Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Review: The Circle

Dave Eggers's newest book, The Circle, takes place in the near future, at the moment when society is on the brink of a particularly insidious dystopia. The story feels timely, imagining where our reliance on social media might lead if we're not careful. 

I've been a fan of Eggers work for a few years - like everyone else, I embraced A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius when it was first published, I've spent many mornings guffawing at McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and I love everything 826 National has accomplished. Despite all those things, I decided to read this book for two unrelated reasons. The first is that I'm teaching a class next semester loosely based on dystopian literature, and this seemed like a good warm up. The second is that a blogger I occasionally read was hosting a discussion via Facebook for The Circle, and a virtual book club seemed too ironic to turn down. I actually ended up co-hosting the book club, which meant I submitted a few questions for discussion. I'll include some of those within the post. 

A dystopia is defined broadly as "an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one." (Thanks, Google.) At first glace, the world in The Circle doesn't appear dystopian - in fact, it seems kind of nice. The main character, Mae, gets a job at the Circle, the most powerful Internet company in the world. She starts out in Customer Experience, answering questions from users, but as the book progresses she rises in the company's ranks, becoming more and more enmeshed in the world the Circle is creating. And the Circle is indeed creating a world - the company exists on a campus, where employees are encouraged to eat, socialize after hours, and even sleep in one of the luxury apartments available for borrowing, rent free. The Circle itself is a sort of mysterious company, one whose purpose is not exactly clear. Its goals are to connect users, which seems innocuous enough. But the ways in which it accomplishes this become more sinister as the book progresses. 

What I most liked about the book were the ideas. The story is told from the point of view of Mae, and the way she embraces and rationalizes the Circle is especially chilling. One of the big issues is the idea of privacy, and I was eager to discuss this idea the book club. Why is privacy important? What purpose does it serve in our lives? Why do we crave it? Why are we willing to give so much of it away? What do we gain by living more public lives? What do we lose? Without giving too much away, I will say that in The Circle, the reader is able to see the consequences of giving up our private lives, even when Mae doesn't. 

Which brings me to the thing I disliked most about the book. The characters, Mae in particular, seem flat and one-dimensional. At times, they feel like mouthpieces, each representing a different philosophy, each created to serve the ideas of book, rather than existing in and reacting to the world around them. One thing I stress to my fiction students is that a character should change over the course of a story. While Mae changes quite a bit, she never struggles with her decisions, never questions the Circle, never doubts whether she's making the right choice. Some inner turmoil would make her a more interesting character, even if she ends up in the exact same place.

Despite these issues, I enjoyed The Circle. It made me rethink my social media use, inspired me to step away from my computer, and gave me pause when downloading anything that required access to my account. If you're a fan of either the Internet, or dystopian landscapes, it's definitely worth a read. 

Have you read The Circle? Want to take a stab at the privacy questions either way? As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.