The Circle is a novel that tries too hard to be the 1983 of George Orwell’s 1984. It is a novel about the place of social media in our lives and the dangers of letting it actually control us and replace us. The idea is fascinating, philosophically speaking, as the differences between the people we are in our actual interactions with others and the images we produce of ourselves on social media clash daily. Combine our social media anxieties with a massive dose of neoliberalism, and we are most assuredly going to have a very severe problem on our hands. Clearly, in that respect, Eggers warning is not only valid, but necessary. The Circle critiques the same issues that are examined in Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If we are given the opportunity to have enough power and resources to stop a crime before it happens, but such a resource comes at the cost of both our privacy and what has been understood as freedom, should we use such power?
The plot surrounds a few characters, none of them interesting enough to really grab my attention in such a way that I actually care about them. The main character is a woman named Mae Holland, whose friend Annie gets her a job at a rising social media company called The Circle. The Circle is a combination of every social media available in today’s world. Its campus and search engine are reflective of Google. Its “Zings” are essentially tweets. Its “TruYou” is obviously Facebook. Eggers, who I attempted to look up on both Facebook and Twitter for purposes of irony, does not seem to have any social media that is readily available for the public, but despite this fact he does a decent job of recreating the manic anxiety that posting something to Facebook or adding friends on Facebook creates. The Circle expects all employees to have visibly active accounts on all forms of social media (which The Circle absorbs and adds to throughout the book). When Mae is reflecting on how to be a good employee or become more active in her social media, the anxiety she feels is familiar. However, throughout her experiences in dealing with other “circlers” (employees of The Circle) it is simply impossible to take some things seriously. There is a moment in which Mae goes home to check on her dad, who has been diagnosed with MS, and does not “check-in.” Then she goes kayaking and, likewise, does not check-in. Upon returning to work after the weekend she is called into her boss’s office because she had “dropped off of the grid” over the weekend. The fact that her father had a seizure, which is what had spurred the trip home initially, did not matter. What mattered was that she had not checked in, and then what mattered was the fact that she had not joined any groups with other Circlers who were also dealing with parents, siblings, or children with MS. Then upon finding out that she had gone kayaking, the reprimanding began because she had not joined or “smiled” (liked) any groups of circlers who kayak as a hobby.
The problem I have with such a passage is that it is totally and completely asinine. It is beyond ridiculous to think that a company has any right to tell you as an individual that its encouragements (Eggers never writes that the Circle has a policy of requiring an employee to check-in) are more important than your family. Frankly, any reprimands in such a situation would be dangerous for any company to put into play. I understand what Eggers is attempting to do in the passage, but it doesn’t work. Eggers seems to forget at many points in this book that people are, well, people. Eggers is so busy trying to warn humanity about the danger of dissolving into social media and thus ceasing to exist for all intents and purposes, that he forgets that he needs to first make the jump from people to machines. The only character he even remotely does this with is Mae, and even then she is written so poorly and one-sided that she doesn’t even seem real. She is never offended by a single thing her bosses say, no matter how outlandish (For the life of me, I cannot think of a single person that you could say has never once been annoyed or upset with his or her bosses), and she always takes all blame upon herself (which is against how a typical person’s ego works. Yes, people take the blame on themselves, but it’s a process). Mae Holland walks away from every single meeting with her superiors, each time hearing something that would offend 999 out of 1000 people, and thinks, “God, how could I have been so stupid?” It’s just ludicrous and impossible for me to believe.
Beyond that there is the matter of dealing with the fact that Mae is the only character in the entire book who has any gray area to her makeup. Everyone is either completely, utterly, totally, amazingly, positively, sold-out pro-Circle or they are completely, utterly, totally, amazingly, positively, sold-out anti-Circle. There are only two people in the entire book that actually take issue with the fact that The Circle has surveillance cameras around the world, ranging from Mount Everest to the Marianas Trench. No one blinks when every single person of prominence (congressmen and women) who says something against the Circle suddenly is found to be guilty of disgusting crimes like child pornography. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a lot of confidence in Americans, but we’re not so stupid that something like that could possibly happen and no one would stop and say, “Wait just a moment.”
The book is 497 pages long and Eggers spends none of it going into just a little more detail as to how such a thing is even possible. When we finally get to the last 150 pages of the novel, sure, the result is terrifying. However the first 350 pages happen so fast, in so little time, that it is utterly unbelievable. I’m not kidding when I tell you that that Eggers paces the novel so poorly that The Circle has control of the US Goverment in less than a Summer. Consider that for a moment. With the amount of money that is invested in our congress, so much that they should be wearing stickers that show who they are actually casting their votes for, there is simply no way that could happen. If it wasn’t so outlandish then I could deal with it, but the problem is that is pulls me completely out of the book.
That reviews rave about this book is nothing but puzzling. Eggers obviously understands neoliberalism and the dangers of a cocktail of it and social media, but in his warning against it he fails to write something that can be taken seriously as a whole. There are parts that are very poignant and unsettling, but they last mere sentences, whereas the moments of jumbled social media antics go on for blocks and blocks of text. There are no memorable voices. The one I believe that Eggers attempts to make the voice of reason makes great points, but is not really a character that I believe in. He’s just another part of Egger’s black and white creation. He is so bland it doesn’t matter that his opinions cut through all the propaganda that The Circle is spewing.
The book is most frustrating because it is easy to see what it could have been. If I had been the editor, I would have read it and then told Eggers that he needs to spend 400 more pages making it make sense and pacing it better. In a way, masterpieces such as Brave New World and 1984 work well because we are hearing a story that is coming after the fact. We are told how the world is. What has become of it. In The Circle Eggers tries to tell you how rather than just starting with the “what” and then retroactively covering “how.” Really, Eggers spends all of his time covering the “how” yet writing like it is the “what” and then when he officially gets to the “what” the book is over.
I’m just going to end the review here, because I’m already at 1400 words and I feel like I could go on for 3000. I didn’t even get into what I actually liked about the book.
Recommended to: No one. Maybe if you want an easy to read version of neoliberalism in action. Maybe.
Avoid as if it is Bryce Harper and you’re a member of the Mets last night who insisted on hitting it to RF every time: Everyone. It is just not worth the time.