Dave Eggers – The Circle
An ambitious and enjoyable critique of social networks - Nineteen Eighty-Four for the Facebook generation
In the slow-moving world of books and publishing, Dave Eggers has achieved something rare with his hugely enjoyable and unsettling new novel: immediacy. From its announcement out of the blue a few months ago to its simultaneous worldwide publication this week, The Circle has an urgency about it. Even its simply designed cover has a sleek desirability that seems to cry out ‘read me now’; it’s like a new Apple product in book form. This is the balance that Eggers just about maintains with The Circle, both condemning our prevalent ‘I want it now’ culture while wittingly playing along.
The fictional social media empire that gives the book its title would have been classed in the not-too-distant past as the stuff of dystopian science fiction, a warning for the future. But Eggers' novel is set in the present, and the speculative advances in technology that it contains are believable, his characters’ delighted acceptance of them recognisable, in a way that could give readers genuine pause.
The story centres on Mae Holland, a new employee of The Circle, the largest social network in the world and the most desirable workplace on the planet. Its glass offices, filled with recreational spaces, visiting speakers and even a pool are clearly modelled on the work-play environments of Google and Facebook, while the various staff members Mae meets have that recognisably over-caffeinated air of cult-like enthusiasm, remarkably reminiscent of Apple devotees. The opening section introducing this world is vividly created, but the novel really takes off when Mae starts to move up in the organisation and Eggers hones in on his main focus, raising pointed questions about privacy, transparency and control of information.
Reading The Circle one can’t help but think of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Eggers clearly wants his readers to consider the similarities between our online reality and Orwell’s imagined future; The Circle’s programmes are named with smug compound words like TruYou and SeeChange, recalling Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Minitrue and Ingsoc. The parallel is most overtly emphasised during a Circle gathering where Mae unwittingly produces a series of new slogans for the organisation that have the distinct ring of doublespeak. Eggers also shares Orwell’s tendency for occasional blunt sermonising, mainly in the form of Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer who offers several unsubtle, but effective, ‘state of society’ tirades before playing a significant role in the novel’s equally pointed conclusion. The key difference though, and it is this that Eggers seems most concerned about, is that unlike Orwell’s protagonist Winston Smith, Mae loves her version of Big Brother from page one. All of this might seem too much, too ambitious, if it weren’t for the sheer readability of Eggers’ simple prose: The Circle is an immensely enjoyable read, making its benign bleakness all the more potent.