The Circle is Dave Eggers’ fifth novel, and charts the story of Mae Holland, an able but unexceptional college graduate, plucked from small town existence by Annie, her (ruthless and exceptional) former roommate. Annie holds a highflying post with ‘The Circle’, a Palo Alto search and social media company well on its way to global monopoly. There are two main threads to the plot: Mae’s journey from a lowly desk job to chief ideologue (and real-time POV human camera) for the Circle, and the company’s journey towards what is ominously called ‘completion’ (the point where monopoly is secured, when full-scale social engineering can commence). The book reads as a thriller: What kinds of characters will Mae encounter as she is drawn deeper into the morally questionable centre of the Circle? What kinds of cognitive dissonance will they provoke, and how far will they take her from her former life? And, will she use any of her powers to try to stop ‘completion’?
The Circle does not set out to be a flamboyant, experimental, or complex book – not by the standards of Eggers’ previous work (Hologram for the King, for example), and certainly not by those of other celebrated American writers of his generation (most obviously, David Foster Wallace). Instead of making his novel complex to mirror the presupposed complexity of issues surrounding our ‘digital age’, Eggers has written a page-turner that exemplifies fairly classic strengths of the novel: nicely delivered plot twists and the capacity to view the action from Mae’s perspective. Instead of going all John Barth or Thomas Pynchon on us, he has produced a linear thriller focused on Mae’s moral quandaries.
The paradox is that, today, this is arguably the riskier strategy: Jonathan Franzen tried something similar in Freedom, and while that book didn’t take the digital age as an explicit theme, it did feel like a clunky attempt to validate the form of the novel for the digital age. With The Circle, Eggers runs different risks – throughout, one has the impression he is basing his remarks on the Circle’s technology more on the kind of nightmarish hearsay populating the contemporary imagination than on thoroughgoing research into what it is that big tech companies do. That said, it would be a mistake to see this as a weakness per se; rather, Eggers seems to have self-consciously undertaken it as a strategy.
Academics and techies have a shared tendency to get highly specialised and territorial when discussing the contemporary Internet. Against this, Eggers has chosen to paint with broad brush strokes. When he describes the Circle’s development of ‘TruYouth’ (a programme to implant tagging chips in children), or ‘Demoxie’ (an initiative to make Circle products mandatory conditions of citizenship), what counts is not whether these are real technological possibilities, but rather that they are patently imaginary ones, and, by grappling with them, Eggers is doing something the specialists all too often do not: exorcising the popular imagination of its fears, and making available a space for reflection on what it is to live ethically in an age capable of provoking them.
The case could be made that Eggers takes this too far; throughout, one has the sense that Mae is constructed to target an audience of ‘digital natives’ (16-24 year olds, say). If so, Eggers runs the risk of appearing either patronising or didactic, or, indeed, irrelevant, since such ‘natives’ tend to be among the most literate in the pitfalls and potentials of contemporary life online. Ungenerous critics will see The Circle as too straightforward an intervention into its core issues; that, however, is too straightforward a criticism. It ignores the fact that this is a well-written attempt to detect some kind of signal in all the noise of contemporary life, and ignores the fact that, in wading into these issues, Eggers has chosen his weapons carefully.