Book review: “The Circle”

The CircleI’m continuing to plow through my summer fiction binge; the latest morsel to go down is The Circle, the 2013 novel by Dave Eggers.

The Circle is the story of a young woman named Mae Holland, who through the intervention of a friend in high places gets a coveted job at Google the Circle, a tech company famous for its lavish perks, intellectually challenging projects, and disdain for antiquarian notions like “privacy.” Starting as a lowly customer-service representative, Mae works her way up the Circle’s corporate ladder, but finds that grasping each new rung requires her to face painful decisions about which she values more: the people she loves, or the Circle’s ideology. And as the Circle’s prying eyes extend their gaze further and further across society and government, she must choose whether she loves a smart co-worker who holds to the Circle’s transparency-über-alles agenda, or an enigmatic rebel who is trying desperately to stop it.

Let me say this up front: ideologically speaking, I am 100% in agreement with the sentiment I would assume after reading this book that Dave Eggers holds about tech companies like Google the Circle that offer people cool stuff in exchange for their privacy. That stuff drives me nuts. I much preferred the old world where software cost money and didn’t spy on you to the new world where it’s free but does. This opinion will not come as a surprise to Longtime Readers™ of this blog; I believe software should empower people, not betray them. And software that silently rats you out to corporate interests is anything but empowering.

So on the book’s Big Argument, Eggers and I are 100% sympatico. OK, then: why didn’t I like this book more? Because like it I most definitely did not. I think it’s because The Circle has a few different problems.

The first is why I feel confident saying above what Dave Eggers’ opinion is: because he’s not shy about slapping the reader across the face with it. Characters routinely stop what they’re doing to give each other speeches about the relative merits of transparency and privacy. Even worse, it’s obvious which of those speeches Eggers agrees with and which he doesn’t, because the characters who value privacy get to make the longest and most clearly argued speeches, while the characters on the other side spout childish rhetoric. It starts to feel after a while that Eggers is just beating up a straw man.

Here’s an example. Midway through the book, the Circle’s brain trust — the “Three Wise Men” who together run the company — roll out with great fanfare (and protagonist Mae’s help) a set of slogans designed to help them sell their agenda to the public at large.

Presumably these men, who are among the richest in the world, have access to the best public-relations minds the world has to offer. So what are the slogans they come up with? They are, I kid you not:

  • “Secrets are Lies”
  • “Sharing is Caring”
  • “Privacy is Theft”

I ask you: do these phrases sound like anything a real-world Google Circle would use in their corporate communications? Of course not. They sound instead like someone stuck a George Orwell novel in a blender with a Care Bears picture-book and set it on purée. And by leaning on heavy-handed Orwellspeak like “privacy is theft,” Eggers tips his hand: these people are Bad, which means those who oppose them must be Good. He doesn’t go all the way and have a scene where they sit around twirling their mustaches, at least, but anything short of that is fair game.

Then there’s the character of Mae herself, our protagonist, who is maddeningly passive; she spends the whole book being pushed around by the other characters like a pawn on a chessboard. And she whip-saws between drinking deeply of the Circle’s Kool-Aid and worrying about the ethical implications of the work she does, driven primarily by the opinions of the last character we saw her talk to.

A protagonist needs to be an active character, needs to drive the story forward, or else we start wondering why the camera is focused on them all the time. Alas, Eggers never really justifies Mae’s star status. Her only virtue as a character is that, being new to Google the Circle, she gives Eggers a way to explain the company’s internal workings to us; every time someone has to explain something to Mae, we of course get the explanation too. But even that has its problems, namely the aforementioned one of people making speeches all the damn time. A speech presented as a new-hire orientation session is just as dull to read as one presented as a political manifesto.

Finally, there’s a fundamental problem with Eggers’ understanding of the issues he wants to debate, namely that he doesn’t really understand what makes companies like Google successful. The Circle’s customers are presented more or less as lemmings; they use the Circle’s products because they’re novel and fashionable. But what makes Google successful is that it makes compelling products. And what makes that scary is that what makes those products compelling is inseparable from their ideology. There is no way for the one to exist unless you accept the other.

The best example of this is a Google service called Google Now. Its pitch is that, unlike traditional search services, with Now you don’t have to actively seek out the information you need at any given moment; it just comes to you, automatically and conveniently, via your Android phone. If you’re flying this evening and your flight gets delayed, Now will tell you before you ever think to look at an airport notice board. If you’re walking down the street and pass a restaurant you would like, Now will let you know without you ever having to search for restaurant reviews. When it works, it’s kind of amazing.

But the thing about Now is, the only way to get access to that amazing-ness is to open your life up to Google completely. The more access you give them to your personal, private information, the better Now works. It has to track your every step to tell you you’re passing a restaurant you’d like. It has to read all your email to know you’ve got a flight booked for tonight. Software like Now simply could not work without having all that data about you to trawl through.

Which is scary — but also tempting, because it’s not like you’re giving that stuff up for nothing. You’re getting a huge amount of convenience in return. For a lot of people, that trade-off is worth it, which is why Google is the behemoth it is today. You can argue that the trade-off isn’t worth it (and I’d agree with you!), but Eggers doesn’t bother to try. He just paints the people who think it is as unthinking followers, which is unfair both to the intelligence of the average person and the seriousness of the challenge to privacy that companies like Google the Circle represent.

The Circle isn’t completely without merit. There’s one scene in particular, near the end, where Eggers frees himself from the shackles of practical realism and lets the Circle’s ideology run riot, with (probably predictably, but still) shocking and tragic consequences. It’s hard to read, but in a good way, as Eggers conjures up a scenario that is recognizably fantastic but still contains within it a hard enough kernel of truth to chip your tooth when you bite down on it. Maybe if he’d taken that tack with the whole book — set it in the far future rather than the day after tomorrow, for instance, or gone with a magical-realism approach where the mundane and the mythic rub up against each other — it would have worked better. But no, once that scene is complete, Eggers settles back down into the banality of the real world, and our hearts sink.

The question of where the boundary between the public and the private should be drawn is going to be one of the defining questions of the 21st century. It deserves a great novel to help us work through it. The Circle is not that novel.

Want more? Links to all Summer of Fiction book reviews can be found here.