This novel tells the story of Mae Holland who takes a job at The Circle, one of California’s new silicon valley enterprises. It’s a fabulous place to work – young, trendy, vibrant and cool. There are leisure facilities to die for, restaurants, debates and speakers, it’s a happening place and Mae feels privileged to be there.
The Circle is an open enterprise and different from much of the internet in that no one can be anonymous: to gain access you need proof of identity. The business aim is to become indispensable to consumers and provide advertisers with closely targeted information.
As the story develops Mae becomes more and more absorbed into life on the Circle campus. She works incredibly hard, is seduced by its vision of a new world, becomes a model employee, and is promoted. Meanwhile at home her father is ill, but the generous support of the Circle’s health plan improves his life dramatically.
At Circle HQ there are technological developments and utopian dreams: there are meetings to consider new approaches to social cohesion and public welfare, and to present new technologies. The development of tiny cameras is significant. These can be placed anywhere, hidden easily from view, and offer beautiful glimpses of far away mountains, easy updates on surfing conditions along the coast and simple identification of which police use violence to quell rioters in Tahir Square.
Eventually politicians begin to wear the cameras as buttonholes, so that everything they do can be observed – it’s all above board, no opportunity for corruption – an honest, open world must be a better world. Mae is really happy with these ideas. She has idealistic views of the possible political outcomes, but the author introduces a range of factors that point in a contradictory direction.
Mae’s old boyfriend decides to go off grid to protect his privacy, with exciting and damaging consequences. Her parents find the cameras which monitor her father’s health and activity desperately intrusive. A colleague has a nervous breakdown when she realises that the privacy she gave up did have advantages.
Then Mae gets romantically involved with a colleague who warns her of the dangers the Circle presents. He faces her with an ultimatum – destroy the Circle or watch it destroy the world. But she is not sure. Is her colleague simply mad, or paranoid? The book ends as Mae makes her fatal decision.
So The Circle explores basic social and political issues raised by developments in the internet. These are topical issues, considering the controversy about social media’s impact on elections on both sides of the Atlantic, and that is what drew me to the book, which was published in 2013 and awarded book of the year by various reputable sources including The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Observer and the TLS. It was in fact Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who made the recommendation in The Guardian and it’s hard to get more fashionable and on trend than that – a brilliant Nigerian novelist with a new theory of feminism recommends The Circle as book of the year. You’d be daft not to read it, though in fact Adichie is a far better writer than Eggers judging by what is in this book compared to those of hers that I have read.
I did enjoy The Circle. It’s an easy read with a rapidly moving plot and a series of quite interesting episodes. The description of life on the Circle campus is fun: tennis and volleyball, parties and booze – a life of guilt free hedonism. Mae herself is a sympathetic character with some interest in the great outdoors to sort of broaden her character. But really she is only a cipher. Other characters equally are not fully drawn or particularly interesting, and tend to be caricatures rather than really convincing.
So the old boyfriend is a backwoods hippy type, fat and hairy. How could she ever have slept with him? The two lovers on campus are equally thinly drawn. One is a mysterious character who she finds sexually attractive, but it’s not really clear why, and their love making is both preposterous and inane. The other is a misfit and a geek, making the most basic social errors, crass and embarrassing.
Then there are the three wise men – founders of this enterprise. We meet each one but there is not really much to learn about them. One explores the deep sea trenches bringing back weird and rare specimens. As the novel reaches a climax these are used in a long scene to present a trite and uninspiring symbol. The “wise man” feeds each of his new specimens to the most dangerous – a ravenous shark that reminds me of my son’s labrador – it’ll eat anything! Well there you are then – that’s the Circle – but will Mae have the sense to realise? Read the book to find out!