I lag behind in pop culture consumption by about eight years on average, and therefore have only just now come around to finishing Dave Eggers novel, “The Circle”. Many of the reviews of this book have been negative, I think because it was written as an allegory, and makes no bones about it. It’s didactic and even a bit obvious in some places, but personally, I didn’t have any problem with this since the story is set up that way from the beginning and remains consistent throughout.
At the beginning of the book, Mae Holland, the beleaguered owner of an elite liberal arts degree and student debt in excess of 200,000 dollars, finds herself at the doorstep of the absurdly sleek and glamorous campus of The Circle after slaving away for 18 months in the grim cubicle of a small-town utility company. Her wealthy, well-connected friend Annie has pulled some strings to get her an entry-level job at The Circle, and Mae feels like she’s won the lottery. The campus is luxurious, the staff smart, warm, and energetic. Mae shows immediate aptitude for her job in Customer Experience, and quickly garners the notice and admiration of the higher-ups. But she finds that being good at her job isn’t enough--she’s also expected to be on social media (which The Circle has monopolized) 24/7, to ceaselessly attend and comment on Circle events, to respond instantly to all social media requests, and to make her opinions and thoughts available online at all times.
Mae adapts quickly to the demands of The Circle and enjoys feeling competent and successful. But she still finds herself in need of refuge, which takes the form of kayaking—the one area in which she still finds an authentic connection to nature and the capacity for wonder and surprise. These finely-wrought scenes of her experiences are made all the more heartbreaking when her supervisors at The Circle get wind of them and force Mae to share her experiences on social media, guilting her for being selfish and wanting to keep her expeditions only to herself.
As her indoctrination increases, Mae begins to feel that the world outside of The Circle is chaotic, dirty and disorganized. Her relationships with her family and friends deteriorate under the pressure of Mae’s constant social media activity and ceaseless online presence. She has epic arguments with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who is the sole voice of reason questioning the voracious appetite of The Circle and its ever-growing array of perhaps well-meaning but privacy-threatening innovations. Mae finds that the only way for her to fight off her encroaching despair and depression is more of what The Circle has to offer—answering opinion surveys and engaging in more and more frantic online activity to affirm her sense of self and her value in the world.
A casual reader may find this book to be shallow, but its easy-to-read, page-turner style masks its startling depth and the seriousness of the issues it raises, which go beyond questions of personal privacy and enter deep, philosophical territory: Is the sacrifice of our privacy an acceptable price to pay for eliminating crime? Is it sharing our experiences with the world a moral imperative? How much are we willing to enslave ourselves to technology for the purposes of convenience, or to serve our narcissism? What happens to our humanity when technology deprives us of all mystery and opportunity for discovery?“The Circle” is part horror-story, part satire, and part philosophical journey. I fully recommend this fun and spooky read.