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The Circle Paperback – April 22, 2014
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An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2013: As a fiction writer, indie publishing icon and education activist Dave Eggers neither suffers fools gladly nor treads lightly. With his signature mix of intelligence and highly literate snark, he dives headlong into contemporary crises--Hurricane Katrina, the Sudanese civil war--through the lens of a single character whose perspective we get to know intimately. In his new novel, Eggers tackles a modern problem that doesn't always seem like one: our near constant hunger for communication. When Mae Holland takes a job at the Circle, a tech giant with a utopian culture and cultlike following (Eggers didn't call it Schmoogle, but may as well have), she quickly loses sight of her friends, family, and sense of self in favor of professional success and social acceptance. As her Circle star rises, Mae succumbs to the corporate code of full disclosure, eventually agreeing to "go transparent" and let the public watch--and comment on--her every move. "Privacy is theft," decrees the company motto; "Secrets are lies." It's not subtle, but neither were "Harrison Bergeron" and 1984, and in its best moments The Circle is equally terrifying. Let's just hope it's not prescient. --Mia Lipman --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
*Starred Review* Most of us imagine totalitarianism as something imposed upon us—but what if we’re complicit in our own oppression? That’s the scenario in Eggers’ ambitious, terrifying, and eerily plausible new novel. When Mae gets a job at the Circle, a Bay Area tech company that’s cornered the world market on social media and e-commerce, she’s elated, and not just because of the platinum health-care package. The gleaming campus is a wonder, and it seems as though there isn’t anything the company can’t do (and won’t try). But she soon learns that participation in social media is mandatory, not voluntary, and that could soon apply to the general population as well. For a monopoly, it’s a short step from sharing to surveillance, to a world without privacy. This isn’t a perfect book—the good guys lecture true-believer Mae, and a key metaphor is laboriously explained—but it’s brave and important and will draw comparisons to Brave New World and 1984. Eggers brilliantly depicts the Internet binges, torrents of information, and endless loops of feedback that increasingly characterize modern life. But perhaps most chilling of all is his notion that our ultimate undoing could be something so petty as our desperate desire for affirmation. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Eggers’ reputation as a novelist continues to grow. Expect this title to be talked about, as it has an announced first printing of 200,000 and the New York Times Magazine has first serial rights. --Keir Graff --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
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“The Circle” makes some important points about timely issues such as the end of privacy (already upon us), totalitarianism/monopolies, the power of “groupthink” and delusion, and the weaknesses of governments that are incestuously linked to private corporations. However, I found myself skimming through parts where it got bogged down. On one hand, Eggers’ attention to detail is impressive and extremely conscientious. For instance, he details the Circle’s elaborate system of success metrics (a combination of performance and social media rankings) that eerily parallels today’s times. But he also spent a lot of time describing the mechanics of Mae’s job as a customer service rep, and I’m not sure there was a point to having to digest all those specifics. I think a talented editor could have honed this manuscript down to 300 pages instead of 500, while still making the main points.
I also found it odd that Mae (the protagonist) did not undergo a major character transformation, since most novels follow that formula. Mae is sort of a “flat character” with little emotional depth. I kept hoping Mae would see the error of the Circle’s philosophy and her acceptance of it. But maybe the point is that good people can find themselves embroiled in ultimately bad things due to a lack of awareness and insight. Mae is, after all, only in her 20s. Perhaps she just lacks the wisdom and empathy that come with age and experience. Yet Mae’s character flaws – megalomania and self-delusion – seem deeply ingrained in her psyche (e.g., her refusal to admit to herself how her behavior resulted in the death of someone close to her).
As Mae and the other Circlers approach “completion,” ironically, the people in Mae’s inner circle – her parents, her best friend, her ex-boyfriend – begin dropping out of her life. It serves as a cautionary tale about how obsession and delusion can lead to the destruction of what’s most important to us.
I think the big issue for me is that, unlike say "1984" (to which this book frequently alludes) or "Fahrenheit 451" or even "The Hunger Games," the stakes just didn't feel that high in this dystopia. Part of the issue is that the protagonist, Mae, never questions anything, ever. She goes along with everything and any bit of cognitive dissonance is left unexamined, just buried under her distractions. Maybe that's the point? That if we never take any time to reflect, then we'll never be able to counter an all-powerful entity. Regardless, it's hard to get on board with the idea that this universe is dystopic when the narrator is simply complacent and complicit.
There's so much text devoted to the The Circle's "good intentions" and good press that when the few, disparate, terrible consequences of a police state appear, they don't really feel as impactful as they should. A Congresswoman is ruined and we never hear about it again. Characters' deaths fall flat. Characters cut themselves off from The Circle's surveillance but the consequences are never really revealed. And the finale just felt so rushed and bare!
(Also, I found Mercer, Mae's foil, absolutely insufferable. In my opinion he fails as a voice of reason.)
I feel like Eggers did a great job of bringing the world he created to the brink of disaster but just kind of left it dangling. There's all of this suspense, but there's no exploration of the real, concrete consequences of the future he's proposing. Mob executions of criminals/deviants? Police violence being justified due to our pasts? Erasure of dissidents? Destroying and distorting information like in 1984? We don't know, and frankly, I'm not invested enough to wonder too much about it.