I blame my book club. No—actually, I AM grateful for my book club; because of them, I am forced to pick up books that I would never in a million years read on my own (so I guess they are technically to blame). And sometimes I enjoy them, which is an unexpected delight. I did not, however, enjoy THE CIRCLE. I didn't hate it—although I hated parts of it—but it was inherently readable (albeit pretentious). My feelings towards THE CIRCLE are more complex than that, and as of this paragraph, I really have no idea what I'm going to rate the book. (You'll find out when I do—at the end of this review.)
THE CIRCLE is a cross between STEPFORD WIVES, THE FIRM, and 1984. It plops a naive twenty-four-year-old post-college grad into this UBER corporation that's a monstrous blend of Google, Twitter, Amazon, and Facebook, and it seems like the answer to all of life's unpleasant foibles. The only cost is your privacy. But you know what they say about things that are too good to be true...
Recently, I just got a new phone with INTERNET! I've never had a phone with 4G before. Until my junior year of college, I had one of those flip-phones that's built like a little tank, and then I had a sliding phone that was also built like a tank (it survived a 2 1/2 story fall—don't ask). Anyway, new phone. I really needed a phone with internet because I am constantly getting messages and comments from readers, so it's nice to be able to field business-related questions when I'm out (and I'm often out). When I started adding apps, I was really surprised by how invasive some were: demanding access to my location, my camera and microphone, my full name, etc. It's like, okay, really? You need to know where I am AT ALL TIMES in order to let me post status updates? CREEPY EX-BOYFRIEND, MUCH? THE CIRCLE takes that a step further, creating a system that promises efficiency and connectivity—at the cost of NO PRIVACY WHATSOEVER. Nothing gets deleted, everything is seen.
I like the concept a lot and I think that if this book had been written by a different author, or if Eggers had fallen out of love with his own writing long enough to actually flesh out the characters he'd created, this could have been a very good book. As it stands now, THE CIRCLE has a lot of problems, the chief one being Mae. It is obvious from the way that she is written that we are supposed to find her likable (except maybe in the last third of the book—at least, I hope not); but I found her to be anything but: she was stupid and selfish, and didn't have much in the way of personality. I'll go into more detail on this later, but for now I am just going to touch briefly on some of her actions that really upset me. The way she treats her sick father is pretty repulsive: he asks her to leave when he soils himself during a stroke because he doesn't want her to see him in his sorry state and Mae promptly throws a major bitch fit about how unappreciated she is—yeah, no. She gets into this weird love triangle with two highly unsavory men (at least, I found them unsavory): one of them sneaks around and sleeps in a cave and may or may not be a corporate spy. The other is a needy, slimy scumbag who videos her giving him a handjob (without her permission, obvs); he then proceeds to upload the video to their work place's cloud storage for posterity—because information is valuable! And must be shared! Mae complains to her friend-slash-boss, Annie, who tells Mae that the Circle has a no delete policy when it comes to information because it is valuable! And must be shared! And Mae just accepts this, shrugs it off, and continues her carousing with the schmuck. Mae's behavior in the last third of the book were a total dealbreaker. By this time, I not only DIDN'T identify her as a woman, I couldn't identify with her as a human BEING, either. It was as if Eggers had reduced her to a sociopathic stereotype, a vessel with which he would carry out his shocking (i.e. Fizzled-out) ending. It was like a bad episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
And speaking of bad, check out some of these sex scenes:
She backed away, looking at him, at his shirt hiked up, his crotch exposed. She could think only of a campfire, one small log, all of it doused in milk (204).
"We consummated" (227).
He lay beneath her for a minute or two, letting Mae rise and fall, looking up at her with the wonderment of a boy at the zoo. Then his eyes closed, and he went into paroxysms, emitting a brief squeal before grunting his arrival (383)
Another thing that bothered me about THE CIRCLE is that it reads like a thinly-veiled grievance being aired at length, soapbox-style. Various characters (Kalder, Mercer) pop in to condemn various facets of social media and those who use it, through the use of tired arguments:
-if people were forced to use their real names on message boards, there would be no arguments or negativity
Overnight, all comment boards became civil, all posters held accountable. The trolls, who had more or less overtaken the internet, were driven back into the darkness (22).
-reviewers and social media bloggers aren't contributing any information of value; also they're dorks (yes, they are actually referred to as dorks)
"It's people talking about each other behind their backs. That's the vast majority of this social media, all these reviews, all these comments. Your tools have elevated gossip, hearsay, and conjecture to the level of valid, mainstream communication. And besides that, it's fucking dorky" (133)
Even more annoying is the fact that Mae never has any real argument for this. Whenever Mercer gets up on his soap box, she usually responds by calling him "fat" or "the Sasquatch," or bandying about that helpful catch-all term, "Fuck you." The weight- and appearance-shaming bend really upset me, because (a) it didn't raise any good debate in this book--to make THE CIRCLE really convincing, I feel like the main character should have experienced some conflict, way more than she actually did, because change is scary, and (b) it underscored my suspicions that this book was actually Eggers speaking out to his critics, against his critics, reducing them to straw men.
-people only post reviews/commentary to stir shit up; they are not valid opinions
"No once's forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic" (262)
-social media users are needy and neurotic, and quick to take offense; all they do is nag and try to ingratiate themselves and then get hurt feelings; they are pathetic and deserve to be mocked
"You comment on things, and that substitutes for doing them" (262).
Here, I couldn't help but be reminded of one of the fallback responses of authors when they criticize their reviewers: if you didn't like the book, why don't you try writing one?
-and so on
I couldn't help but feel that Eggers was condemning his own critics through this book. THE CIRCLE had a very condescending, sanctimonious, embittered feel to it that made it very abrasive and unpleasant to read.
Eggers also takes great pains to show us how great Mae is...at everything. She shoots to the top of the company instantly; she's great at lying passively while the men have sex with her; she has a perfect figure. In short, Mae falls into what I call “the female character fallacy”: you can't have a female character without somehow rationalizing her presence; she can't be an ordinary human being, no, she has to be extraordinary to be of note. Mae never seemed like an ordinary human being, like someone I could relate with. She seemed utterly devoid of personality, and so did the other characters in the book. They were just puppets that danced to Eggers's strings, cavorting about in this purple-prosed mess that read like an intellectual circle jerk (sorry—but obvious pun). In fact, that's what this book SHOULD be called: THE CIRCLE JERK.
Because there is nothing really to make this book stand out among others of its genre, apart from the novelty of its premise. It is poorly executed, poorly written, and has a vague ending that doesn't really give a conclusion or a concrete message. So what, is Eggers saying that our technology is driving us into a downward spiral from which there is no escape? How depressing is that? But that would assume that he CARED enough to actually have this book contain a message, and it didn't: “part three” was a mere four pages or so, rushed and vague, that raises more questions than it answered. It was like a big 'fuck you' to the reader—assuming you made it through all 508 pages. All that build up and no conclusion? Are you for cereal? Part of what made THE FIRM and STEPFORD WIVES so scary was because the possibilities they offered seemed so great on the surface. The Circle starts out interesting and maybe a little intriguing, but quickly devolves into a portrait of unrealistic evil that was so hilariously take-over-the-world-y that it was hard to take the book seriously. The totalitarian grip of information technology on our society is so ingrained that you don't need to tweak much to make our reliance on it terrifying.