Saturday, 30 January 2016

The Circle by Dave Eggers Review

(Some minor spoilsies ahead.) 

Mae gets her dream job of working at the world’s premier tech/internet firm, The Circle (think a conglomeration of Google/Facebook/Apple)! But after she begins working there she discovers the corporation has far wider and more sinister ambitions than she realised – they want complete surveillance everywhere, all the time. They want the world to become transparent. They want to close the circle… 

Dave Eggers’ novel is a modern-day Orwellian parable whose message is as transparent as his fictional company’s ideals! The surveillance state idea isn’t new but the approach that sets Eggers apart from comparisons to Orwell, Huxley and Ballard is that he makes Big Brother appealing.

Mae is a college graduate but she has an unexciting, go-nowhere office job in her small hometown in the middle of nowhere living with her parents. How many young people are in a similar situation? How many are in worse? At The Circle, it’s a vibrant, exciting company where the starting salary is $62k pa – for an entry-level customer service rep! – which provides a campus atmosphere where there are free dorms to sleep/wash, gyms, stores, cafes, and tons of free clothes, gadgets, and entertainment everywhere. And when Mae’s father is diagnosed with MS, The Circle insists he be put on their healthcare plan so he receives the finest treatment without the family being bankrupted. Who wouldn’t want this? 

The only cost is you and your family’s privacy. Everything you do, all the time, will be known, logged and stored by The Circle. That might be unthinkable and a dealbreaker for some but, considering how much some people share of themselves online already, particularly young people, would they think twice about this trade? And that’s what’s scarily plausible about Mae in this book, who does make that trade-off. 

Eggers also shows some very convincing positive benefits of what The Circle are trying to do. If you had tracking chips in kids, they’d never go missing. If politicians have cameras on them at all times, corruption and lobbying would disappear entirely. If registering to vote were mandatory as part of your Circle account, voter turnout would be 100%. The world would be a better place… wouldn’t it? 

Except the politicians going “transparent”, ie. agreeing to have cameras on them while they work, was where this novel started to go south for me. The way The Circle’s technology infiltrates various world governments so quickly and easily was incredibly unconvincing. Think about how people reacted to Edward Snowden or Wikileaks. And don’t people dislike the proliferation of surveillance cameras – why would we want more when there’s already too many? Would people really embrace handing these controls over to a private company?

I get that it had to happen for the doomsday story to progress but Eggers’ symbolism and heavy-handed message of “privacy good, social media bad” was a bit artless. The transparent shark metaphor was especially eye-rollingly poor as was the death of a character at the end which is predictable and melodramatic, making it more comical than tragic – these obvious Literary ploys make the novel feel very contrived. The idea of The Circle influencing government so easily was bad enough but having them frame dissenters using their information stored in their databanks against them? Such a cheesy detail that made the novel seem like a bad conspiracy thriller. 

Eggers continues to make more simplistic comparisons throughout. Mae’s ex, Mercer, is a “real” man who makes chandeliers out of antlers and who makes love to her by the Grand Canyon, outside, in nature; her new beau, Francis, also a Circle employee, is a weedy, insecure guy who prematurely ejaculates when she simulates sex with him in their dorm and then asks her for a rating out of 100 afterwards, like some kind of survey. The difference is glaringly clear and, when Mae favours Francis, further underlines her preference for the unsatisfying fake world of The Circle over vital reality. LITERARY! 

Mercer is Eggers’ proxy in the story, droning on in his one-dimensional way about how online life is no substitute for real life, how online friendships aren’t real connections, etc., many views of which I agree with, as I’m sure most people would - but what’s Eggers’ point? That’s arguably the major failing of this novel: the lack of developing his observations. How should we ideally regulate internet companies’ behaviour regarding personal information? No clue. But he does know that too much social media and forced socialising is bad! 

The superficialness is a shame because Eggers occasionally makes some brilliant observations like how once Mae disconnects from her real friends and family, her reactions to online comments and perceived slights become more intense as a result because that’s now her only reality. And, because Mae and her colleagues are switched on for so much of their days, they need to knock themselves out with sake and other strong drinks in order to slow their brains down and sleep for a few hours - and they do this EVERY. NIGHT!

And, while she’s not the most likeable character, it was interesting to see Mae change in the almost cult-like environment of the Circle. I did enjoy reading about her first week in this idealistic workplace and see the slow increase of her workload, along with her screens, transforming her into this human-like battery of data. And The Circle itself, along with the Three Wise Men (that heavy-handed literariness again – The Circle is a cult, like a religion, and the leaders are The Three Wise Men, GEDDIT?!), were compelling villainous creations, while its products like TruYou and SeeChange cameras were clever and realistic. 

In the end though, Eggers’ clumsy literary pretensions, the vacuous message, and the ham-fisted way with which things escalate in the second half of the novel, brought down my enjoyment of the book. The Circle takes an interesting and uniquely 21st century issue, portrays it well from the perspective of a leading tech firm in the first half of the novel, and, in the latter half, ends up turning it into a silly, overblown paranoid fantasy. The Circle is a decent contemporary entertainment even if it shows that the self-important “intellectual” literary genre can produce some really stupid novels!

The Circle

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