Book Review: The Circle by David Eggers

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I waited two weeks to read this book?? *takes a deep breath* Okay.

Since I have an interest in dystopian fiction (but I mean, who doesn’t these days) and am also a former employee of Mega Internet Company this book is ostensibly based on, I was intrigued by the premise of The Circle, which promised a thrilling tale of a Utopian corporation gone wrong in an age where privacy is impossible. Despite my interest in the topic, I was sorely let down by the actual book.

Mae, the protagonist is one of the most unsympathetically dumb characters I’ve encountered in a while. I feel bad for saying this about someone who was obviously manipulated by her employer – but the unquestioning acquiescence with which she accepted every further ridiculous demand or invasion of her privacy made it hard to care when she’s forced to give up the next one. Perhaps it’s just the way she’s (mis)written – but her moments of questioning are brief and lack seriousness, and the few acts of disobedience she commits seem to come from dumb luck or ignorance rather than actual defiance or a sense of self-preservation. Perhaps Mae is the kind of person we need to be concerned about influencing real life decisions – with her unthinking acceptance of every future rights violation, but from a literary standpoint, I can’t imagine the benefit of writing about the dumbest and easily manipulated sheep in the flock. The other characters barely register or seem to be real people at all – I found myself oddly unaffected by her generic parental figures, her deer-antler-chandelier-making ex boyfriend, or the two Circle employees with which she has a couple blandly not-hot or vaguely creepy sexual encounters with.

I also have to say, I hate heavy-handed moral lessons. Essentially every exchange in this book follows the formula of a pro-Circle person talking with an anti-Circle person and they each go through their position’s main talking-points in slightly different ways. Repeat ad-nauseum. I understand that Eggars probably wants to portray the propaganda of the Circle while also making his case for his beliefs, but to include it in every conversation is just bad writing. If you want to be bashed over the head with an author’s moral viewpoints, at least read something like Atlas Shrugged or Pilgrim’s Progress, both of which are at least considered to have literary value for some reason.

The Circle itself doesn’t make much sense as a business throughout the book. Despite being a tech giant, the technology they produce seems more burdensome than helpful. For instance, at one point, Mae has 9 screens/monitors on her desk to cope with her workload, each for a different sort of task. There also don’t seem to be any developers or programmers around – every employee we meet is some sort of visionary with a costly idea that’s being implemented despite no immediately apparent sources of revenue.

Finally, the very threats presented in the book don’t seem credible, at least not as they happen in the story. I agree that a lack of privacy coupled globalization and the ubiquity of technology are certainly issues worth examining critically as they relate to personal freedoms and privacy. But in the world of the Circle, within (I think) a few months, the Circle makes it mandatory to have a Circle account, gets all politicians to go completely transparent with a camera on them at all times, begins implanting every child with a tracking chip, takes over elections in the US, and develops software to locate anyone on the planet within 20 minutes.

As the last straw, the climax of the book is partially off-screen action and partially another heavy-handed metaphor. We don’t see any of the ramifications of the Circle being completed and Mae’s complete acceptance of the Circle surprises no one. To speak in terms of 1984 – your “he loved Big Brother” moment has no power unless it’s preceded by a “do it to Julia” moment. A dystopian book loses all its power when you don’t sincerely believe that the protagonist has a chance, and that’s where The Circle ultimately fails to convince.

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