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What I Read Wednesdays: The Circle by Dave Eggers

By Eula @omgaeula
What I Read Wednesdays: The Circle by Dave Eggers
It's technically Thursday but Wednesday night has yet to end for me.
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in America—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public. What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.

Written by Dave Eggers, founder of publishing house McSweeney's and author of best-selling memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, The Circle is a dystopian piece of speculative fiction with a compelling concept: what if everything you ever did and said was made public and permanent? Unfortunately, the execution falls flat.
The titular Circle is a company that seems to be an amalgamation of three real-life social media giants. Located on a sprawling, self-contained Mountain View "campus" in California complete with tennis courts, a medical clinic, free dorms, concerts, and kitchens staffed with professional chefs, the company's Googlers Circlers all seem to be twenty-something hipsters obsessed with social media. Everything receives a like smile or frown, everything is commented on and tweeted Zinged about on CircleSocial. Every event attended, every activity joined, every sunset seen must be documented and shared on one's Facebook wall (aka #picsoritdidnthappen). Failure to do so brands one as anti-social, an outcast, an offender. Every instant message must be instantly replied to, every email and invitation answered, any decline given an explanation. Each post garners a "Participation Rank" point, an index of popularity. And everything is stored, permanently, with no chance of deletion, in the cloud.
Our protagonist Mae is a fresh graduate who quickly rises through the ~PartiRanks to become one of the most publicly recognized faces of the company. The character is poorly developed, gullible, spineless -- most of her dialog consists of agreeing with her superiors.
"Is that clear enough?"
"It is."
"Does that seem like something you can do?"
"It does."

Her motivations are that of a thirteen-year old: get the highest ratings, be popular, be liked by everyone. Her only purpose is to be the lens through which we watch the Circle.
The commentary on humanity's enslavement to social media is about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the head. Likes and petitions are seen as concrete action. Eggers tends to overexplain both sides through long monologues by Mae's ex-boyfriend, lover, boss -- not a single one of whom is fleshed out or likeable.
Mercer: “Mae, I’ve never felt more that there is some cult taking over the world.”
Mae: “You’re so paranoid.”
Mercer: “I think you think that sitting at your desk, frowning and smiling somehow makes you think you’re actually living some fascinating life. You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them.”

Themes presented in the novel are very relevant today: troublesome privacy policies, the consequences of being perpetually "wired in," privatization of public services. As the Circle becomes a major player in the transparency of government and government policy, it becomes something like Julian Assange and Edward Snowden's wet dream. But like the characters, these themes aren't explored.  The Circle offers nothing new to the conversation. It's been done before, and done better. (Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four and Cory Doctorow's offshoot Little Brother come to mind.) The book is twice as long as it needs to be, the plot trudging headlong into the predictable, inevitable conclusion.

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