The Short Version: Mae has just landed her dream job, working for The Circle – a sort of Google/Facebook hybrid in California, situated on a lush campus full of awesome things and amazing people. At first, she struggles to acclimate herself with the culture of openness but soon she rises through the ranks of Circlers to become, just maybe, the one who’ll lead the Circle to Completion. But at what cost?
The Review: So, okay. This is a horror novel, right? Why has nobody else said that yet? Or at least, nobody else that I’ve noticed. This has all the hallmarks of creepy fiction, wrapped up in a 21st Century package and sold to us as a pre-dystopic fable – but, when you get right down to it, what is dystopia but the aftermath of something horrible/horrific? And by extension, must the story of how the dystopia came about not then be (in the most technical sense of the term, anyway) “horror”?
Of course, I’m not just talking about the technical sense of the term. This book is (pardon my French) fucking terrifying. And I say that as I: write this review on on WordPress, consider what tweet I will use to pub this review and what tweets I’ll send from my work account when I get in, muse on whether or not I need a new Facebook header photo, regret something I blogged on Tumblr, and work to send seventeen emails before breakfast. But anybody reading this book right now – for goodness sake, the Twitter IPO was yesterday, could this be any more timely? – cannot ignore the fact that Eggers has twisted the utopian visions of Cupertino and Mountain View into something out of the Northanger Horrids.
Let’s do a trope check. By my count, there are (and – allow me some wiggle room, as some of these tropes are bent a bit from their norm) at least the following: secret passages, an imposing triumvirate, terrifying creatures held in captivity, a crazy aunt in the attic (…or uncle, as the case may be), suicide, disappearances, brainwashing, shadowy figures, strange communiques… I mean, doesn’t that also sound pretty much like the description of a season (hell, a single episode) of American Horror Story? But what I can’t determine is whether or not this horror is meant to serve a particular purpose or if Eggers was, in fact, just trying his hand at writing a scary story.
I’m not the biggest fan of Dave Eggers. I enjoyed The Wild Things well enough but An Eyerolling Work of Staggering Toolishness is absolutely, without question, (and it only grows in hindsight) one of the worst things I’ve ever read. I hated that book with surprising vehemence, even as I respected the stylistic derring-do he sometimes deployed in the writing. That book (as well as some of the strange ‘unintentional racism’ stories I read regarding What is the What and even Zeitoun) put me off Eggers in a big way. But something about this book, in particular, called out to me. As an early adopter of many social media devices (and continual user of several), I am consistently intrigued by the back and forth of my own opinions regarding “sharing” our lives online. I use Facebook way less than I did as a college student, but I’d argue that I probably tweet more. And Tumblr, let’s not even address that particular addiction. But there are also plenty of things I keep inside or won’t do – I hate dating websites, I loathe the constant barrage of updates on people’s lives on Facebook or even Twitter. But it’s a personal question of “what is interesting?” and we all must answer that for ourselves.
Eggers proposes, in this book, the possibility that we’d have that question taken away from us. His hypotheticals are not bad, especially for the freshmen philosophy majors who will no doubt snap this book up by year’s end – would the presence of cameras everywhere deter people from doing bad things, because they know there’s someone watching them? Would mandatory democratic participation be enabled by running elections (or even just polling) through our social media outlets? Are secrets lies? Should we know everything?
And these questions are exactly the questions we should be grappling with today. The only thing is, I can’t quite get behind how Eggers does grapple with them in this book – and that’s why I cannot see the novel as purely a cautionary fable but rather as something a bit more down in the gutter: horror. For example, Mae is a bit too happy-lamb-being-led-to-the-slaughter for basically the entire novel. The most telling moment comes when, in the second half of the novel, she walks in on her parents – and while she’s obviously flabbergasted and uncomfortable, she and the Circle team come to a strange zen-like understanding about it. But when Annie, Mae’s best friend and the person who got her hired, discovers a similar (albeit a bit more horrific) fact about her parents… she reacts as we’d expect a normal human being to react. Mae’s willingness and, well, openness to being open just feels…. it feels impossible, I think.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the Warholian fifteen-minutes afforded to people like the Kardashians have inspired the generation(s) younger than I to pursue that level of fame by opening themselves fully to the world in the hopes that their mundanities will be found interesting by someone other than themselves. Or, at least, their pathological narcissism will be validated and accepted by other pathological narcissists.
But here is where Eggers fails when other writers attacking similar topics have succeeded or at least failed later. The best example of success is, of course, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story – we all know just how prescient that novel was and it’s almost become old hat to say so. But part of the reason that novel was such a success was not the prescient understanding of advances in technology and culture but rather the approachable nature of the characters. Lenny and Eunice were fully realized, they felt real. Nobody in Eggers’ novel feels like anything more than a construct. Do I know people like Mae? Sure. But Eggers has disdain for making characters anything more than an easily telegraphed concept – Mae’s woodsy, off-the-grid ex-boyfriend makes chandeliers out of antlers for gods-sake. I mean, come on. This sort of writing is a great shortcut to get me to understand the kind of person you’re talking about… but there’s no way they’re going to feel real to me. It’s the same with every single character – the rich and slimy billionaire, the Zuckerberg-esque founder, the premature ejaculator sorta-boyfriend. They’re all written in Proper Nouns and thus we look to the story for similarly Proper Noun allegory. But this is a subject far too serious to be treated with such slapdash construction – and so, I again conclude, that the novel falls smackdab into the only place where you can get away with these unique decisions/flaws in construction: horror.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It actually pains me, a bit, to rate the book this high. There is some truly awful writing (especially the sex. please, for the love of all that is good in the world, please never write another sex scene, Dave.) and for a book published at this level about a topic so pressingly of-the-moment… as a reader, I demand more. Because I really don’t think that Eggers intended this to be a horror novel. If he had, if he’d leaned into it a little, this really might’ve been an exceptionally scary (while still being timely and full of warnings) novel – but instead, I read it as the sort of creeping Gothic scary that leaves you just vaguely unsettled.
And that, friends? That was a really fun way to read the book – and I enjoyed it far more than I ever thought I could’ve. I don’t see a world in which The Circle comes into being – for one thing, you can bet that anti-trust suit would’ve come a hell of a lot sooner than it did – but maybe I’m just too optimistic and/or jaded. But one thing’s for sure: there’s a great Hitchcockian thriller of a film just waiting to be made out of this book.