Book Review -- The Circle

Dave Eggers' The Circle is a dystopian novel published last fall that presents a world where connecting via social media is taken to new extremes. I noticed it popping up on many reading lists in various magazines and online pieces, so earlier this summer, I finally joined the wait list to borrow it online.* Many, many days later (so many days that I forgot all about it -- this is a popular book for good reason!), I got the notification that it was ready for reading, which timed perfectly with my family's vacation.

Okay, first watch this amazing and eloquent bit by Louis C.K., whose commentary is on par with Egger's theme in this novel:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HbYScltf1c

Back to The Circle.

Mae Holland is an idealistic, young college graduate who snags a job at The Circle, a prestigious technology company led by the "Three Wise Men." Everybody has heard of The Circle, and to work there means you're set for life, so Mae's family and friends are thrilled and impressed with her luck. Mae feels indebted to her best friend, Annie, who helped her get hired and works as part of the "40" -- the 40 most influential employees at the company.

Mae also works in customer service, but quickly moves up the ranks. The more she works, the more she feels content with her achievements -- except one day, she is called into a meeting and gets in trouble for not responding to a coworker's random online invitation for a get-together. Her boss kindly yet firmly tells Mae that at The Circle, there's an expectation to be active on social media, through the company's multiple platforms and in general. Employee activity is shown through public scoring, and since Mae's scores are quite low, she feels ashamed and is prompted to stay up late liking comments and posts, joining groups and clubs, commenting on boards or discussions -- until her score gains her favor back at work.

Meanwhile, she meets a strange man at an after-work party named Kalden. Mae is immediately attracted to Kalden, but can't find him on social media anywhere, and spends much of the novel trying to either stay away from him or learn more about him. One of the most surprising twists of the novel involves Kalden, so I won't spoil it for you.

When The Circle develops a new technology called SeeChange -- affordable, tiny cameras the size of lollipops that can be stuck anywhere, by anyone, and then viewed through public cameras -- Mae accidentally becomes a spokesperson, delving deeper into the mysteries of the company. Tension escalates at work and at home for Mae as Annie starts to back away from her noteworthy position at The Circle, Mae's parents begin to distance themselves from their daughter, and even Mae's ex-boyfriend, Mercer, refuses to have nothing to do with her. All because of their distaste for The Circle's power and influence. Mae remains quite defensive and thinks The Circle can do no wrong, and toward the end of the novel, must make a decision that will affect both the rest of her life and the company's longevity.

Honestly, I finished this book and felt a mix of fear, sadness and panic.

Eggers clearly uses our current media landscape (i.e., The Circle could easily be Apple or Google) and obsession with documenting personal lives as the basis for The Circle.

Take these quotes, for instance:

  • When Mae stumbles upon Mercer at her parent's house, she realizes she hasn't talked to him on the phone or seen him in months, so she doesn't know what's going on in his life. She immediately chides him for his lack of social media presence. Mercer replies, "You're always looking at me through a hundred other people's eyes."
  • Other Mercer phrases, this time about social media platforms in general (as Mae's antagonist, his voice speaks against everything The Circle represents): "Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication" and "There's this new neediness -- it pervades everything."
  • When Mae speaks onstage during a Circle presentation, and her social profile is presented without permission, she feels uncomfortable, and then struggles to explain why: "Having a matrix of preferences presented as your essence, as the whole you? It was some kind of mirror, but it was incomplete, distorted."

I normally love to underline and highlight quotes in novels, but there were so many moments like the ones listed above, I almost couldn't. Almost on every page, I thought, Holy shit, this could actually happen. There's a specific scene where Mae goes out kayaking, and then casually mentions the experience to her boss, and basically gets yelled at and called selfish for not taking pictures of the water, not joining a kayaking club -- essentially, for not sharing it and simply enjoying it.

In today's world where everything can be instantaneously 'grammed, tweeted, Facebooked, Vine'd, blogged, etc., it's precious to realize that an experience doesn't have to be captured to be worthwhile.

Eggers writes, "You know how you finish a bag of chips and you hate yourself? You know you've done nothing good for yourself. That's the same feeling, and you know it is, after some digital binge. You feel wasted and hollow and diminished."

His entire novel is a loud warning: the way we're connecting online, the way we're ignoring the sanctity of personal privacy, is not sustainable and will destroy us. Think today's 1984. Read The Circle, consider the role of the Internet and social media in your life, and then back ever so slightly away from the glowing screens -- get outside, speak to someone you love in person, ignore your phone for a while.

ALSO Dave Eggers co-wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are, so, there's that.

*If you have a Kindle and aren't using some sort of online version of your library (in Iowa, it's WILBOR), do it now!