My review of Dave Egger's new novel THE CIRCLE runs in print today in the Sunday Oregonian. Several graphs were cut due to space considerations. Here it is in full. Your comments welcome here and on the O site.
It's been an exceptionally good season for soapbox manufacturers. First we had Ann Patchett expounding in an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal that Amazon's algorithm is the enemy of authors and bookstores (while acknowledging that the site "is responsible for a lot of my sales"). Then came Jonathan Franzen's dyspepsia over our present "technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment," citing for especial villainy Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who "may not be the antichrist, but he sure looks like one of the four horsemen."
Now we have Dave Eggers' "The Circle," an indictment in the form of a novel, about what he sees as humanity's enslavement to social media. The book's message — that we are one keystroke away from a world where people lose their desire for and hold on an inner life — is evidently terrifying to some in the chattering class, including an editor at The New York Times who found the book "scary" and "bracing" and "all too real," for which I might suggest a cold shower and, as evidence of true terror regarding the future of the human condition, Terrence Holt's "In the Valley of the Kings."
Or we can just wait for the movie version of "The Circle," which the novel essentially is; it's a screenplay-in-waiting, with the pacing of a thriller, and offering superb opportunity for visual/techno super-saturation, the Circle being the world's most successful Internet company, with a campus to match: a glass dining complex that soars nine stories high, "a stone amphitheater built into a high grassy berm," an aquarium holding sea creatures from the Mariana Trench. I'd like to see this movie.
Perhaps the on-screen characters will have personality beyond stating the various — well, two — platforms Eggers puts in their mouths. Let's meet them here: there's Mae, our blank paper of a protagonist, thrilled to have gotten a job at "the only company that really mattered at all." There's her friend Annie, a platinum blonde higher-up in the Circle. There are the Circle's founders, known as the Three Wise Men, "a strange bouquet of mismatched flowers" drawn so broadly as to be caricatures, and there is Mercer, a former boyfriend of Mae's, whose assignment here is essentially to yell, "Abandon hope all ye who enter the Circle!" and be considered first a rube and then a threat for doing so.
The threat is to the Circle's online hegemony, which starts with the convenient-seeming TruYou account, which harnesses all of a person's online identities, offers more connectivity, more ways to shop, more ways to feel as though your opinion matters. The Circle's market share grows to most of the world's population, participation becomes mandatory, as do bio-readers and surveillance cameras, the kind people wear on their wrists and chests, a bondage presented as the ultimate freedom, the opportunity for total "transparency" and "to go clear." The allusions to Scientology are many. We await the references to totalitarian regimes, and are not disappointed.
Descriptions tend toward the thick and hammy. Mae on Annie's ascension in the Circle: "If she'd grown up in the Siberian tundra, born blind to shepherds, she still would have arrived here, now." Of the Wise Man under whose sway Mae falls: "His eyebrows were Roman arches, his nose like some small sea creature's delicate snout." Of a doctor at the Circle: "With her extravagant curves, her sultry eyes and harmonica voice, she was a volcano onscreen."
Alas, no ripped bodice on the book's cover, but a circular maze whose circumference is almost closed, and once closed, seals our enslavement.
Can Mae save the world? Mae, who is often relegated to interjections like, "So I'm —" and "I think so. But —" in order to offer a little white space during others' speechifying for/against the Circle. Mae, whose engages in the most undercooked sex in recent literary memory, and when asked by her partner to rate the encounter, scores him 100. Mae, whose impressionability makes her the perfect acolyte, and whose true believer status becomes so annoying, and then dangerous, that one of the book's characters puts itself in a coma just to get away.
Eggers has a convenient screen against criticism, in that "The Circle" is meant as satire, so that the book's obvious ironies (that 100) and robotic characterizations may be seen as deliberate and thus illuminating. Black is white and white is black, just like the indoctrination of the Circlers, get it?
Yeah, we get it. And Eggers gets some things right, the echo chamber that can be social media, the addiction to our feeds, our scores, the satisfaction a response brings, the anxiety produced by no response, the self-deprecating status updates, the self-satisfaction that we create change simply by hitting a "like" button. But with the exception of the visuals (irony alert: the most exciting scene in the book involves drones), must the adventure be so predictable? We see everything that is coming, albeit having us see the action is not, in this book, Eggers forte: Annie "arched her eyebrows mischievously"; words go "rattling in [Mae's] head" and "tumbled out" of her mouth. Considering the hullabaloo the book has received (an excerpt ran on the cover of the Times magazine last month), and Eggers stature, one expects more precision.
The Circle's master plan is to make sure "no earthly question would remain unanswered," thus leading to a world where people love and defend and kill for the chains with which they bind themselves. Eggers conceit, that once the circle is closed it cannot be breached, does not take into account teenagers, punk rockers, the Buckminster Fullers of the world, and the fact that all totalitarian regimes end, always badly.
The conceit likewise leaves no room for the grace that social media can give us, for instance, earlier this month, when a young friend died, and Facebook offered several hundred of her friends (flesh friends, myself included) a place to gather, to mourn, to send photos and poetry (a gathering someone called "the digital equivalent of the casserole"), to know where the memorial was, an Irish wake with drinking and dancing and crying and laughing. The Internet did this, too.