Last Updated September 5, 2023.
David Eggers' The Circle is a 2013 dystopian novel, which follows a young and sharp young girl, Mae Holland, as she undertakes her first job out of college with the large technology company, The Circle. The Circle provides impressive amenities for its employees, but insists on high performance and an unwavering dedication to company ethos and a high degree of participation in social activities outside of work.
Mae feels grateful to have landed this job as a result of her friendship with a company executive, Annie, who was Mae's college roommate. At first, Mae performs very well at her job (and feels a heightened amount of pressure, owing to her personal friendship with Annie, who is responsible for Annie's position at The Circle).
When Mae visits her parents, who live a couple of hours away from company headquarters, she encounters her college boyfriend, Mercer, who openly distrusts the "Big Brother" culture promoted by The Circle. At first with good intentions, but later in open defiance of Mercer, Mae posts photos of his hand-made lamps on her social media account, with a view to bringing attention to his business. Mercer is irate, and avoids Mae. Eventually, Mercer dies running away from The Circle's surveillance cameras, allowing the public to witness his death.
In order to prove her allegiance to the company, Mae agrees to participate in the program called SeeChange, spearheaded by The Circle. This program involves Mae wearing a camera on her person, with the result that the public can see all details of her life (including interpersonal relationships, as well as what she eats and drinks). Mae has a liaison with the mysterious Kalden (an attractive but inscrutable company employee) as well as with her colleague, Francis.
The company is simultaneously piloting a program called PastPerfect, which allows the public to witness the family past of its participants. Annie agrees to participate--a decision which reveals the jarring nature extent of her family's transgressions (of which Annie herself was previously unaware).
The novel ends rather abruptly and ambiguously, with a revelation concerning Mae's love interest, Kalden; a defeated Mercer driving himself off a bridge in public view (afforded by The Circle's camera system), as well as Annie in a coma, distressed by her knowledge of her family secrets. At the novel's close, Mae seems to intend to continue working in service of The Circle.
Author: Dave Eggers (b. 1970)
Publisher: Alfred K. Knopf (New York). 504 pp.
Type of work: Novel
Time: Near future
Promising recent college graduate Mae Holland begins work at the Circle, a large social media company. She rises quickly but at a terrifying cost.
George Orwell's influential cautionary tale Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) warned of a world controlled by an overtly hostile government that he referred to as "Big Brother." In The Circle, Dave Eggers warns of a world controlled by a seemingly benevolent but powerful social media company based in California. Eggers offers his readers a glimpse into the inner world of the Circle, the largest and most influential social media company in a near but undefined future. The Circle has subsumed Google, Facebook, and Twitter, controlling 90 percent of all information searches on the web. Almost every web user worldwide has an individual, all-inclusive Circle account. The logo of the Circle is a giant C surrounded by intertwining, elongated loops. Readers are made aware that the company endeavors to make the C complete—that is, to "close the circle."
The story opens with Maebelline Holland, known as Mae, beginning her career at the Circle in Customer Experience, or CE....
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Her old college friend Annie, a privileged, enterprising person who is already established at the Circle, helps Mae land this coveted position at the most influential and most glamorous company in the world. Mae is ecstatic to be getting out of her uneventful job in her small town. She believes that working at the Circle will help her to realize her full potential, and she is giddy and nervous as she starts her first day. Her anxiety heightens as she wanders through the glorious campus. It is equipped with gymnasiums, cafeterias, entertainment centers, health clinics, and dorms. The company's employees never have to leave. Mae is put at ease after meeting her colleagues and supervisors, as they are so in awe of Annie that they revere her too. Mae preens, especially when Annie takes her to her first on-campus party, complete with top-ranked food and entertainment, and she meets and charms two very different men, Francis and Kalden.
Mae breaks the newbie record for CE satisfaction rate, begins training other new employees in her second week, and watches her success frequently "zinged" across the company by Annie to wild applause. Mae also begins to understand how very interconnected everything is at the Circle, as she inadvertently causes offense by not attending a Portugal-themed interest party, despite having pictures from a Portugal vacation years earlier posted on her Circle account. In response, Mae begins a calculated, almost neurotic, effort to improve her PartiRank, that is, her aggregate score based on her participation in the social media of the company. Soon Mae's work and participation soars, and her status within the company begins to rise.
Dave Eggers is a critically acclaimed writer, editor, and publisher. He is best known for A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (2000), What Is the What: An Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deno (2006), and Zeitoun (2009).
