A shark, an octopus and a family of sea horses all together in one aquarium. In front of it stand the three leaders of The Circle, watching it intently, lost in thought about the hidden messages behind the animals’ interactions.
The sea horses are hiding near the bottom; the octopus, at first touching everything, feeling for everything with its tentacles, also retreats upon arrival of the predator. But both species are doomed. The metaphor the author employs here is not very subtle: the octopus for the omniscience-seeking company The Circle; the sea horses drifting around almost aimlessly for the many small people making up The Circle’s network; the shark entering the tank, devouring all, for the sinister force at the heart of too many human endeavors.
“My God. It’s heaven,” is Mae Holland’s first thought upon arrival on the futuristic and utopian campus that is the headquarters of The Circle, a blend of Google, Facebook, Twitter and all the other Internet companies that have been shooting up like mushrooms during the past decade. For Mae, who was working for a utility company in her no-name hometown before joining the Circle, the new campus of glass and light is like a revelation. In her previous job, she was working in a cubicle lined with burlap. Now, surrounded by screens and automatic doors and the latest technology in every imaginable area, her past quickly drifts away like a weird, comic nightmare.
Mae’s entrance into the world of The Circle sets the tone for the rest of the book. Unlike Winston Smith, her counterpart in 1984, the novel that most easily lends itself to comparison with The Circle (aside from Brave New World) , Mae is not a doubter. She embraces The Circle’s culture of openness readily although she initially still makes occasional newbie blunders like not participating in campus events or failing to log into the firm’s internal network. But she’s eager to learn, and learn she does.
The Circle‘s setting is less expansive than 1984‘s. In Orwell’s novel, totalitarianism has already been established all around the planet, the brainwashing firmly rooted, and hope for chance reduced to a flickering glimmer. In The Circle, most of the plot is centered around the Bay Area headquarters of the company. While Orwell showed his readers the consequences of his new society for the individual, Eggers focuses on the place where the change toward a new society emanates from. He also chooses an ordinary person as his protagonist, but she, as opposed to Winston, is closer to the presumptive leaders of the change, the leaders of the company. Tom Stenton, Eamon Bailey and Ty Gospodinov, or, as they are known around campus in an ironic bible reference (the irony being all on the author’s side here; his Circlers are thoroughly unaware), The Three Wise Men, represent each one of the types you commonly find in Silicon Valley these days: the merciless, hedonistic capitalist (Tom Stenton), the enthusiastic idealist (Eamon Bailey) and the introverted creator and programmer (Ty Gospodinov). Except for some crucial parts, the reader doesn’t see much of Gospodinov and Stenton; instead, they get Bailey, who appears as the company’s public face, evoking in his cult-like speeches the Gospel of Jobs. The closest we get to understanding the actual character of and dynamic among these three is the animal analogy Eggers offers close to the end. But this is part of the reason The Circle succeeds in maintaining its message. It’s reminiscent of Friedrich Durrenmatt’s play The Physicists in that it makes clear that it ultimately doesn’t matter who starts a development; as soon as the cat’s out of the bag, it won’t get back in. After The Circle is completed, there can be no going back.
The main strength of the book, though, lies in its portrayal of Silicon Valley ideology. There has been criticism of a certain lack of depth in characters, which is valid from one perspective. Almost every character in Eggers’s novel has a specific function, stands for something. On the surface, which is the viewpoint of Mae, there doesn’t appear much conflict in any of the characters. But we have to remember that this is a novel about a system, not about people. And people within a system, as Hannah Arendt teaches us, tend to lose some of their individuality, or at least suppress it, in order to function as part of the whole. It’s precisely this Eggers wants us to see. The Circle cares about the whole, but can you care about the whole and the singular at the same time? The brazenness of today’s tech leaders in assuming to know where society as a whole will, or has to, move is reflected in statements like this, where Mae sits in on a meeting of young entrepreneurs pitching The Circle their ideas in the hope of being bought. “Mae knew she would personally sign up for such a plan, and assumed that, by extension, so would millions more.” This notion of assumption by extension is one of the critical attacking points in the novel. Assuming by extension, could, among others, be a definition of racism, totalitarianism, fascism. This recalls another sentence clearly intended by the author to stick. It’s from a passage very early in the book when Mae is still running around campus with sparkles in her eyes: “Who else but utopians could make utopia?”
Who else, indeed? The novel never sheds light on the question of how much of The Circle is truly about ideology and how much of it is about a simple mutation of capitalism. Eggers obviously intends the figures of Bailey and Stenton to represent these two streaks, but it would be interesting to find out who among the three has the ultimate power. (It seems clear, though, who doesn’t – but I won’t spoil anything here.) In the end, one is left with the image of the shark devouring everything in the tank. This seems like a very straightforward image, but as there is so much in The Circle that, in spite of all the talk about transparency and openness (One of the finer ironies of the book is that the more open and transparent everything presumably becomes, the more people begin to act. Although again, you never can be sure who is just acting and who is a fervent believer, and which is worse.) contradicts these concepts, stark images
There has been talk about whether The Circle should be taken as a satire, as something that elicits laughter, or as a sinister vision of a possible near future. For me, there’s no question. Stephen King has nothing on Dave Eggers. This is an exceptionally scary book, because so much in it that is supposedly exaggerated can be be found in our very own present. At the same time, and this is the great thing about great literature, it’s also an immensely thrilling and beautiful read.
PS: Since the release of the novel, Apple has launched ApplePay, a way to pay in stores using your phone or your watch, and AppleWatch, a watch that serves as a smartphone for your wrist and measures your health. Readers of the novel will see the joke in this.