[NOTE: While I try to avoid out and out spoilers, purist may want to skip this post].
It is not a happy book.
The story follows Mae Holland, a relatively recent college graduate who is working a dead-end, soul sucking job at a local utility in a small town in California near Fresno that no one has heard of.
Through her college roommate Annie, she manages to land a job at The Circle, sort of an über Google/Facebook/Twitter company in The Valley. Annie quickly rose through the ranks at The Circle and is now part of the Gang of 40 – the 40 most influential people in the company. Through her, Mae is introduced to the culture of the company, including learning about its three founders, called the “Three Wise Men”.
Ty Gospodinov is the boy genius who created TruYou, a now ubiquitous single sign-on technology that made sure that people on the Internet were who they said they were. His goal was to remove some of the hate and vitriol that anonymity on in Internet permitted, and TruYou soon became the standard for most web-based commerce. Socially awkward and a bit of a recluse, Ty hired the other two wise men: Eamon Bailey and Tom Stenton. Eamon was the ebullient visionary and Tom the corporate man who found a way to commercialize Ty’s product which resulted in a huge IPO. They later subsumed their competitors and became the main social, search and e-commerce company in the world.
Mae was extremely happy to be at The Circle, on its gorgeous campus with all the perks one could hope for and working among all the amazing people employed there. The Circle even allowed her to put her parents on her health plan, which was important because her father suffered from MS and was having issues with his current insurance company. It was like a dream come true.
Mae’s initial role in the company was in the Customer Experience department, basically customer service. While she gets off to a great start, things start to sour in wonderland when she is reprimanded, in the nicest way possible, for not being “social” enough – not sharing enough of her life, her likes and dislikes, and getting involved with the rest of the Circle community. At times it comes across as a little sinister, and much of the story follows her fumbling steps to become fully integrated at The Circle and her efforts to excel there. She does attend more company events which eventually creates a love triangle between her, a shy fellow employee named Francis with whom she feels empowered, and a mysterious stranger named Kalden who randomly appears and disappears at the oddest times, but for whom she has a strong attraction.
My favorite aspect of the book is the technology that Eggers introduces. I’m not sure if he came up with it all on his own or, Malcolm Gladwell-like, just assembled it into a narrative. My guess is a little of both. One such innovation is called SeaChange – an inexpensive, tiny camera that can be deployed anywhere and introduced with the slogan ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN. As the book progresses we learn about the impending “closing of the Circle” which is identified as the completion of some grand plan that would make Big Brother blush.
Not everyone is as thrilled as Mae with The Circle. On a visit home she sees an ex-boyfriend named Mercer. He delivered one of my favorite quotes of the book:
Listen, twenty years ago, it wasn’t so cool to have a calculator watch, right? And spending all day inside playing with your calculator watch sent a clear message that you weren’t doing so well socially. And judgments like ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ and ‘smiles’ and ‘frowns’ were limited to junior high. Someone would write a note and it would say, ‘Do you like unicorns and stickers?’ and you’d say, ‘Yeah, I like unicorns and stickers! Smile!’ That kind of thing. But now it’s not just junior high kids who do it, it’s everyone, and it seems to me sometimes I’ve entered some inverted zone, some mirror world where the dorkiest sh*t in the world is completely dominant. The world has dorkified itself.
I learned that Eggers was the founder of McSweeneys, which is really cool, and although this isn’t “Literature” with a capital “L”, his prose is well written and easy to read. I only had one issue with the book, concerning a subplot where CEO Stenton has The Circle create a submersible so that he can go to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, a lá James Cameron, and return with specimens. These animals are kept in a normal aquarium, exposed to atmosphere, which really bothered me since any life that could live at those depths would simply explode when the pressure was removed. He also talks about coral and other things that simply wouldn’t exist at those depths. I’m willing to forgive him since the whole thing is required for an metaphor at the end of the book, but it still bothered me. Plus, The eventual denouement is a little predictable, but overall I really enjoyed the book.
My reference to 1984 is not casual. While Orwell was working with post World War II technology, The Circle is what he would have imagined had he written the book today. Even the iconic “WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” is mimicked as “SECRETS ARE LIES, SHARING IS CARING, PRIVACY IS THEFT”.
There is much more to the book, many more little jewels of social interaction that I loved, but I am trying hard not to spoil anything. It is worth checking out, and I’ll end with another of my favorite quotes, this one from Mae when she is distressed about some “frowns” she receives:
Why was there so much animosity in the world? And then it occurred to her, in a brief and blasphemous flash: she didn’t want to know how they felt. The flash opened up to something larger, an even more blasphemous notion that her brain contained too much. That the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain from too many people, and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable – it was too much.