by Dave Eggers
491 pp. Alfred A. Knopf/McSweeney’s Books. $27.95
Mae Holland, a woman in her 20s, arrives for her first day of work at a company called the Circle. She marvels at the beautiful campus, the fountain, the tennis and volleyball courts, the squeals of children from the day care center “weaving like water.” The first line in the book is: “ ‘My God,’ Mae thought. ‘It’s heaven.’ ”
And so we know that the Circle in Dave Eggers’s new novel, “The Circle,” will be a hell.
The time is somewhere in the not-too-distant future — the Three Wise Men who own and rule the Circle are recognizable as individuals living today. The company demands transparency in all things; two of its many slogans are SECRETS ARE LIES and PRIVACY IS THEFT. Anonymity is banished; everyone’s past is revealed; everyone’s present may be broadcast live in video and sound. Nothing recorded will ever be erased. The Circle’s goal is to have all aspects of human existence — from voting to love affairs — flow through its portal, the sole such portal in the world.
This potential dystopia should sound familiar. Books and tweets and blogs are already debating the issues Eggers raises: the tyranny of transparency, personhood defined as perpetual presence in social networks, our strange drive to display ourselves, the voracious information appetites of Google and Facebook, our lives under the constant surveillance of our own government.
“The Circle” adds little of substance to the debate. Eggers reframes the discussion as a fable, a tale meant to be instructive. His instructors include a Gang of 40, a Transparent Man, a shadowy figure who may be a hero or a villain, a Wise Man with a secret chamber and a smiling legion of true-believing company employees. The novel has the flavor of a comic book: light, entertaining, undemanding.
Readers who enter the Circle’s potential Inferno do not have the benefit of Virgil, Dante’s guide through hell and purgatory, but they do have Mae, a naïve girl with the sensibility of a compulsive iPhone FaceTime chatterer. (Oddly, Mae does not lead us through the ranks of programmers — let alone offer a glimpse of a woman programmer — a strange omission in a book purporting to be about technology.)
Mae has been introduced to the Circle by her friend and former roommate Annie, who is close to the Three Wise Men. She begins work in lowly Customer Experience, providing boilerplate answers to client questions and complaints. Her performance is tabulated after every interaction, her ratings displayed for all to see.
Mae is an eager competitor, earning a record score on her first day. Soon she is a champion Circler, moving ever closer to the company’s inner rings. Eventually she becomes as transparent as a person can be within the realm of the Circle: wired for the broadcasting of her every waking move. In the bathroom, for instance, she can turn off the audio, but the camera stays on, focused on the back of the stall door. (If she is silent for too long, her followers send urgent messages asking if she is O.K.)
At each advance into “participation” (or descent into hell, as the case may be), Mae is a tail-wagging puppy waiting for the next reward: a better rating, millions of viewers. Far from resisting, she finds each new electronic demand “delicious” and “exhilarating.” Now and then, she briefly feels a black “tear” opening inside her, but the feeling comes at improbable moments and in such overheated prose as to parody emotion: “a scream muffled by fathomless waters, that high-pitched scream of a million drowned voices.”
Can anything prevent Mae’s fall into the depths of the Circle? Enter the mysterious Kalden. While everyone else lives in the clear light of transparency, Kalden emerges from the shadows. Everyone working at the Circle can be located, but Kalden’s name appears nowhere; Mae experiences his invisibility as “aggressive.” Everyone inside the Circle is young and healthy; the outside is for the old and ill. And here is Kalden, who has gray hair yet looks young. The symbolism — is he a vibrant Circler or an old man from the dark outside? — is all too obvious.
At their second meeting, Mae follows Kalden down long corridors, through underground tunnels, down and down and down. What she sees in this netherworld is a metallic red box the size of a bus, wrapped in tentacles of “gleaming silver pipes.” Kalden tells her it stores the experiences of the Transparent Man, who for five years has recorded everything he has seen and heard. Kalden makes some excuse for the box’s huge size, but his technical explanation is ridiculous. There just happens to be a mattress in an alcove, where Mae and Kalden have sex — she thrills as he breathes “fire into her ear.” Later Kalden will say the Circle is in fact a “totalitarian nightmare,” as if a reader did not know this from the start.
Like Kalden, alas, Eggers tends to overexplain. An example of what might have been a fine scene: Mae is with her ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who makes chandeliers out of deer antlers. (Eggers has not been kind to Mercer in giving him this occupation.) Mae takes out her digital device and, without Mercer’s asking, starts reciting negative online reviews of his work. He begs her to stop. But Mae reads another: “All those poor deer antlers died for this?” The scene, having established Mae’s casual cruelty, should have ended there. Instead it continues for five more pages, during which Mae and Mercer debate the effects of social media. The words “author’s message” flash above the scene, as they do above too many others.
Do we even care about Mae? What remains of her life outside the Circle — Mercer, her family, her father’s multiple sclerosis — she relentlessly (and blithely) draws inside the power ring of the company, to disastrous and tragic effect. And finally Annie, the onetime friend who drew her into the Circle: Mae wants to triumph over her and push her out, again to disastrous effect. A sense of horror finally arrives near the end of the book, coming not through Mae’s eyes but through the power of Eggers’s writing, which we have been waiting for all along. The final scene is chilling.
Mae, then, is not a victim but a dull villain. Her motivations are teenage-Internet petty: getting the highest ratings, moving into the center of the Circle, being popular. She presents a plan that will enclose the world within the Circle’s reach, but she exhibits no complex desire for power, only a longing for the approval of the Wise Men. She is more a high school mean girl than an evil opponent. Perhaps this is what Eggers wants to say: that evil in the future will look more like the trivial Mae than it will the hovering dark eye of Big Brother. If so, he should have worked much harder to express this profound thought. The characters need substance; Mae must be more than a cartoon.
There is an early scene in which Mae could have become a rounded character, one we might worry about. It is her first day on the job. All information on her digital devices has been transferred to the Circle’s system. During the introductory formalities, she is asked if she would like to hand over her old laptop for responsible recycling. But Mae hesitates. “Maybe tomorrow,” she says. “I want to say goodbye.”
If there was ever a need for a pause in the narrative, it is after that “goodbye.” In the opening of a white space, we might imagine Mae’s feelings as she holds the device containing her private experiences. We might linger over what it means to surrender — voluntarily, even eagerly — the last shreds of one’s personal life.