Creepy. Unsettling. Disturbingly possible. Set on the California campus of a Google-esque company called The Circle, this eponymous novel examines how far we, as a society, would be willing to go in the pursuit of knowledge. Privacy versus transparency, free will versus collective wisdom — this book raises some interesting questions. I found the premise to be truly intriguing, but somehow, it didn’t quite measure up to my expectations. Dystopian novels the like of Huxley’s A Brave New World or Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are among my favorites, so I was completely poised to love The Circle. Where did it fall short, then? Why did I come away with a love/hate relationship for what promised to be a fascinating and relevant novel?
The plot was somewhat predictable, but utterly unique in the way it unfolded. I read it with a sort of morbid fascination, wondering about the possibility of such transformations in our own not-so-distant future. The feelings of unease it elicited stayed with me long after finishing the book, so the concept cannot be to blame for my disappointment. No, I think my primary complaints lie in the thin fabrication of the protagonist Mae Holland herself and of her personal relationships.
Mae Holland is treading water at a dead-end job in the local utilities office, when former college roommate (and Circle insider) Annie pulls some strings and lands Mae a coveted position at The Circle. After a rocky start, Mae becomes acclimated to the expectations of The Circle community and fully embraces the company’s Utopian vision for the future. Embarking on a trajectory of ever-increasing success and influence, Mae is faced with a series of decisions that would cause the average person to take pause. However, she didn’t — not to any depth, anyway. It would have been much more interesting, much more believable, had she struggled a bit with these decisions, had stopped to question a bit — had she not so willingly drank the Kool-Aid, so to speak.
As for Mae’s personal relationships, I was more than a little disappointed. With the exception of her friendship with Annie, the remainder of her interactions seem strangely unnatural and well below what her maturity level should have been. The way she treated her parents was reminiscent of a petulant teenager, all but stomping her feet and rolling her eyes. Things didn’t fare any better with her romantic interests. Attempts at physical relationships were extremely awkward, seeming more appropriate to high schoolers having their first encounter than to grown, successful adults in their mid to late twenties. Maybe this was part of the point Eggers was trying to make — the stunting effect of massive immersion in technology on actual social interaction? I don’t know, but I do know that these unnatural relationships took away from my enjoyment of what otherwise would have been a fantastic novel.
Don’t get me wrong; overall, I think that The Circle really was a really good read. Rapid development of current technology will undoubtedly bring about massive social, economic and political change. Seeing it carried out to such lengths was exciting, fascinating and more than a bit frightening. If you can, suspend judgement for a while and just go along for the ride. It’s a bit bumpy in spots, but you’ll see some cool things along the way.