There’s a fine line between a dystopia and a utopia. Unfortunately, Dave Eggers chose to draw his line with an extra-thick marker.
I’m talking about his fifth novel (fifth or so—but who’s counting?), The Circle. The story focuses on the culture and growth of Google—excuse me, a fictional company called The Circle. It’s only a coincidental that the corporate culture and goals so closely resemble Google, with a little Apple and Facebook thrown in. It’s a highly derivative work, clearly based on Brave New World and 1984 and even We.
A brief digression is probably in order here. You don’t know We—right?—and I wouldn’t have known it either, were it not for a fortuitous event when I was in college. At the Quincy House Science Fiction Society we all read a selected book before each monthly meeting (like a book club, but with the usual genders reversed), and for one meeting the selection was the 1924 Russian novel We—which, we learned, had been the inspiration for both Brave New World and 1984. We is—I’m so tempted to type We are…—well worth your reading, specifically because of its role in inspiring those two dystopias and more generally because of its importance in the history of literature.
Anyway, more about dystopias later. Let me first tell you about The Circle, without spoilers. It takes place in the very near future, basically indistinguishable from the present, right after the fictional California-based company of the same name has hired Mae Holland, destined to become the protagonist of the novel. You know those horror films where you keep shouting at the screen? Where you say “Don’t do that!” and the (usually) female protagonist does it anyway? Well, that’s what this story is like. The well-educated and presumably sensible Mae (always known by her first name, BTW) keeps doing the wrong thing, mostly because of her incessant desire to be liked by everyone. When her peers rate her at 97%, she is devastated because it means 3% of them don’t like her work, which in her mind devolves into not liking her, which her mind then turns into “3% of my peers want to see me dead” and so forth. Having a young woman in a prominent tech role is great—but then to make her so weak and malleable…come on now! In the words of one anonymous (and surely female) reviewer on Goodreads:
the most unlikable, unrelatable, unsympathetic character ever…. The fact that she never, not even once questioned anything, it was absolutely mind-boggling…. there was absolutely no character growth in her throughout the entire book, if anything there was character regression.
For better or for worse, the story doesn’t feel like science fiction. The beginning of the book is totally realistic, and then it gradually becomes less and less so. Fine—it’s fiction, after all—but Eggers doesn’t manage to create the willing suspension of disbelief that is required for effective fiction. Mae ends up with nine screens on her desk, and answers tens of thousands of customer queries in a couple of hours! Of course a dystopia has to be satire, and a good satire has to exaggerate, but the reader still needs to believe in it while immersed in the book. That doesn’t happen here. There’s also no character development: nobody changes, except for one shadowy character—but I can’t tell you about that person, or it would be a spoiler.
There are certainly some attractive aspects to working at The Circle: beautiful “campus,” delicious free food, lots of activities, ostensible concern for employees’ welfare, great benefits, etc. But it becomes more and more horrifying as you proceed through the book, as it should in any good dystopia. The problem is just that Eggers hits you over the head with the aforementioned extra-thick marker, in metaphors even worse than this one, such as the also-aforementioned nine monitors on one desk!
Returning to the subject of dystopias, we could explore comparisons with others that I’ve read, such as Animal Farm, A Clockwork Orange, Children of Men, The Giver, The Dispossessed, Ready Player One, or Station Eleven, but that would make this already-too-long post intolerably long. Maybe another time.
I can’t conclude without mentioning some of The Circle’s slogans and mottoes. Like the real Google’s slogan,
“Don’t be evil”
—which their real-life employees forced them to abandon in 2018, five years after the publication of The Circle—we have slogans and mottoes for The Circle:
“Sharing is caring.”
“Secrets are lies.”
“Privacy is theft.”
Sounds like the Newspeakification of Google, no?
Needless to say, I am not going to see the movie that was made of this book, even though it stars Emma Watson and Tom Hanks, and I am not going to read the sequel, The Every. So you may wonder why I started reading The Circle in the first place; it was just that my friend and colleague Leah found it both captivating and disturbing, enough that she wanted me to read it so that we could discuss it. And yes, it was both captivating and disturbing. Another colleague asked why I finished reading it, and I said that I liked the beginning and at least found the rest interesting enough to want to finish. Or maybe it was just momentum.