Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Book Review - Dave Eggers's The Circle

The Circle by Dave Eggers
Published by: Vintage Books
Publication Date: October 8th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 497 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy

Mae Holland had dreams that took her east of the Rockies to an elite liberal arts college yet here she is, back in her home town, working nine to five at a utility company of all places. Whereas her college roommate Annie Allerton doesn't just work for the most important tech company on the planet, she's one of the Group of 40, one of the forty most influential people in the most influential company in the world. Thanks to Annie pulling some strings she gets Mae in the door for an interview at The Circle. As Mae walks through the campus she realizes that she is in heaven and she doesn't care if the job she's interviewing for is only in Customer Experience, answering questions and obsessively keeping track of her satisfaction rating, it's where everyone started, even Annie. Yet her transition into The Circle isn't that smooth, she makes more than a few mistakes in not fully engaging in the culture that the company wants its employees to embrace. She also upsets a few of her coworkers by her lack of participation.

But leeway is given as she's a friend of Annie and there are extenuating circumstances with her family. Her father is suffering from MS and her mother is struggling to cope. With Mae now further away they are relying heavily on Mae's ex, Mercer. The pressure to help, to be better, makes Mae reckless and one night she breaks into a kayak rental store she frequents after-hours and what happens next changes everything. It's not just that Mae is caught by technology that The Circle created, it's her blind ignorance that she was cheating others of a once in a lifetime experience that now only exists in her memories. Because sharing is caring. This experience is the beginning of her full integration into The Circle. Through a talk with The Circle's co-founders, Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton, Mae becomes "transparent," broadcasting her life 24/7 to the world. Soon she has eclipsed Annie and becomes the face of The Circle. Mae has everything she could possibly dream of, what could possibly go wrong?

The Circle is an interesting book to read because I think I can say that it's easily the most uneven book I've ever read with an ill-defined endgame. Because of my blog and how many books I review in a year I kind of get a sense while reading about what star rating a book will end up with but here I was flummoxed. The narrative is continually waffling between searing satire and heavy-handed often clumsy world commentary. If The Circle hadn't ended on just the right note that it did, with that perfect level of cynicism pushing it towards darkness, it would have been a fail. With literally one witch-hunt worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West and a two and a half page conclusion everything comes together and all the faults can be overlooked when you finally see the bigger picture. That ill defined bigger picture is so badly articulated until those final moments when you learn what the end goal of "closing the circle" is that The Circle is almost a book without a plot relying on vaguely interconnecting scenes and too much kayaking. While a book can be redeemed by it's ending, it's far more satisfying to have enough clues that give you a hint of what's to come without actually being able to put all the pieces together. Structure is important to all things in life, not just architecture!

What struck me most forcibly reading The Circle is how it resonates at the moment. This transparency of life is exactly the opposite to how we are currently living. The trolls of the Internet are everywhere, even in the highest office of the land, and they hide behind fake news and fake identities. Truth isn't actually something you hear very often anymore. Yet The Circle created TruYou, where your identity isn't just synced across all platforms, but that it's verified as actually being you, like Twitter verification to the umpteenth degree that has access to your credit cards. Everyone can be held accountable for everything they do. This is just such a weird polarity to living in a world where the president doesn't even want to be on camera for plausible deniability. And all this got me thinking, could what is happening now spawn a future like Dave Eggers has created? Will all these lies lead the coming younger generation, who are the early adapters of all tech, to force a TruYou situation? Which I personally think would be the other extreme. Just because it looks perfect doesn't mean it is, that's the whole point of dystopian literature, it's someones utopia.

And as we all know, utopia is heaven, and heaven is found through religion and the church, and oh yes, there are religious metaphors aplenty here. While the most obvious would be to see this as very much of the school of Scientology, I think it's more the school of Apple, or Google, or even, to go a little homegrown, Epic. All secretive organizations, all have vast sprawling campuses that encourage a community formed of your work colleagues, and all kind of indoctrinate you. Years ago a study was done on true Apple acolytes and under scientific observation they had the same reaction to seeing the Apple logo as true believers when show the cross. Eggers is on fire when he leans towards the dark humor. The book soars when comparing the three founders to the father, the son, and the holy ghost, or, as the case is here, an octopus, a shark, and a seahorse. Their inability to see who is the most dangerous of the three founders. The dark intents that "the son" has for the future. I just want to yell it from the rooftops that this is what works, this is what makes the book such an amazing read. But then Eggers comes along every once in awhile and goes all earnest and I want to smack him. Being earnest has no place in a dark satire, and those scenes when Mae is smiling or frowning at 50 million different "tweets" or posts while using so many screens it's almost incomprehensible I want to highlight them and ask Eggers to make the rest of the book like this.

Because whenever Mae has to deal with anything outside The Circle it's like a damp towel has been thrown over the book. Her off-campus life is painful to read. It's not just that there's no spark, no subversive humor, it's that it's too earnest. Mae dealing with her family and Mercer is painful. Yes, I know that this kind of needs to be the case. There needs to be a disconnect between her old world and her new world, but that doesn't mean it has to be so bleak. Her parents dealing with MS was almost too painful for me to read, and not just because I've spent this year suffering from caregivers syndrome, but because it didn't read true. It read as plot contrivances. We need Mae's parents to push her further into The Circle and Mercer to be the sacrifice that is the nail in Mae's coffin. But could they at least have been written better? This needed the polish that the rapid fire dialogues Mae has with her co-workers received. It just needed to be a piece with the rest of the book. THIS is what makes the book uneven. This disconnect between her two worlds, like trying to shove a FireWire cable into a USB port, and it needed to be addressed. As did Mae's love life, because Eggers sure doesn't know how to handle sex in a way that isn't clunky and unbelievable. But I'm willing to tackle one subject at a time.

For my final subject I will tackle tech. Technology is rapidly changing and each year that passes it speeds up more and more. By the time you buy a new phone or computer it's already obsolete. Just think about this, in my lifetime computers have gone from the size of large rooms to being able to be held in the palm of your hand and I'm not yet forty. And that computer in your hand is FAR more powerful than the one that took up a large room or perhaps even several buildings. Phones are now in our pockets instead of only in houses and on street corners. Therefore in the five years that have passed since The Circle was first released the leaps and bounds in tech have lead the amazing and revolutionary tech that Eamon Bailey introduces in his big presentation that Mae goes to laughably out of date. SeeChange, the streaming camera service that causes Mae so much grief but then makes her a celebrity is common now. When Bailey is talking about how crystal clear images can be I was thinking, yeah, just look at Netflix, or Hulu, or even Skype. This "revolutionary" tech is no longer so. Which makes me wonder about the longevity of The Circle. Will it somehow become a dystopian classic that looks back on a certain time with it's quaint tech or will it be forgotten? Personally, I think it will be forgotten. If you look at the classics of this genre there's a timelessness to them. While they may have been written in the 70s or the 80s they don't quite feel of that time but of all times. The Circle feels very much of one time and I fear it's time has already passed.


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