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Book review: The Circle, by Dave Eggers

Reviewed by Aaron Kreuter

When Mae Holland, the protagonist in Dave Eggers’ newest novel, The Circle, is given the opportunity to work at the Circle, the internet and technology company that has replaced Google and Facebook, she is thrilled. Instead of working the dead-end job at her hometown’s power company, she gets to be a part of the company that has revolutionized the internet through TruYou, a program that amalgamates all of your online identities and makes identity theft and anonymity a thing of the past. If it wasn’t for Annie, her college roommate who rose fast through the company ranks and got Mae the job, she wouldn’t be here: “A million people, a billion, wanted be where Mae was at this moment, entering this atrium, thirty feet high and shot through with California light, on her first day working for the only company that really mattered at all.”

The Circle opens with Mae’s first day in her new position in ‘customer experience,’ and she is filled with hope and excitement. And at first it does seem like a dream job: the campus is full of beautiful architecture, sports facilities, cooking classes, musicians-in-residence, almost nightly themed celebrations. The food in the cafeteria is free; everybody is happy; and the health care, which Mae is able to get her MS-suffering dad enrolled in, is excellent.

However, pretty soon, things start looking not as great as they did at first glance. The employees Mae encounters seem too gung-ho, too earnest, laughably sensitive. What are the real intentions behind projects like SeeChange, where the whole world gets covered in hard-to-detect, incredibly powerful cameras? What will the outcome be of a world where politicians’ transparency is mediated through the hardware and software of the Circle? Where a TruYou account is mandatory? And who is Kalden, the mysterious, grey-haired man who Mae has an affair with, but who can’t be found anywhere in the company’s database and seems to sleep in a cave under the campus? Though readers will start to question what is really going on here, Mae never doubts that what the Circle is doing, its goals and global saturation, is anything but pure-of-intention, beautiful, utopic.

Since Eggers’ critically acclaimed and commercially successful first book, the memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers has tackled a wide range of politically and socially significant topics. In What is the What, genocide in the Sudan; in Zeitoun, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans; in Hologram For the King, the decline of American industrial might and the rise of Saudi Arabia. All of these books are tightly written, well-paced, and well thought out, and make Eggers a natural candidate for writing about our current online reality. The Circle and its eponymous company are a terrifying embodiment of what a world without privacy, a world under constant surveillance, a world mediated through ‘likes’ and comment threads, where everybody is watched, and everything is known, would look like (a world not too far from our own…).

Dave Eggers

Unfortunately, even with all of these successes, the novel never really gets off the ground. There are too many 30-page weekly presentations (perhaps purposefully reminiscent of Steve Jobs’ theatrical product unveilings?), too many earnest conversations about how great the Circle and its technologies are, some of which could easily have been given in summary (and the conversations about how dangerous the Circle is are too far between, and too pedantic when they do appear).

And even though the actions of Mae and the company she comes to love and serve do have some drastic consequences for the people in Mae’s life, the novel doesn’t build enough tension for the dystopia it envisions to hit home as powerfully as it should have. What late novel intrigue there is gets glossed over incredibly fast, and we’re left only with Mae’s slavish devotion to the Circle. If the book was 100 pages shorter, and ratcheted up the conflict between those who believe in the Circle’s project and those who don’t, one could see this book having a much larger impact on its readers.

That being said, there is no doubt that this novel still sounds the alarm. In today’s world, Eggers seems to be saying, there is nothing quite as dangerous as a group of brilliant, idealistic, but overall misguided young people, especially when coupled with the tremendous force of global capitalism. If nothing else, The Circle will give you momentary pause next time you share what you had for lunch on Twitter, post a video of your birthday party on Facebook, or upload the majority of your life to the cloud.

(Knopf Canada / 504 pgs. / October 2013 / CDN$34 in hardcover)

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