Your Life is an Open Book

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Mae is a nice, intelligent California girl who is disappointed with her place in life when her friendship with an older, world-beating BFF nets her a job at The Circle: the internet mega-company that happens when Google eats Facebook and Twitter and Apple and who knows what else in the near future. Dave Eggers’s new novel takes us along with Mae, who acts as our surrogate newcomer to the Circle world and its many implications, although as the story goes on she becomes assimilated and loyal to the ideals of the Circle in a way we are clearly meant to feel uneasy about.

Enough of her smart, slightly rebellious, insecure twentysomething girl-dom remains that we always feel on her side – but she drinks enough of the Kool-Aid to highlight how social media, in this story’s world, has gone somewhat awfully wrong.

There’s a lot going on in this novel, most of it commentary on contemporary themes of privacy, technology, sociability, and the customs and future of our 20-something generation (and the world we’re taking charge of), but it’s presented in a very straightforward style. There’s none of the major meta-introspection of Eggers’s Heartbreaking Work, nor the gentle, aware simplicity of his What is the What, nor the random irreverent humor of his short stories and his framing of McSweeney’s.

I can’t help but wonder what kind of magic would have emerged if this story was told with one of those things. But the prose here is here to do a job: tell a story and convey a message, and it can hardly be faulted for that – the telling is tight and mostly paced well, if a bit bereft of depth and sparkle.

One of the criticisms that has made the biggest splash about The Circle’s message is that Eggers is preaching to the choir, reinforcing people who have already decided that social media is infringing on our privacy and autonomy, and that our world would be better without it. I can tell you that isn’t true. I haven’t made up my mind about those things at all. In fact, these are issues I’m thinking about very hard and trying to decide where I’m at with, and this book added valuably to the conversation in my head both when I agreed and disagreed with its implicit ideas.

Rather than invoke similarities to 1984 the way so many other reviewers have, I’m going to go the other way and tell you how this story is not like 1984. So many people forget that Orwell’s novel was not about constant surveillance but about constant surveillance and dishonest revisionism by a small group of world-controlling dictators whose entire goal was to prevent all the people beneath them from rising up and overthrowing them. 1984 was always an indictment of the ruling class, politically.

The Circle, by contrast, is not about an evil 1% exploiting the 99%; it’s about us: the 100% all happily exploiting each other, not to mention ourselves. There is a cabal, but they are providing us what we want – it’s our decisions bringing the future about. The preemptive issue at hand today is not a totalitarian oligarchy, but a collective public that is just too public.

We all kind of suspect what this kind of world is doing to us. Eggers puts it out there, in parable form:

  • Social anxiety born from constant connectivity and the over-interpretation that over-communication can breed
  • A lack of motivation for personal experience
  • The illusions of “armchair activism”
    (There is a particularly salient moment when Mae is about to click a little button online that denounces Central American guerrilla rapists and murderers, and then marvels at her bravery for making such a proud stand against powerful enemies – by clicking the little button on her screen – that was so effective as satire I consider it a cheap shot.)
  • The loss of value in the personal, private experience when everything is broadcast

– all of these realities are knowingly addressed.

I don’t believe in the term “Must-Read,” which is as meaningless as the empty, ubiquitous praise on social networking sites, and furthermore this novel doesn’t ascend to a height of writing beauty the way Eggers’s other works sometimes do. A parable’s emotional effect is limited, and while the characters are certainly not one-dimensional they don’t have the unpredictable, dangerous something to be what I’d term three-dimensional: Mae is somehow too much what you’d expect from the smart, quirky, self-doubting, horny-but-never-gotten-in-trouble Millennial. (Also the sex scenes are awkward, and not just intentionally.)

The reason the phrase Must-Read even came to the periphery of my head, though, is because it will be easier, in the future now, to talk about these themes and ideas with people who have read this book. It covers so much ground, and such important ground, that it will be productive to pick up the conversation from here, rather than re-hash and explain themes this story has already run through when we talk about these things. So should you pull yourself away from both commenting on internet posts and doing real things in the real world long enough to read The Circle? Yes.

Note: No one ever pays me anything to review or link to any books.

Footnote: Why no High Five Quotes this time? The nature of the novel is that when characters speechify, they are basically handing you the themes and implicit arguments of the message, which don’t lend themselves well to meaningful quotes. It’s more valuable to have a conversation about those things than cite quotes. But thanks for asking – you must like the way I do things, and that means I like you.

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