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October 28, 2013

The Circle. {Book Review}

Dave Eggers is a great writer—arguably one of the most talented of his generation.

He published his first bestseller, a memoir, in the year 2000. Both heartbreaking and genius, the book is It is worthy of its hyperbolic title. My personal favorite book of Eggers, What is the What, is a staggeringly brutal, but also beautiful, story of Valentino Achek Deng, one of the Lost Boys of Sudan. It is a novel written in first-person, autobiographical style. It’s so a compelling that I could barely put it down until I finished the last page.

Having been born in 1980, I fall into a gray area between Gen X and the “Millenials.” I know how to write in cursive, but I’m also pretty tech-savvy. I have a peculiar interest in how technology (especially the Internet) is affecting our minds and our culture.

So, as a fan of the author and an unabashed geek, I had high expectations going into my reading of The Circle, in which Eggers creates a dystopian vision of a not-too-distant future world where all information flows through a social media/data mining company of the same name.

Its mission is to become “complete” and overtake all aspects of citizens’ lives—for the greater good, of course. The Circle aims for total transparency. Early in the novel, it unrolls its latest gadget: tiny, inexpensive “SeeChange” video cameras that enable everything,everywhere to be video recorded and archived.

The novel takes place in Silicon Valley, California, the lovely peninsula south of San Francisco that is home to Apple, Google, Facebook, HP, Oracle and hundreds of lesser-known tech companies.

Eggers swears he didn’t specifically research or visit these campuses, but it’s clear that his imagination has mixed with aspects of Twitter, Facebook and Google to create his novel’s fictitious corporate setting. Having worked at Google myself, albeit briefly, I can attest to the splendor of its campus and the magical, exclusive feeling one has just by being there.

The novel’s heroine, Mae Holland, starts her new job at The Circle as the book opens. She quickly rises through the ranks at the company and eventually goes transparent with a 24/7 live video feed of her every move.

We see Mae’s transformation from a rather blah, vanilla girl into a pseudo-celeb and glutton for attention addicted to her social media feed constantly seeking validation via the endless comments, “zings” and “smiles” her watchers send.

Although, like many of us, I’ve been guilty of occasionally over-sharing on social networks (and sometimes I catch myself caring too much about clicks and “likes”), I value the ability to disconnect at will.

Still, the inherent flaw in the character of Mae—her willingness to sacrifice everything (privacy, family, friendships, love and independence) in favor of submitting to The Circle (a.k.a. The Man)—prevented me from connecting with her or caring very much about her fate.

Overall, I was left feeling unsatisfied when I finished the book. It has a generally creepy tone—creepy characters, unsettling themes and a disturbing plot. Only time will tell if it will become a futuristic classic in the same category as 1984 and Brave New World.

While I do recommend reading it, because it’s a pretty brilliant look at how robotic social media and other up-and-coming technologies can make us, I can’t say that I liked the book.

It is, if nothing else, creepy and spooky. In that sense, The Circle makes a good read for this week of Halloween.

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Ed: Bryonie Wise

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