“My god, it’s heaven,” thinks Mae Holland, the protagonist of the new novel by Dave Eggers, as she walks across the sunny California campus and through the front doors on her first day of work at “The Circle,” the book’s idealized analogue of Google.
And why shouldn’t she? Everybody knows Google is the best place to work. They make buckets of money and “Don’t be evil” is a pretty good corporate motto, as corporate mottos go. A whole cottage industry has sprung up to produce books about how awesome it is to work there, how smart everyone is, and how to get hired. Because why wouldn’t you love to work there?
What Dave Eggers wants you to consider in his new novel The Circle is that you shouldn’t work there because they are, in fact, pure evil, and they are destroying the world. And not in a hyperbolic way: they are literally ruining the world, for everyone, for ever.
Mae Holland, as we meet her on her first day, gobsmacked at her own incredible luck, started out an ambitious graduate of a prestigious liberal arts college, who through some cruel happenstance had been doing office work for a common utility company in her small home town in northern California. To escape this fate worse than death, Mae reaches out to her friend Annie, a powerful executive at The Circle, and Annie easily gets Mae a job. Mae enters the Chocolate Factory and starts working as a customer service rep, but swiftly scales the corporate ladder until she’s one of the most visible, powerful, and respected members of the company, even surpassing her friend.
As Mae moves up in the world, she buys more and more into The Circle’s open, secrets-free ideology, and grants them progressively more access to her personal life, starting with the wearing of a health monitor to record her biometric data, and culminating in her “going transparent”—donning a wearable device that livestreams everything Mae sees and hears, all the time, as she embarks on a life of radical non-privacy, and becomes both the public face and mascot of the company. Pretty soon she is crowdsourcing an extrajudicial witch-hunt for a fugitive murderer (an eerie parallel to Reddit’s wrongheaded hunt for the Boston bombers), and advocating The Circle intervene with the U.S. government to make voter registration contingent on whether someone has a Google+ account (sorry, a “TruYou” account), among numerous other schemes that would be prime lawsuit-fodder for the ACLU and EFF.
Along the way she is courted by two men: one a shy, Asperger-ish, premature-ejaculating computer engineer who’s designing swallowable RFID chips to implant in children to track them in case of abduction; the other a secretive, gray-haired mystery man who vigorously couples with Mae in public restrooms while leaving frustratingly vague hints about the true nature of The Circle. Every once in a while Mae drives home to Nowheresville, USA, to visit her parents and, unavoidably, her ex-boyfriend Mercer, irritatingly chummy with her parents and prone to long monologues about the evils of social media.
As a novel of the tech industry, as a book about engineers and entrepreneurs and the personal ecosystems ballasting them both, The Circle is a lead balloon. Eggers fails to engage on a basic philosophical level with how technology changes the way we live and work, and slips again and again into the rut of the cantankerous “Things Used to Be Better” story. People used to have more direct and authentic emotional relationships. Experiences were less mediated by technology and art. Food tasted better. My beer was never this flat. It isn’t until Mae first “goes transparent” more than halfway through the book that it develops a real sense of motion.
If you enter into The Circle expecting prescient analysis of what our new digital lives mean, along the lines of what William Gibson or Cory Doctorow might tap off before breakfast, you will leave disappointed. This is less xkcd—a poignant examination of how life and technology intersect—and more Dilbert with the punchline panel cut off.
To be fair, Eggers is grappling with one of the legitimately big subjects of our time: How should we live, when how we live is changing faster, and more irrevocably, than ever before in human history? When writers pick big targets and falter, they at least falter in big, often noble ways—and a hubris of ambition is not necessarily a bad thing in a writer tilting at one of our biggest windmills. The book is owed some generosity for this alone, but it’s less interested in raising questions than haranguing us with answers, and is itself surprisingly ungenerous toward both its characters and readers, offering little more than humorless moral panic, watery Romanticism about the communion of the solitary individual with nature (Mae likes to kayak), and allusions to Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The Orwellian parallels are made explicit as the book hits its second act in front of a giant TV screen displaying the words:
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
The interesting—or baffling—difference between The Circle and Nineteen Eighty-Four is that Eggers gives you no one to empathize with. Unlike Winston Smith, Mae Holland harbors no rebellion in her soul. She’s a passive and pliable young person who is grateful to be so happily employed outside her hometown which she unironically refers to as “the developing world,” and is willing to go along with whatever The Circle says, offering only feeble, token resistance, and precious little of that. It’s like if Offred from The Handmaid’s Tale was kind of okay with her lot in life.
The only real empathy it seems like you’re supposed to have is with yourself, in your sense of superiority over the people in the book. “Mae thought of the petition she’d signed that day, to demand more job opportunities for immigrants living in the suburbs of Paris. It was energizing and would have impact.” Passages like that are typical of how Eggers describes Mae’s engagement with social media. It is not tempered by humor or satire, the way Jack Donaghy is used on 30 Rock to satirize the buffoonery of corporate executives. It is just snide.
The voices of reason in the book, the ones who most clearly articulate anti-Circle thought, are the mystery man and the ex-boyfriend (the premature ejaculator turns out to be a bit of a creep), who are, in turn, a crackpot and a bloviating jerk. The ex, Mercer, works in the improbable industry of hand-crafting chandeliers out of ethically-sourced deer antlers, so it’s a little tough to take him seriously as an everyman of simple American virtue. Given numerous monologues shaming the main character and people like her, he seems a surrogate for the author, and it’s perhaps telling that he comes to a bad, hopeless end—as do all opponents of The Circle. And that hopelessness is maybe the point. All is lost, Eggers seems to say. Sprawling megacorps have all your personal information and they still want more. They want inside your body and inside your mind. They own you and they’re too big to fight, and even if you could fight them it turns out that no one actually cares. We’re doomed.
It’s possible, however, that Eggers wasn’t even trying to write a tech novel. No one will mistake him for a great thinker on information technology or civil liberties, but these things might be considered window dressing for his real target here. In that sense, The Circle isn’t a technology novel, or a philosophical novel, it’s a religious novel, written by an atheist. The tepid passivity of the human herd in thrall to its idols is the whole point of the story, not a flaw in it. In that sense The Circle a book about true believers giving up a piece of themselves because they believe the rapture is coming, and coerce everyone else to give up that piece because they cannot conceive the notion that they might be following a false gods. The Circle is a book about cults. And, if this book is any evidence, Dave Eggers knows a cult when he sees one.
The Circle is available now from Knopf / McSweeney’s Books
David Moran lives in San Francisco, and has a healthy mistrust of how our personal liberties will be transformed in this digital age, but if anyone from Google is reading this, he’d totally like to pass you his résumé.