- Genre: dystopia
- Pages: 491
- My rating: 7.5/10
I am always a bit suspicious of immensely popular books in which a mainstream author dips his or her toes into science fiction. These novels are invariably lauded as innovative and “important” by those who are not used to reading science fiction. But since the movie was coming out, I decided to give the novel a shot.
Mae is a young, insecure, naive and ambitious woman who is hired for an entry-level job at California’s most innovative tech company, The Circle. The office is filled with relentlessly passionate people and everything seems magical to Mae. Buoyed up by her own desire to achieve and fit in, she is sucked into the inviting yet toxic corporate culture of the Circle, whose influence reaches all over the globe.
This novel raised painful memories in me of the latest corporate environment I found myself in. The Circle seems filled with passionate believers, like a cult, and at the same time tries to buy the loyalty of its staff with luxurious stuff that is not related to its business. It swallows the lives of its employees. Underneath the smiles and the sheen of excitement lies a suffocating pressure, a neediness, to be part of the “community” at all times. Things start to get really creepy when Mae receives a third screen at her desk, solely meant for being a part of the company’s community, coercing her to like and wink and comment upon the messages of her colleagues at all times.
The Circle is a company that is supposed to be so much ahead of the curve that it went full circle. But the book itself and the technology it talks about is already here and gaining presence. Social media already creates intense social pressures that are new and alien to those that are not part of it. Modern kids already live in electronic worlds and worry about social media-related pressures that older generations are not even aware of exist. For example, the portable webcam invention in The Circle is getting popular right now as dash cams.
In this sense, The Circle is a bit like Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Its science fictional element is small, but the social pressures are stifling. Eggers is not the guy for dazzling science fiction readers with technological ideas, but he does a great job in making you feel squeezed and trapped. In another sense, The Circle is a bit like Huxley’s Brave New World, because Mae enters a world where everyone seems so happy with the new status quo. The dystopian conditions are embraced by people who like what is happening and believe in its messages. That’s just scary.
None of The Circle‘s ideas or messages are new or unique in any way. I do agree with the way social media is shown here in a negative, invasive way, but the message itself is the least interesting thing about this novel. What I enjoyed most about this story is how Eggers took these well-known ideas and used them to create an office space nightmare. I read this with a delicious feeling of scaring myself, because entering the Circle is entering a world full of oppressive, unrealistic expectations. Unfortunately, the message is what interested Eggers the most, and he delivers it with the subtlety of a hammer.
As a consequence, Eggers’ characters are all very one-note. They are vessels to communicate the message. Mae is an empty vessel, insecure and accepting, and her eyes never do open. Her ex-boyfriend Mercer is the voice of reason, and her colleagues are the voices of the zeitgeist. Mae has no spine, never stands up for herself, doesn’t see how she is selling her soul step by step, and she enters badly written sex scenes with strange men. All the characters are so overblown, so unrealistic. Now, if the crazy managers act strange that makes the Circle only more oppressive, which is great to read about, but Mae is blind to it, even joins it, and that makes her impossible to identify with.
As I was reading this at a train station, an old woman approached me and said that I was reading an important novel and that I shouldn’t be taken with all those IT companies that make everything sound great. I nodded politely and said I agreed, but I had to restrain myself from saying that I only enjoyed this as an office space nightmare and refrained from moaning about the bad characters. Those complaints would have fallen on deaf ears. There is a fun novel hidden inside Eggers’ The Circle, but it is buried beneath its own self-regard.