If the long title of his breakthrough memoir, 2000’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was not enough to indicate that Dave Eggers has always had lofty ambitions, then the frenetic tale between the book covers gave readers the first big work by one of America’s newest literary superstars. Since then, Eggers has been successful as a writer of other nonfiction, novels, and screenplays, but he really is first and foremost an idea man. He wants to help kids learn to write with his 826 National nonprofit, and spend his time publishing books and magazines through McSweeney’s. Eggers wielded whatever power and influence he has in shaping the future of our country through the “90 Days, 90 Reasons” series he helped coordinate, enlisting high-profile people to explain why President Obama deserved a second term.
Juggling all those different projects means it has taken Eggers the 13 years since his breakout memoir to give us a book that truly matched A Heartbreaking Work’s gravitas — but with The Circle, Eggers has given us everything. The nearly 500-page novel performs a delicate balancing act, juggling the straight up Orwellian with a more modern-style dystopia typified by The Truman Show.
At the heart of The Circle is the book’s young, post-collegiate Californian protagonist, Mae, who just wants a good job at The Circle, a hybrid between Google, Facebook, and any other mega-tech company you can think up. Mae starts her job in CE (Customer Experience), and quickly finds herself surrounded by the company’s 21st-century corporate- and Silicon Valley-speak, immersed in a culture policed by middle-management types who get upset when you don’t partake in their extracurricular activities. The novel initially feels like the updated, literary version of Mike Judge’s brilliant 1999 comedy, Office Space – except The Circle and the fictional company that it’s named after aren’t really all that funny.
Early on in the book we find Mae trying to keep her Customer Experience score as close to 100 as possible, and responding to a superior’s messages that are meant to motivate, but come off as the typical, creepy “That’s my girl!” type of paternalistic condescension still all too prevalent in the workplace. From there it’s a slow descent into darkness. We watch as Mae tries to integrate herself more thoroughly into company culture, as the heads of The Circle tell the employees at a team meeting that “we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment,” and slowly enact plans for increased connectivity, to make all humans “transparent” at all times; all politicians will be wired, so we know what’s actually going on; children and convicts will have microchips implanted inside them. In the world of The Circle there are no secrets because, as the company tells its employees, “Secrets are lies.”
A lot of this seems like standard fare for a dystopian novel, except that when you put down the book and go to check your email, you might just realize that we are living the fiction. Everything about you — all the pictures, the tweets, the collected searches — is out there. Google just launched Calico, a new project set on eradicating death. The Circle’s goals aren’t all that far off.
“The line between satire and bracing details that feel all too real is one that readers will have to draw for themselves,” New York Times Magazine editor Hugo Lindgren wrote, explaining the magazine’s choice to not only excerpt The Circle, but put it on the front page. In the same piece, Lindgren also contextualized our nation’s ongoing argument about security, privacy, and individual citizens’ online rights, especially in the wake of the recent leak of classified NSA documents by Edward Snowden. At the center of The Circle‘s satire are questions like, how much privacy did we ever really have in the first place? And are we really giving that much up? The government doesn’t need to do much snooping to find out about us, because we put plenty of personal information out there for all the world to see. As Mae slowly gives in to helping “complete” The Circle, she reveals every detail about herself, her parents, her ex-lovers, and even the friend who helped her get the job. She is addicted to the attention, in large part because it becomes her job to let everybody know in real time what is going on with Mae Holland.
Mae is transformed into an evangelist for The Circle’s views, and she’s full of good intentions, but her story ultimately gets creepy and maniacal in a Bond-movie-bad-guy sort of way (save for the villainous henchmen and Earth-destroying lasers). What’s scarier is that Eggers leaves the motivations behind The Circle’s goals vague, not revealing whether the founders of the company simply want to increase their revenue streams, or if they seriously think that connecting every human across the globe — making it impossible to escape the spotlight, making The Circle mandatory for the good of democracy — is a good thing.
The Circle isn’t set in some post-apocalyptic world. The robots haven’t enslaved us (yet…). This isn’t a dead-Earth scenario, and even though The Circle is made possible by the rapid advancement of new information technologies, the book doesn’t call to mind the work of William Gibson or science fiction writers like J.G. Ballard. Unlike Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the book against which Eggers’ work and all other dystopian novels after it are measured, The Circle is interesting because the thing it wants to frighten us about — social media — is still developing, and it’s unclear where it will ultimately lead us. It takes place before a fall that we might really be approaching, and it’s this compelling sense of impending, unpredictable doom that makes this work of fiction feel very real, and very necessary.