The Circle is Dave Eggers’ 10th work of fiction and follows on the heels of some much-loved, albeit not hugely commercially successful, books.
Eggers is an author, publisher and philanthropist. He is someone who seems to genuinely care about the fate of the world – the work that he’s doing with his 826 Valencia project is incredibly inspiring and his opening address at last year’s Brisbane Writer’s Festival was one of the best I’ve ever heard. He has written some beautiful and moving books, unfortunately, The Circle isn’t one of them. It is full of interesting ideas and a vividly created dystopia, however it was clunky, the characters were one-dimensional and it could have done with a really thorough edit.
At the centre of this book is Mae, a young woman who lands a job at The Circle, one of the world’s most influential internet companies – think Google, Apple and Facebook all rolled into one creepy and all-powerful package. The company is run by a trinity of male bosses, who are looked upon by Circle employees with a sort of crazed-liked devotion. The company’s ultimate goal of global, digital transparency turns Mae’s seemingly dream job into an all-consuming force, as she is taken in and over by The Circle’s philosophy.
Eggers creates a dystopian future (albeit, one that has the unsettling shape of something not far from the realms of possibility), where ‘secrets are lies, sharing is caring, privacy is theft’. This is a world where your every movement, purchase, even thought, can be tracked and is. Where ‘suffering is only suffering if it’s done in silence, in solitude. Pain experienced in public, in view of loving millions, was no longer pain. It was communion’.
The book is a warning against the dangers of social media and sometimes it succeeds at this. Unfortunately, there were other times when it felt like Eggers was trying to cram every thought he has ever had about social media into one book, and this diluted the original message.
The most successful part of the novel was the world building, and how scarily close to now it felt like it could be. It’s a very real-feeling dystopia – there are no children fighting to the death in man-made arenas or women being categorised according to their reproductive capabilities – this is a destructive future brought about by the use and misuse of many technologies that already exist.
The rest of America…seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?”
A lot of other dystopian novels, like 1984, Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale, invite us in after the world has already been ‘destroyed’. What’s different about The Circle is that Eggers creates a world that is on the edge. The so-called ‘bad thing’ hasn’t happened yet, and this makes his dystopia feel uncomfortably real. Introducing us to Mae right at the beginning, when she is still normal, for want of a better word, means that we don’t have to wonder how mankind let it get this bad, he shows us just how easy it could be.
While the world Eggers has built is realistic, his characters are much less so. Mae is incredibly weak and almost impossible to relate to, which is a big problem if the goal of the novel is to show us how close we are to the precipice of this world. If Mae’s character is so far removed from ourselves, why would we believe that this could happen to us?
This book itself was not without its own controversy. After it was released Eggers revealed that, despite writing a book on social media, he, himself, had rarely used it. Nor had he done any research about technology companies. A fiction writer, making something up? The horror.
I actually think it makes a lot of sense that Eggers wouldn’t use social media, seeing as the book is essentially a warning against it. It would be a little hypocritical of him to rail against something that he actively engages in. On the other hand, if you are going to criticise something so vehemently, and use it as the catalyst for bringing society to its knees, it feels a little judgemental to use something you essentially know nothing about.
To a certain degree, the controversy that surrounded the book’s release overshadowed the fact that the book itself is, well, it’s just not very good. It should be. Eggers is a great writer – he’s proven that in numerous fiction and non-fiction books – and his ideas are solid and worthwhile. Unfortunately, the execution let him down.
It felt like one of those books that you read through quite happily – enjoying it on a surface level – but when you finish it and really think about what you’ve just read, you realise how many holes and weak spots it had. There is actually a line in the book that describes how it feels to read it:
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.”
The Circle is full of concepts and issues that deserve attention and discussion; unfortunately, Eggers’ poor execution means that it will not be this book that gets people talking.