A tech giant with tentacles deep into the lives of its users is no longer an unusual thing to imagine, but Dave Eggers takes the growing inescapabilty of social media and personal technology to clever and chilling places in his new novel.
The Circle is the massively successful technology company at the center of the latest from Eggers, best known for his 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. It’s a few years from now, and the Circle has swallowed up Facebook, Google and other formerly dominant rivals with a fiendishly simple idea: TruYou, a singular online identity and operating system that has eliminated the need for multiple usernames and passwords across various sites, devices and applications.
TruYou has largely rid the Internet of anonymity while pushing its users to eradicate already fading lines between their real and online lives. But such abstract concerns weigh little on 24-year-old Mae Holland, who, as the book starts, is giddy with excitement to have lucked through a personal connection into a customer service job at the Circle’s huge, architecturally stunning Bay Area campus.
The Circle begins as satire, as Mae navigates the peculiar demands of the Circle’s corporate culture. In return for their cultlike devotion, the Circle rewards its employees with almost unimaginable perks and benefits. Entertained at nightly campus events by famous musicians and artists, fed by celebrity chefs and bombarded by swag, employees of the Circle are expected to bask in their mutual privilege through constant oversharing in the company’s thriving social networks.
Eggers is at his best as he lampoons social media manners and habits, and the insularity and groupthink that permeate his Silicon Valley behemoth. Though they work in some of the world’s most desirable jobs, the book’s “Circlers” are a prickly, needy bunch: constantly in search of attention and affirmation, hooked on the superficial validation that social media can provide. When Mae, early in her tenure, inadvertently overlooks an invitation to a themed brunch that a co-worker extends through one of the Circle’s layers of interactive forums, his hurt feelings trigger an intervention from her boss and human resources.
Working at the Circle inarguably improves Mae’s life — the company even springs for health insurance for her ailing father. She increasingly takes to her job, showing a knack for the Circle’s obsessive customer service routines and becoming a master at endlessly deploying the smiles, frowns, zings and reviews that define its social media presence. So Mae is terrified when a slip-up in her private life comes to the attention of leaders at the Circle, only to see it turn to her favor and enable a rapid rise into the company’s top ranks. Soon, Mae has fully embraced the company’s mission that online lives should be fully transparent.
Here The Circle shifts from satire toward cautionary tale, as Mae finds herself in the orbit of the “three wise men” who together run the Circle: a cunning corporate shark, an affable utopian and a reclusive computer genius. As she gains more insight into the company’s ambitious plans for its mysterious goal of “completing the Circle,” the book lurches — not always totally convincingly — into something more like a thriller. A few of the book’s late revelations feel borrowed from B-movie screenplays, and the flair for chiseled, affecting prose that Eggers showcased in his previous novel, A Hologram for the King, is occasionally replaced here with clumsy transitions and obvious exposition.
But, in a smart twist on a typical thriller plot, Mae — as she learns more and more about the Circle’s secrets — seems to grow more naive and less paranoid, rather than the reverse.
“I have yet to conjure a scenario where a secret does more good than harm,” one of the Circle’s wise men tells Mae, and her indifference toward the implications of her employer’s schemes grows nearly maddening as the book’s climax approaches. But it also effectively portrays what Eggers seems to be arguing in this thought-provoking page turner: that too many of us flock to the Internet all too willing to abandon any sense of privacy around both our personal information, and our inner lives.
Pat Condon reviewed this book for the Associated Press.