December 4, 2013

Book Review: "The Circle" by Dave Eggers

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The Circle
By Dave Eggers
McSweeney's/Knopf
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

In The Circle, the tech giant that Dave Eggers presents looks something like a version of Google that has overcome and swallowed all competition. The Circle's rapid growth is due to its TruYou program. Billed as a way to "clean up" the internet, TruYou is basically a payment system that requires users to use their real names, as well as other personal information. The idea is that the bad things that happen on the internet--trolling and porn, for example--happen under the veil of anonymity. So the Circle takes anonymity out of the equation, and online life is allowed to rise to the utopian heights promised at the dawn of the Internet Age. Which makes sense, right? Because most people's favorite internet activities are sharing personal information with huge corporations and paying for things.

The Circle features a seemingly bright young woman named Mae Holland--moored in an unfulfilling job at her hometown's public utility since graduating from college--who attempts to take advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime when she's offered a job at the Circle. Despite the rosy-eyed view Mae takes of the company, all is not what it seems. As Mae rises from an entry-level customer service position to a high-level public relations role, she becomes a cheerful participant in a plot involving HD webcams that could, brace yourselves, lead to the end of privacy as we know it, not only on the internet, but in our everyday lives!

Yes, the concept is iffy at best, and the plot seems better suited to 2007 or so. But Eggers writes reliably readable prose. He has a real gift for the corporate slogan. The Circle is peppered with funny lines, and in the first third or so of this five hundred page book, when where we're headed isn't so completely obvious, Eggers manages to slowly ratchet up the tension in a way that's genuinely uncomfortable. It's entertaining to watch the screens on Mae's desk multiply, and to watch as she tries to crack the "T2K" in the Circle's internal "Party Rank," the number by which a Circler's online sharing and participation on the company's various social networks is judged.

Alas, it all becomes way too much. Is a network of webcams really that enormous a cause for concern? Would citizens calling for privacy protection really be so few and so marginalized? Would parents really allow their children to be micro-chipped? Would Mae really never question a single thing? And also, is the big reveal at the end of the book--the hidden identity of Mae's love interest--even remotely plausible? Mae has watched videos starring this mystery man--so are we to believe that he's aged so dramatically in five years that he's not recognizable, even when uncovering his identity becomes a kind of all-consuming obsession for Mae? And speaking of the book's ending, since when do uncomfortable personal situations cause a person to lapse into a coma?

The Circle is also riddled with small problems that are common to a lot of Eggers' recent work: reliance on cliché, shoddy character work, careless repetitions, and obvious metaphors.

I read The Circle over Thanksgiving, while traveling from Chicago to Ohio. The family celebration I attended in Columbus happened also to be attended by a Googler--I'm not going to name names, since Googlers are probably adept at Googling, but this person holds a similar rank to Mae's boss's boss in the novel, and would probably fall somewhere in the Circle's "Gang of 40"--so I was able, while reading this book, to observe a member of the ruling class that Dave Eggers is so afraid of. At the party, the Googler mostly tended to a brood of children, mixed in with the rest of the family, and took photographs. Then, on Monday, I was mildly surprised to find an email in my inbox, which revealed that the Googler hadn't been taking pictures at all, but had switched the camera he was using to video mode. The effect was hardly as nefarious as it might seem though. He'd edited the videos together into a five-minute amateur silent film. I found this touching, because it turns out the the Googler is just another human being, who instead of spending his Sunday hatching evil plans to destroy the world, spent it going through video clips of kids hitting a pinata, me sitting and talking to my eighty-five year old grandmother, and everyone cheering at the Buckeyes last second victory over Michigan.

I thought that little story was worth mentioning here, because that humanity is what's missing from The Circle.

Out of 10: 7.5

Read even more about The Circle: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 9:27 AM, December 4, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |