San Francisco: Alfred A. Knopf / McSweeney’s, 2013. 491pp.
Alright, so I finished this. Let’s start with a recap. Our protagonist, Mae, gets hired by the eponymous Circle, a Google-look-a-like that isn’t Google (because it has bought Google), but acts very much like Google. She is dazzled by the opportunities offered (free health care, outstanding infrastructure) and not at all bothered by the weirdness: the biweekly medical check-ups, the requirement for social participation, the incessant processes of ranking and being ranked, the increasing takeover of her life by the Circle. While we read about her answering customer inquiries and surveys at dazzling speed and with a 99-out-of-100 rating, we witness also her struggle with her parents (her father has MS), her ex-boyfriend, her new “boyfriend” Francis, her friend Annie (who is a top-40 executive at the Circle) and a mysterious stranger named Kalden. Mostly, however, Mae remains a cipher, the vehicle through which Eggers can show us the Circle’s campaigns for total human transparency through personal (and public) surveillance. There are microcameras that can be installed everywhere at 50 bucks a piece and which are remotely accessible and controllable (pitched as a way to prevent genocide and terror, they end up sitting in private homes, ostensibly to allow family members’ “peace of mind”); microchips in the bones of children to make abductions impossible and later to track medicinal and school data; finally, an around-the-clock internet streaming, audio-and-video device that creates complete transparency of anybody’s life (and those of everyone around them), designed to hold politicians more accountable by making their every action public. (Scientology tie-in (!): having your every action recorded as a public servant is “going clear”. There’s actually a number more of these odd allusions (?), such as calling the microcamera system “SeeChange” (SeaOrg?).) On the way to this total surveillance, the Circle breaks politicians by placing fake data in their personal accounts.
The novel is modestly clever at making some level of this quite plausible, depending on your feelings about technology. Yes, it might be a good idea to have all medical data available to all doctors simply by letting them scan a chip in you (bear with me, I say “might”). But, and here lies the crux, the easy translation which Eggers offers here (“if this is great, wouldn’t it be even greater if that also happened”) makes the story waver quite uneasily between stark vision of the future and simplified parable. 95% of the Circle’s inventions—up to and including the idea that Circle membership should be made mandatory, because elections will take place through it—go over without so much of a murmur. The novel takes until page 423 until somebody even mentions privacy laws, only to hand-waive that concern (“I don’t think that’s a problem.”). The characters blithely disregard the multitudes of concerns for their own privacy, or are easily bowed by the convictions of the Circle when something comes up, such as Mae broadcasting live her mother’s manual stimulation of her father’s penis. And so, surprisingly, does the government: Eggers doesn’t bother to acknowledge the obvious legal problems of any of this (even the Roberts court would probably look askance at the perpetual surveillance of company employees). In a parable, where we might say the message is king, this might be less of an oddity, and The Circle might work better as an exploration of the dangers of an unfettered data accumulation. But it’s clearly not a parable, given that it does nod towards the law: it’s affirmatively set in the not too distant future, when we’ve all already gone through our own concerns for our (especially digital) privacy, and where you can sue Google not to publish a picture of the outside of your house; and nevertheless, nobody really complains or points to the dangers that are obviously part of the Circle’s ventures. The law, constitutionality, other nations than the U.S.: they all play no major role in this. That, however, makes it increasingly unbelievable.
The heart of the novel’s problem is probably Mae, about as insipid a character as one has seen in Eggers, and for large swaths of the book merely the camera through which Eggers can present his growing menagerie of surveillance technologies, all of which follow the same logic: pitch it as half-way sensible idea: “hey, if every kid had a chip embedded in their very bones, there would be no more abductions!” (cheers, whoops, whistles: yeah, that sounds great!); follow it up with an expanded version that opens the vista of possibilities: “oh, and if they already have such a chip, why don’t we save all their educational data on there? And then also, through some technological wizardry, couldn’t we just compare everybody’s educational stats to show them where they stand in the nation? Wouldn’t that be great? “Hey, Mary, congrats, you’re 120,497th of 130,000 students in the state!” Oh, and then the Ivy League could just take the 12,000 best without the hassle of, you know, talking to them or anything. It’ll be super!” Eggers is inventive about the products he has the Circle invent and purchase, but things become repetitive quickly.
Remaining all too frequently merely the necessary device to let Eggers show these products, Mae simply cannot carry the novel; and problematically, it never becomes quite clear what she is supposed to be: a stand-in for the reader? Someone the reader may feel superior to? Someone who represents the mass of people interacting with Google today? The question is what we are to make of a passage such as the one below. This is Mae, finally finding her way into the social media requirements of her employer, and now faced with the apparently arduous choice of clicking or not clicking a button, first in support of an escapee from a Guatemalan guerrilla army, and here in denunciation of those same guerrillas:
Just as important, Tania wrote, is that we send a message to the paramilitaries that we denounce their actions. Below the picture of Ana María was a blurry photo of a group of men in mismatched military garb, walking through dense jungle. Next to the photo was a frown button that said “We denounce the Central Guatemalan Security Forces.” Mae hesitated briefly, knowing the gravity of what she was about to do—to come out against these rapists and murderers—but she needed to make a stand. She pushed the button. An autoresponse thanked her, noting the she was the 24,726th person to send a smile to Ana Mariá and the 19,282nd to send a frown to the paramilitaries. (243)
This might have been a good, and relatable, scene: Mae clicks herself through surveys, questionnaires, idly condemns rape and murder, goes back to work. But “the gravity of what she was about to do”? Eggers clearly cannot expect the reader to relate to that: but the consequence of that would be that Mae is Eggers’s image of the kinds of people he believes are willfully ignoring the dangers of (let’s face it) Google today. But then the novel argues that those are all of us—the reader included. Wake up reader! You’re Mae! Only, really, you’re not, because do you really think clicking anybody’s “like”-button is a big deal? Mae remains a puzzle, and that hurts Eggers book.
Eggers, now, is not exactly a subtle writer. Remember, for example, the painfully obvious symbology of the hologram in his A Hologram for the King: in The Circle, you’ll find yourself hit over the head frequently by word choice and imagery. In Eggers’s prose, the Circle’s innovations spread with “blitzkrieg speed” (311); Mae’s ex-boyfriend is a (non-digital) small-time artist making things that exist “in one room” only and who suggests (it’s clearly not a revelation to the reader) that the Circle seems very like a “cult” (258). But perhaps the weirdest example of this style is the scene where Mae, now herself “clear,” broadcasts the feeding of a shark brought up from the Marianas trench (!) by one of the company heads, the three wise men. The shark’s transparent body (!) digests its food at rapid speed, leaving only something like ash (!) at the end. The shark, as sharks are wont to, is “circling” (!) in its tank, eating first a lobster and then, apparently for shits and giggles, a turtle that (as a viewer comments) “[l]ooks like my granddad” (!). It gets better: towards the end of the novel, the company heads witness the various creatures brought up from the Marianas trench put together in one habitat (just like in the real world!, they think; only not really, because: it’s a frickin’ tank, not an ocean): the cute seahorses, the majestic octopus, and finally, the ravenous shark. Who proceeds to eat and kill and digest and “turn to ash” everything. Gee, one thinks, it’s eerily like a metaphor for the Circle itself, which devours the old (turtle!), taking no heed of personal sympathies, and turns all that it encounters (in a transparent process, in a transparent environment) into ash. It’s subtle like a croquet mallet to the balls. Likewise, exactly nobody will be surprised when Mae, in a wholly bizarre scene, haunts her ex-boyfriend to his death with drones in an endeavor to present to the world the powers of the Circle’s ability to find anybody, anywhere. And exactly nobody will be surprised to find out that mysterious stranger Kalden, who can apparently move freely within the Circle, turns out to be the reclusive third wise man Ty, who, helpfully for symbolism-challenged readers, explains the whole shark situation to us: “We saw every creature in that tank, didn’t we? We saw them devoured by a beast that turned them to ash. Don’t you see that everything that goes into that tank, with the beast, with this beast, will meet the same fate” (485). Ty tried to convince Mae to do something, to use her public image to stop the Circle’s final encroachment. It is to Eggers’s credit (but again, hardly surprising) that Ty’s efforts fail, that Mae betrays him to the other two company heads, and that he is in typically “don’t do evil” fashion relegated to an advisory role at the company. But the question remains: what did Ty ever see in Mae in the first place? She has shown no potential for critical thinking, not desire to be her own boss, continually flees into the repetitive question-and-answer job she initially had at the company. She’s the designated heroine for Ty because she’s the focal character; and that’s just bad plotting. More to the point: why does Ty really need anybody at all? He’s a tech wizard who can disable the Circle’s technology from within itself; and yet he wants Mae, instead, to broadcast a simple manifesto. Perhaps this is meant to indicate that even the most highly-trained opponents of the Circle fail to understand its power; but if so it merely claims and tells, rather than showing.
The Circle is a timely reminder of the dangers of too much surveillance, too much loss of privacy, and too much agenda with a too small literary toolkit. Charitably, it’s an update of Brave New World. Just as with Hologram for the King, one is tempted to ask why Eggers felt the need to fictionalize his soap box.