500 page warning against the dangers of social media and it sometimes succeeds at this. It managed to make me feel guilty for spending too much time on twitter and commenting on other people’s blogs. More accurately though, it’s a political fable that illustrates how totalitarianism is never far away and proselytizing about how we, as a society, must be always on our guard against extremism. In this sense Eggers doesn’t tread any ground that wasn’t already well trampled on by Orwell, Atwood or Huxley before him. If you haven’t read any of these authors, then I would argue that Eggers provides an easy and modern introduction to the genre. Even if you are well versed in dystopian literature there is still plenty to recommend it. For example, while predecessors often set their stories in an already totalitarian state, Eggers chooses to show us a society on the precipice of change. Further, the story moves along at a rapid pace and offers some great descriptions of the ‘Google-like’ Circle.
That said, the narrative at times felt a bit bloated and I felt there were multiple scenes that could have been edited out or re-worked. Several Apple-like presentations of updates to the system by the Circle gurus are included. One or two of these would have got the point across. The ending itself also felt rushed and tacked on. I find this happens a lot with dystopian fiction – an excellent premise and great first act let down by not being able to find a satisfying and plausible conclusion.
For it’s failings though, The Circle is still a very enjoyable read. Thematically, it considers not only the dangers of the internet and totalitarianism but also the dangers of rampant positivity. As anyone who writes a blog can testify (as can recent debates on the blogosphere), we tend to only share the best of ourselves, reserving negativity for our private lives. Taken to extremes, however, Eggers shows just how frightening it can become if we are not given the privacy to be curmudgeonly. Reading this book I was reminded of North Korea, where we often see images of citizens expressing over the top emotions of joy or sadness in reaction to political actions. From the outside it is impossible to tell if this is a genuine reflection of societal culture, however unpalatable it may seem to the outside, or if it is a survival mechanism for people who are terrified of expressing criticism of any kind, for fear of the consequences.