I don’t have Instagram. I’ve never checked in anywhere on Foursquare. I haven’t commented on a YouTube video or given anything a +1 on Google+. And I relish the fact that I can opt-out. Things are a little different in Dave Eggers’ The Circle.
At Silicon Valley-based tech company the Circle, where 24-year-old Mae Holland has just begun work, participation in social media is compulsory – which she finds out when her supervisor sits her down during one of her first weeks to discuss the paltry level of activity on her Zing feed. Instead of being resentful (like this writer would have been), Mae works nights to get her ranking up to the top 2,000, making herself a fixture in community life both on campus and online.
Mae is in awe of the Circle, a hybrid of social media, personal tech, and sleek online finance companies on speed, where, upon taking her first tours through the sprawling 400-acre campus, she realizes she’s in a place unlike any other:
Mae knew that she never wanted to work – never wanted to be – anywhere else… Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?
But with Eggers’ setup, we know that her ride at the Circle will be anything but utopian.
Readers begin to see cracks in façade as the company develops tiny, highly invasive cameras with the objective of controlling crime through accountability, which are installed all over the world. They’re one of the Circle’s many initiatives for ultimate transparency; ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN, and PRIVACY IS THEFT, they say. More projects are unveiled, each more questionable than the next, but as Mae rises through the ranks at the Circle, she latches tightly on to each.
Eggers succeeds at creating an alternate utopia that doesn’t seem so far from reach – tiny cameras planted in Egypt to monitor violence in Tahrir Square, being able to search your date’s allergies before your pick a restaurant, tracking chips embedded in children to eliminate kidnapping. Eggers doesn’t add a new layer to the discussion about privacy and information accessibility, but he handles the environment and conversation with a type of levity that borders on satire.
This humor, which can at times be biting, lends itself beautifully to the audiobook’s dramatic ebb and flow. Narrator Dion Graham reads with excellent pacing. He comes equipped with a strong range of portrayals: Mae’s wonderment and curiosity as she sets up in front of three screens at her desk; the urgency of new trainees in the Customer Experience sector as they’re hit by a deluge of queries; the confidence of the fixtures and cult-like personas at the circle. Though the intensity of his reading amps up with the suspense of the book, Graham never loses the essential hint of humor that encases the novel. Eggers’ scenes can sometimes carry on too long, which on an audiobook could feel a bit labored and drawn-out. But true to the books that precede The Circle, the author writes with a fluidity that makes five hundred pages of material – 14 and a half hours of audio – breeze by at a clip.
The plot goes deeper when Mae goes entirely transparent herself in a kind of Truman Show move, wearing a camera around her neck nearly non-stop. It marks her as hugely important with the top echelon of the Circle. Footage of everything Mae does becomes permanent in the cloud, accessible to anyone – “We don’t delete here, Mae,” her friend Annie says – and millions watch Mae navigate her sex life, her work life, her friendships, and even the death of a friend. As readers and listeners, we’re confronted with inescapable questions about the barriers between natural and performative actions, and public and private spaces.
Ultimately, Mae is given the chance to challenge the monopoly, and must decide whether or not the utopia is valuable and sustainable. Mae is a thin character, and we don’t feel much for her in the final scene, but the decision she faces and thoughts she has are resonant, and Eggers’ message caustic. If nothing else, readers come away from the ending feeling evaluative about the nature of security and what it means to be “social” in the age of Internet whatever-point-zero we’ve reached – and it might be an unusually long time before anyone would want to send a next tweet.