This novel’s protagonist is the twentysomething Mae, who sometime in the not-so-distant future lands a job at The Circle – a tech giant that makes Facebook, Google, Yahoo, and so forth obsolete by combining all their functions into one – through her college friend Annie. Annie has risen quickly through the ranks at The Circle and is part of the “Gang of 40,” a group of high-level Circle execs who counsel and advise the company’s three founders, who are known collectively as the Three Wise Men. Mae’s position is entry level – she responds to customer queries and complaints in the Customer Experience department – but she is happy to be there and is assured she will move up in no time.
In addition to responding to customer queries, Mae is slowly given more and more duties, most of which involve meaningless chit-chat with insipid people. One screen at her desk shows an endless feed of comments from other employees at the Circle (Way to go newbie Mae! and so forth); another shows a broader social media platform that connect millions of people worldwide who have Circle accounts. These social media platforms are not just entertaining distractions; they are job requirements. The first time Mae is reprimanded, it’s because she did not respond when a co-worker named Alistair invited her to a Portuguese-themed party. Her Circle account automatically connected with her previous social media accounts, and somewhere in the history of her Facebook account, Alistair found photos of a trip to Portugal that she took years ago. When he sends her multiple invitations and she misses them because she is getting acclimated to her new job, Alistair complains to HR and she ends up being reprimanded by the company. I don’t know about you – but to me this is my idea of hell.
Time passes; Mae gets more responsibilities and more screens. Soon she is supervising newbies and wearing a headset, through which she is asked survey questions all day long about various consumer projects. She also develops three competing love interests: Mercer – a high school boyfriend with whom Mae’s parents hope she’ll reunite – Francis, whom she met at a party on her first evening at the Circle, and the mysterious Kalden, who appears and disappears at odd moments and takes Mae to an eerie underground bedroom on the Circle campus, where they have sex. Mae also runs afoul of Circle rules on other occasions. When she leaves work immediately at the end of the day in order to visit her parents, she is called in to explain why she did not go to any of the evening social events the company offers. When she tells her boss that she wants to spend time with her parents because her father has recently been diagnosed with MS, she is chastised for not telling anyone on the Circle’s massive social media network that she has a family member dealing with a chronic illness – in other words, for failing to “reach out.” I’ve never been much of a fan of that expression, but by the end of this novel it kind of sickened me.
There is lots more plot to this novel, in which the situation I’ve described above continues to even more ridiculous levels. Dave Eggers knows how to imbue a story with forward momentum as well as any other contemporary novelist I know (and better than many). The text alludes to famous dystopian satires like 1984, both directly, with company mottos like SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, and PRIVACY IS THEFT, and also in subtler ways, such as the way her life at the Circle eventually erodes away at Mae’s inner life. There’s no direct parallels to other characters in 1984, but Kalden is a little like Julia (or is he like the two-faced O’Brien??) and the machinations Mae makes to get a few minutes alone with Kalden or with her friend Annie resemble the lengths Winston and Julia take to steal some time alone together. But make no mistake – this novel is about our society, our world. The Circle’s central tenet is the principle of net neutrality – the founding principle of Khan Academy and the Internet Archive and other organizations that aim to make sure that all known information is available to all human beings, regardless of socioeconomic level, physical location, or other demographic. This is an egalitarian idea, one that I admire – but Eggers makes clear in this novel that this principle could be grossly misused.
This novel holds up less well in terms of character development. Mae is a bit of an enigma. She is hired at the Circle when she complains to her friend Annie that her job at a small-town public utility company is slowly killing her soul, but even her gratitude for the job doesn’t explain how quickly she kowtows to her supervisor’s ridiculous expectations and reprimands. We’re told that Mae was a college athlete, but we’re given no evidence of the hard-driving personality that most athletes bring to everything they do, including their work lives. She likes to steal away for an hour here and there to go kayaking, and in one case she takes significant risks in order to do so, but nowhere else do I see her as a character who enjoys solitude or has an aptitude for risk-taking and adventure. At work she is the opposite of a risk-taker (except, I suppose, in her liaisons with Kalden, although these are always initiated by him). Annie is a mystery as well. She is characterized as verbally bold and relentlessly charismatic, but by the end of the novel she has undergone a nervous collapse after she learns that she is descended from slave owners. Though she learns this information as part of a Circle project about mapping one’s family tree, it feels tacked on to the novel. It seems out of character for Annie – who seems to take everything else in her life as a joke – to be upset for more than a day or two about this information. Honestly, early in the novel I was expecting Annie to turn out to be one of the “evil geniuses” behind the Circle’s work. I thought that part of Mae’s character arc would involve coming to terms not only with the Circle’s overarching ambitions but also recognizing that her own best friend pulls the strings behind some of its most nefarious projects. But Mae doesn’t have a character arc – not really. She submits to the Circle’s authority and then holds on throughout the bumpy ride. The plot line about her father’s MS is dropped mid-novel and not picked up again, as is her alleged passion for kayaking, and she shows little remorse or grief when the Circle’s aggressive surveillance drives her ex-boyfriend Mercer to suicide. On some level, of course it’s right that she surrenders much of her individuality to the Circle – but let’s keep in mind that Winston Smith in 1984 retains some vestiges of his individuality right up to the last few pages of the novel in a system that is at least as oppressive as the corporation in this novel, if not more so. I had lost interest in Mae as a character by the halfway point in the novel, though I never really lost interest in the plot. I never stopped wanting to know who Kalden really was and whether the Circle would “complete” itself (an oft-stated goal of the corporation) and what exactly that would mean when it happened. I do recommend this book as an engrossing read suitable for a vacation or a flight (I read most of it over the course of a few days with an eight-month old napping on my shoulder), but I can’t say that it truly succeeds.