Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Circle by Dave Eggers

If you flinch at the mere mention of social networking, you’ll probably embrace The Circle as an “I told you so!” cautionary tale of what happens when one voluntarily chooses to live their life in a fishbowl.

The Circle is the story of underachiever Mae, who through a college friendship connection lands a low-level position at The Circle, a fictionalized mega-amalgamation of social network.coms so radical that the company’s tagline is “Privacy is Theft.” Working at The Circle is considered the opportunity of a lifetime so Mae is thrilled, especially when she steps onto the lush company “campus” that looks and acts more like a luxury resort than a job site. But when, at her job orientation, a company rep offers to take her old laptop off her hands, assuring her that she won’t need any of the information stored on it, we’re pretty sure The Circle is sinister.

Sure enough, Mae soon learns that this idealized company is an insidious web of social pressures that strangely resembles high school: popularity is everything and you’re in or you’re out. Unfortunately this dystopian satire that could have generated a nice mystery, psychological thriller, or character study, caves in on itself because author Dave Eggers (pictured) forgot to make us care about the characters in the book, he didn’t bother to understand technology, and he banked too much on readers’ tech phobias. So we slog through frenetic, juvenile popularity contests, ankle-deep characters, meaningless relationships, and a tech-based storyline that doesn’t make sense technologically, and doesn’t pose a believable threat, until we are willing to just throw everyone under the bus to get it over with.

In her review of The Circle, Margaret Atwood called it a "Menippean"satire, distinct from social satire in viewing moral defects less as flaws of character than as intellectual perversions." She further described this fifth book of Eggers as "the mirror of art to show us ourselves and the perils that surround us," and says that The Circle's insistence that we share everything is a "form of solitary confinement." Atwood's musings always feel a little over intellectualized, but she is distinctly insightful, and I always learn new words when I read her. 

Eggers has written better books, Zeitoun, my personal favorite, is a subtle look at how a natural disaster (hurricane Katrina in this case) brings out the worst and best in people. So if you're interested in reading him, and I recommend you do, read Zeitoun, not The Circle.

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