Amid the rigors of her new job and its extracurricular demands, Mae faces family troubles. Her father suffers from multiple sclerosis, causing her mother to strain under the demands of constant caretaking and insurance-related hassles. Mae's visits home conflict with her PartiRank responsibilities. In order to maintain her rising status, she needs to see and be seen—to zing and post—at company social events. An added stress of returning home is her former boyfriend from high school, Mercer, who is still a good family friend. Mae is forced to confront his antagonism toward social media and open information. Despite Mae's best efforts to help Mercer harness the powers of the Internet to promote his antler chandelier business, he grows more and more irritated with Mae—particularly her refusal to have dinner without her phone. Nevertheless, Mae stays the course. She feels a sense of vindication after putting her parents on her Circle health insurance, providing her father with top-notch care and saving her mother anxiety.
Mae does not have much time or energy to spend on activities outside of her work and family duties, but she does take some unshared respite through kayaking and the attentions of Francis and Kalden. Mae finds her ability to intoxicate Francis empowering. She is pleased to find he has developed a groundbreaking computer program to keep children perfectly safe through an elaborate tracking system. She is perturbed, however, by his need to record and share their encounters. Kalden—a mysterious stranger she cannot locate through Circle accounts—takes Mae deep into the Circle's top-secret information storage centers, where he seduces her in an alcove. Annie grows worried about Kalden's secrecy and wonders if he is a corporate spy. Nonetheless, Mae finds herself infatuated. Despite the Circle's commitment to openness and transparency, she begins lying to Annie about her relationship with him.
Ultimately—and oddly—it is Mae's fondness for kayaking that provides the turning point in the story. Weighed down by job-related stress, her family, and Mercer, Mae finds a kayak belonging to the rental store she uses left on the beach late at night and paddles out to a far island. Disconnected from the world of her daily life, Mae experiences an ecstasy drawn from adventure, beauty, and delight. However, her illicit trip is captured by the Circle security cameras. Although the kayak storeowner, an old friend, covers for Mae, the Circle's Three Wise Men—the company's three founders—sense an opportunity. Mae is called into the office of Wise Man Eamon Bailey for a surprising conversation.
Eggers's novel is a page-turner. Most readers will be intrigued by the book's plot, set in an enticingly not-so-distant future. Those who are familiar with the inner workings of technology and technology companies will be frustrated by the lack of technical detail in The Circle. As Mae wanders the campus, she never encounters engineers or technology designers, and the book's only nod to technological knowledge is the information storage facility, which is described in general terms. However, by leaving out technical details, Eggers may be commenting on how people receive and use technology without understanding, questioning, or noticing how it came to be.
The Circle delivers a crucial message, although it is at times a heavy-handed one. Some characters, such as Mercer and Kalden, seem to be included solely to deliver Eggers's musing on technology. Some of the book's metaphors are too obvious—particularly a section involving a deep-sea shark who devours his fellow tank-mates. Eggers is very skilled at constructing interesting stories, but he violates the old writing maxim "show, don't tell" to the book's deficit.
Like Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Eggers's work is timely. Mae is an effective everywoman, a believable product of twenty-first-century American society. She is an identifiable and recognizable character who is both talented and ambitious. As readers enter the world of the Circle with her, they can easily place themselves at her desk, at the Circle parties, and with her parents. However, while Mae is a believable character, she is not always a compelling protagonist. When Orwell's Winston Smith finally succumbs to Big Brother, his downfall is devastating because he has striven for more and risked everything to free himself. Mae never rises above prosaic dupe. She may be confused and uncertain of how to play the game at first, but she is always eager and never questioning, undaunted by explicit warnings from Mercer, Kalden, and Annie and implicit warnings from her parents. To inspire real pathos, a tragedy requires a downfall, but Mae maintains her footing.
It is likely that Mae's benign acquiescence, as well as the Circle's eerie but benevolent presence, is intentional. Orwell's Big Brother is, when necessary, intentionally cruel and deceitful. Yet even the Three Wise Men of the Circle seem to believe in their own purity. Perhaps Eggers is arguing that humanity's fate will be sealed not by manipulation and force but by manipulation alone. Eggers may be suggesting that in the face of omnipresent technological forces, humankind is weaker than Orwell perceived.
- Atwood, Margaret. "When Privacy Is Theft." Rev. of The Circle, by Dave Eggers. New York Review of Books. NYREV, 21 Nov. 2013. Web. 9 Jan. 2014.
- Charles, Ron. "Dave Eggers's 'The Circle' Is a Relentless Broadside against Social Media Overload." Washington Post. Washington Post, 1 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.
- Kakutani, Michiko. "Inside the World of Big Data." Rev. of The Circle, by Dave Eggers. New York Times. New York Times, 3 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.
- Kellogg, Carolyn. "Trapped in the Web with Dave Eggers' 'The Circle.'" Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 3 Oct. 2013. Web. 12 Jan. 2014.