Book review: The Circle by Dave Eggers
Hamish Hamilton, £18.99
THERE is a distinctly Orwellian aroma to Dave Eggers’ latest fiction. It edges towards a genuinely chilling dystopia, made all the more monstrous because it encourages the reader, in part at least, to identify with the utopian propensities that usher in a new form of digital totalitarianism. The eponymous Circle is a company – a kind of thinly veiled version of Google – which, through TruYou, a system which links all users’ email accounts, social networking profiles and banking and purchasing systems, has brought about a new era of internet civility. TruYou users don’t have to remember a dozen different passwords but in exchange they forgo anonymity. The trolls are put firmly back under the bridge. The protagonist of the fable-like book is Mae Holland, who gets a position in “Customer Experience” through the auspices of a college friend, Annie, a high-flyer in the Circle. Her first words, once the reader reaches the end of the novel, are ominous: “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven.”
At least at first there is a satirical edge. The Circle calls itself a campus, not an office, and its corridors are emblazoned with slogans like “Let’s Do This. Let’s Do All Of This” and “To Heal We Must Know. To Know We Must Share”. There are showings of Koyaanisqatsi, volleyball pitches and self-massage demonstrations. Each section of the campus is named after a historical period – Enlightenment, Renaissance, Machine Age. The Circle has a triumvirate at the top: Ty Gospodinov, the tech wizard, Tom Stenton, the entrepreneur, and Eamon Bailey, the inspirational guru. Mae is gradually acclimatised to the Circle’s peculiar working practices, where employees are encouraged to use social media – Eggers invents a sort of Twitter called Zing – and are judged on their “Participation Rank”. Only slowly does the reader realise that these behaviours are shifting towards being mandatory.
Mae becomes involved with a blue sky thinker called Francis, whose project involves GPS tracking embedded into the bones of children, and comes across some of the other, odder products – Stenton in particular is keen on developing a submersible to capture exotic lifeforms from the Marianas Trench. She also meets a strange, grey-haired employee called Kalden who seems to have ubiquitous access but no in-house profile (alert readers can probably guess Kalden’s identity fairly quickly).
We also learn more about Mae’s home life. Her father has multiple sclerosis; her mother struggles to cope and they are both fond of Mae’s ex, Mercer, who makes chandeliers from antlers and is deeply sceptical about the drift of the Circle. His concerns only deepen when the Circle announces some of its latest innovations: miniature cameras that make the world a Panopticon and which are euphemistically called SeeChange, with the motto “All That Happens Must Be Known”. Mae is encouraged to “become transparent”: everything she does and says is public. The mottos start to become deeply sinister – “Secrets Are Lies. Sharing Is Caring. Privacy Is Theft”.
In Book II of Plato’s Republic, he recounts a myth called the Ring of Gyges. The ring gave the wearer the power of invisibility, and Plato uses the conceit to discuss whether morality is socially constructed: is the fear of being found out at the heart of the decision to behave ethically? Eggers gives an inversion of this in the Circle. Central to the beliefs of the company is the idea that perpetual observation leads to moral improvement. The transparents wish to become almost godlike in their omniscience.
There is a parable-like quality to the novel. Its anxieties about the information age, the erosion of privacy and the drift towards the compulsory are handled with more subtlety than the recent jeremiads of Jonathan Franzen on the same subjects. In part, this is because Eggers gives us genuinely optimistic, utopian characters – who would argue with anything that saved the life of a child from a paedophile, he asks.
The style is crisp and limpid. There are moments of poetic reverie and astute psychological sketches such as “she threw herself into the kissing, making it mean lust, and friendship, and the possibility of love, and kissed him while thinking of his face, wondering if his eyes were open, if he cared about the passersby who clucked or who hooted but who still passed by”.
Although the concerns of the novel are signalled fairly blatantly, Eggers still manages to pull some surprises. The ending is truly shocking. The Circle is intelligent and quirky, engaged and affecting and confirms Eggers’ place as one of the most interesting novelists currently writing.