Review: The Circle

the_circle_coverDave Eggers’ The Circle follows Mae Holland’s rise at the eponymous tech/social media company. Though Mae views the Circle’s many amenities as selling points, there is a darker element to them: she is expected to spend the vast majority of her time on campus, with her fellow “Circlers” as her primary social network. Mae doesn’t mind, of course. The Circle offers top-notch gym and recreational facilities, health centers, shopping, clubs, events, parties, more events… There are even dorms to stay in if she works too late or if there is an event. At one such party:

Annie was refilling Mae’s glass from a bottle of Riesling that, she said, was made on campus, some kind of new concoction that had fewer calories and more alcohol. (31)

The Circle has improved upon wine! And in a weird way, given that the usual goal at office parties is to stay sober enough to not embarrass yourself. Bridget Jones, anyone? But the Circle doesn’t want to feel like a workplace:

We want this to be a workplace, sure, but it should also be a humanplace. And that means the fostering of community. In fact, it must be a community. That’s one of our slogans, as you probably know: Community First. And you’ve seen the signs that say Humans Work Here—I insist on those. That’s my pet issue. We’re not automatons. This isn’t a sweatshop. We’re a group of the best minds of our generation. Generations. (47)

And if those best minds need a party, or regular live-music, or yoga classes, or circuses, or anything—they get it. Mae is kept spinning through her early days at the Circle as she is flooded with responsibilities, affirmation, validation, and support. What Mae views as welcoming, I see as creepy. The Circle has a cult vibe which is made clear through a dozen clever (and occasionally funny) ways.

Because the intrusive tendencies of the Circle are obvious, it’s hard for me to understand Mae’s immediate acceptance of her new environment. She is a slow starter with the “semi-mandatory” social aspects and is made to feel genuine remorse when called into her supervisor’s office for offending a coworker by overlooking his party. When she learns that her friend was eavesdropping during this reprimand, the initial feeling of intrusion gives way to security that her friend was with her in an awkward moment. She is unshakeable in her faith in the Circle’s practices. And why shouldn’t she be?

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? (30)

We hear so much about Mae’s adoration of the company, I found myself wishing there was more context for how the rest of the world views the Circle. Mae’s first job is with “Customer Experience” where she handles queries. Her first customer fills out a response card and gives her a score of “99”. Her supervisor says:

“Ninety-nine is good. But I can’t help wondering why it wasn’t a 100. Let’s look. […] Now, most companies would say, Wow, 99 out of 100 points, that’s nearly perfect. And I say, exactly: it’s nearly perfect, sure. But at the Circle, that missing point nags us. So let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it. Here’s a follow-up that we send out.” (51)

That’s right—if you send a less than perfect score, the Circle will nag for a better score, or a reason for the missing point. Can you imagine how irritating this would be IRL, either from your boss, or as the customer? Is the Circle actually the best? Or are customers cajoled and pressured in the same way as Mae to provide approval and support? Somehow, Mae sticks around for larger projects. Projects like installing “SeeChange” cameras anywhere and everywhere around the world and making the live streams publicly available. Because:

“Imagine any city with this kind of coverage. Who would commit a crime knowing they might be watched at any time, anywhere? My friends in the FBI feel this would cut crime rates down by 70, 80 percent in any city where we have real and meaningful saturation.”
The applause grew. (67)

And:

Or you type in your high school boyfriend’s name. Chances are there’s someone who’s set up a camera nearby, right? Why shouldn’t your curiosity about the world be rewarded? You want to see Fiji but can’t get there? SeeChange. You want to check on your kid at school? SeeChange. This is ultimate transparency. No filter. See everything. Always.” (69)

Note the page number. This isn’t even the craziest part (that’s all spoilers). Despite SeeChange being invasive and awful, Mae thinks it’s fantastic. She’s a great medium for the reader to experience this strange new world (brave new world?), but she does not ask interesting questions. There are a couple characters who do, but only by spouting a bunch of cheeseball platitudes.

Eggers is clever to give the SeeChange project roots in a normal place: I can see people paying for serene, live footage of misty mountains and beaches, or for a snazzier nanny-cam. But he carries it to the absurd extreme: anyone can access these cameras. Mae can now look up actual people without their knowledge of who’s watching and when. This delightful escalation is how a book like this is supposed to work, but it’s flat without meaningful opposition. Where are the fun debates? Where are the people who picket the Circle, except for that one guy and the few others who are quickly “handled”? There’s no sense of the people outside the Circle, no sense of the society that readily allows the Circle to tighten its grip. With no context, it’s hard to have a sense of what’s going on—is this a world where there’s an intriguing (yet troubling) argument for these services? Do people genuinely go along with these practices, or have they been cowed into submission? It makes a difference. As is, the Circle is Facebook+Twitter+Instagram+Google+Apple and bent on World Domination. It’s a cartoonish, Scooby-doo villain that seems to get by just because no one has looked closely.

The countless anecdotes of the Circle’s power/reach that plump the page count are repetitive, but each is so entertainingly bizarre, that the repetition doesn’t detract much from the story.

Oh, and remember the discussion of “flair” from Office Space (one of my fave movies, btw)—there’s a version of that here when Mae is asked to be more social, to attend more events, to send more online comments/zings/smiles/frowns:

We just haven’t seen you around so much after five o’clock, so we wondered if you were, you know, anxious to leave.”
“No, no. Do you need me to stay later?”
Dan winced. “No, it’s not that. You handle your workload just fine. But we missed you at the Old West party last Thursday night, which was a pretty crucial team-building event, centered around a product we’re all very proud of. You missed at least two newbie events, and at the circus, it looked like you couldn’t wait to leave. I think you were out of there in twenty minutes. And those things would be understandable if your Participation Rank weren’t so low. Do you know what it is?” (176)

Love this. 🙂

Overall: 3.7 It’s really heavy-handed. Eggers makes his point, then makes it another dozen times for kicks. But so many sections are genuinely funny and/or intense.

Translation: Read it. Take a day off from the Internet. 😛