When my brother knows a book I’m raving about, I know for sure I’m coming late to the party. Of course I’d heard of The Circle by Dave Eggers, having witnessed people clutching the striking orange cover back in 2013, and vaguely recalling the release of the somewhat disappointing film adaptation – which, as always, I’ve not watched yet. But I’d decided not to bother with the novel, as I’d been left underwhelmed by other Eggers novels I’d read, and because I’m a snob who regards a Book of the Year qualification as an indication of a text’s lack of quality.
When I was looking for a new book to read, the novel stood out from the library shelves last weekend. I decided to give it a go. It did not disappoint. The fact that I finished it over the course of one lazy Sunday suggests that, at the very least, the story is captivating. Yet the more I think about it, the more uneasy the book makes me feel, and not necessarily for the right reasons.
The story is simple and timely enough. Mae, a young and ambitious woman, gets a much-coveted job at The Circle, a fictional Google/Facebook/Amazon hybrid in the process of taking over the online and offline world. As the novel progresses Mae rises through the company’s ranks and is increasingly confronted with its rather sinister agenda and tactics. So far, so good.
The novel’s greatest strength is its first half, a properly funny satire of our collective social media obsession and the harmful work culture promoted by Silicon Valley-type companies. Mae’s desk is covered by more and more screens, causing insomnia and a constant fear to be “not good enough”, and the hilarious “newspeak” uttered by her colleagues and new friends bears an uncanny resemblance to your average TedX speech.
Having said that, the novel feels unsatisfactory in place. Early on I expected an interesting tension to develop between May’s job, its ability to provide her and her family with first class healthcare, and her father’s MS diagnosis. But as the novel progresses Mae’s parents never rise beyond their cardboard status and become a rather unnecessary addition to the narrative. If Mae is so attached to her parents, why does she accept her estrangement from them so easily? Why does her father’s health, or lack thereof, cease to bother her?
Although the novel covers the obsession with self-broadcasting in great detail, imagining a world in which we film and share our lives 24/7, it pretty much overlooks sex. I may sound like a pervert for pointing this out, but given the fact that much of the internet revolves around porn, I believe it’s a missed opportunity. If people were indeed offered the opportunity to become “transparent”, as the novel calls it, would they object to broadcasting their sex lives? Or would they grasp the opportunity to create unprecedented forms of porn? And if so, what would the ethical consequences be?
Being a literary scholar, I understand that the novel is satire and Mae is an Everywoman character, perhaps not intended to function as a well-rounded protagonist, and more as a metaphor for all of us. But this narrative choice makes it hard to empathize with her. It’s hard to understand why she never questions the policies of her employer, even if they cause her to feel permanently stressed out, and why she never considers whether her hard work is truly worth it, even when one of her best friends collapses due to her workload. Perhaps Mae’s indifference should be read as a contemporary nod to Winston’s attitude at the end of 1984, where he declares that he loves Big Brother. But still, much of that novel revolves around Winston’s attempts to escape from the forces that spy on him. The absence of that tension in The Circle makes the latter feel lacklustre in places.
Having said all that, and coming across like a sourfaced bore, I still think The Circle brilliantly captures the craziness of the social media-obsessed world we now live in, and adequately warns us of the potential consequences of our hunger for information. Part of its power comes from the possibility that the technology it depicts could be a reality sooner than we think. We already carry equipment that allows us to share every moment of our day and permits others to spy on our movements. It’s only a small step to a society where “privacy is theft”, as the novel terrifyingly concludes. Judging from the behaviour I witness on a regular basis, few people have allowed that message to sink in. I do wonder whether, in fifty years’ time, university students will be ordered to study The Circle to understand how their ancestors marched towards their own doom. Or alternatively, to laugh at the unnecessary paranoia voiced by people like me.
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