David Eggers’ The Circle was a challenge. My knee-jerk reaction was two stars, which means I read it, and I’m glad I never have to read it again but it wasn’t a complete waste of life. After a few day’s marination, however, I’ve upgraded the rating to three stars, which means I read it, and I won’t read again, but it might (nevertheless) be considered a “good book.”
And this is a “good book” because this book made me think. I had to examine my immediate, visceral reaction at the end of The Circle (mostly disgust) because I could come up with no better reason for said reaction than “I don’t like it.”
“I don’t like it” is a valid reaction, but there should be more behind it if I’m going to publicize my opinions. Too often I read reviews or watch commentary and those in the hot seat can’t go beyond “I don’t like it.” That’s frustrating, as a third party observer. I want to know WHY you didn’t like it, because that gives me a clue as to how I’ll react to it. It also (often) gives me some insight on other ways to approach a given book (or topic).
John Updike’s first rule of reviewing weighed heavy on my reviewin’ heart as I forced myself to examine The Circle more closely. Ultimately, I settled upon the reasons for my dislike, and I’ll share them with you, along with some thoughtful thoughts about what that dislike might mean in a “grand scheme” sense.
I must begin with a warning: this review may contain some inadvertent spoilers. I’ll try to avoid them but may fail a bit, since my dislike has a lot to do with the last third of the novel.
Eggers creates an amalgam of all the top tech/web companies in the current era – Facebook, Google, and all the other guys. The “ties that bind” in The Circle are social interactions, as many and as often as possible. The protagonist, Mae, gets a job at the mega-giant Circle and is slowly but surely sucked into the required/desired ever-present push to network. Her quest to reach the “top” echelons of the Circle are forever complicated by new requirements, new systems to learn, new interactions to master. The inclusion of increasingly complex requirements are given physical form in the ongoing addition of screens to Mae’s workspace. She begins with one and I lost solid count at seven… I think she may have made it to 11 screens.
Mae gradually alienates every real-life friend or family member around her in favor of disconnected (and yet, disturbingly hyper-connected) online relationships. Eggers taps into a fundamental criticism of social networking in The Circle: that we sacrifice personal, real-life moments for quasi-personal, virtual moments.
Annie, Mae’s best friend (and the one who got Mae the job) suffers from a similar descent into work/online relationships over real-life contact, eventually even forgoing her lunch dates with Mae. Their ultimate fates lie down two different paths, however, so their camaraderie and ultimate juxtaposition seem purposeful.
The path to total voluntary surrender to the control/influence of the Circle is portrayed as easy, even pleasant for Mae. It’s filled with parties, engaging work, and many rewarding interactions on an hourly basis. But Eggers’ narrator makes it clear that Mae is stepping too willingly into a complicit role. Her abandonment of her parents and full embrace of the world within the Circle is so easy that the dissonance is almost pathetic; Eggers’ prose seems almost heavy-handed.
It took a day or so to get used to, seeing so many people nodding so frequently–and with varying styles, some with sudden birdlike jerks, others more fluidly–but soon it was as normal as the rest of their routines, involving typing and sitting and seeing their work appear on an array of screens. At certain moments, there was the happy visual of a herd of heads nodding in what appeared to be unison, as if there were some common music playing in all of their minds. (233-4)
This is a happy shadow of Orwell’s 1984, without any of the face-eating rats or bullets to the head. We are given to understand that Mae is largely delighted to participate in what’s required of her at the Circle , and also that those running the Circle are malevolent, big brother types with no concern over the humanity they so adeptly control. This could be read (should be read?) as a cautionary tale, a dystopian warning.
I like dystopias.
I did not “like” The Circle.
It was challenging and disappointing and frustrating. It was thick with undercurrents of disapproval and full of “danger!” symbolism that were ultimately tossed aside. Every character represented a negative aspect of what was clearly a descent into lack of choice, complete annihilation of self in exchange for “connections” in the Circle. Mae’s character changed, “arced” in the traditional sense, but in the wrong direction – rather than becoming more rounded, more interesting as the story progressed, she became so flat she was glass-thin.
Everything that I expected from a dystopian novel was disturbed by my reading of The Circle. And I think that’s why I disliked it. And I also think that’s why it deserves three stars. It did not simply “tell” about the flattening of characters, the destructive quality of endless “sharing” without creation, the soul-sucking finality of losing one’s need for personal relationships. What Eggers’ novel did was demonstrate those things in a tangible, personal way for me, the reader. A novel that began with lively emotions and engaging narrative became a “living” example of the destructive nature of the Circle. It became what it was describing.
It was very meta. And meta is always fairly clever, if nothing else.
So the thing is, I think (after some solid time marinating on the above paragraph) I appreciate The Circle. In deference to my previously defined star ratings I must give this book a solid three stars, because it is, I think, a “good book” in that it does an interesting thing and does it well. However, it only gets three stars because The Circle was not a book I enjoyed.
It did that one thing well. There were many things it did not do. (For some idea of what I mean, you might take a look at this interesting review by a chap on Goodreads or this review from Wired.) In the spirit of Mr. Updike’s rules for reviewing, however, I’ll not penalize The Circle simply for not doing what I wished it had done. What it did was make me think. And for that, it deserves one star more than Twilight.