By Dave Eggers
Knopf, 504 pp., $27.95.
Reading Dave Eggers’ new novel The Circle an image slipped into my mind, one not contained in the book but which I’m sure its protagonist would appreciate: a big church wedding with full Catholic ceremony – the priest in his vestments, bathed in the densely colored sunlight from the rose window, holding a massive Bible before a crowd of hundreds of friends and family as the sacred catechism rolls up the nave and echoes from the flying buttresses of the medieval ceiling. “Do you take this woman …” and the man answers “I do.” Then he turns to the bride. “Do you, Emily Johnson, take this man, Brad Halpern, to be your lawfully wedded husband, to have and to hold …” When he’s done, she looks up distracted.
She’s been texting.
The only problem Mae Holland, the heroine of The Circle would have with this scenario is that Emily hadn’t “gone clear” – she had no portable camera attached to herself which could document every moment of the ceremony to her 239,456 followers. She wasn’t “zinging” them all (a kind of instant tweet), acknowledging their “smiles” and good wishes as they came in. What was wrong with Emily? Why wasn’t she sharing this beautiful moment? Who made her dress? Where did Brad get his tuxedo? Does the church do charity work? Couldn’t she link to the designer and the haberdashery and the Catholic aid organization? Think how her Conversion Rate (that’s the number of purchases you stimulate with your comments and zings and links) could be sky-rocketing! Not to mention her Retail Raw – that’s “the total gross purchase price of recommended products” people have purchased because of you. What a waste! Doesn’t Emily understand that sharing is caring and secrets are lies and most of all – privacy is theft?
Those are the guiding principles of the Circle, an internet company which Dave Eggers has conceived, with great precision, merciless humor and a healthy dose of authentic alarm, as the ultimate combination of Google and Facebook. The goal of this ever-growing institution is to “close the circle,” to create a world where everyone has access to every aspect of everyone else’s life at all times, in real time, all of it recorded forever in “the cloud” – those very much land-bound cemetery rows of computer servers that are helping to make this nightmare come true, even as we try to dismiss Eggers’ exaggerations.
With all politicians ‘going clear’ for complete transparency in all their discussions and negotiations, with cameras in every house and infrared cameras outside to mark the movements of all the inhabitants, and with a Circle account mandated by law so that all functions of life can be organized through one portal, from health care and voting and car registration to job hunting, friendship and even love affairs (how much greater an intimate moment is when it becomes a communion with five million lovelorn comrades across the globe!), the Circle is poised to take over the world.
Unlike the conventional dystopian fantasies, from We to 1984 to the The Hunger Games, this new world order enjoys the approval of its victims. They embrace it. They celebrate it.
I look around my own world and none of this seems particularly far-fetched. There’s a whole generation growing up that has never known a world with real privacy. Their idea of internet oppression is a day when no one comments on their blog, or their twitter feed goes down.
One of the most audacious aspects of Eggers’ book is that the writing sticks rigorously with Mae Holland’s point of view. The narration is as close as “close third person” can get. Why not tell it in first person then? But that’s the whole point: that pesky “first person” is precisely what the Circle is trying to eradicate. Because Mae doesn’t understand what’s happening to her and her world, the reader is forced to make the arguments that she can’t. The novel becomes interactive in a way that no computer program could ever be. You’re literally shouting at the page. When Mae talks about basic principles with Eamon Bailey, one of the three Wise Men who founded the company, she swallows his specious arguments whole.
All secrets are bad because anything private is suspect – why would we hide something we weren’t ashamed of? Mae doesn’t have the presence of mind or the education to point out that most of the great strides forward in human history – including the basic technical work that created the Circle itself – was done in silence and solitude. Human beings need isolation and quiet and uninterrupted thought. Physical health and sanity depend on it. The idea that we only hide what we’re ashamed of is simply false. But Mae doesn’t get it. She loves being part of something bigger than herself, having her tastes and opinions influencing the world, seeing her face in the mirror of a million hard drives.
Bailey goes on, laying out the corollary point: secrets revealed cast light and harm no one. He uses Wikileaks as an example, saying that no one was harmed by the release of those Top Secret diplomatic cables. But most informed people are aware that Julian Assange meticulously redacted every bit of information that might have compromised anyone’s safety. He kept the secrets that needed keeping.
When the crimes and scandals in the family history of Mae’s friend and Circle Mentor Annie Allerton are revealed, through a new historical data-mining program, the revelations stigmatize her among her c0-workers (her ancestors owned slaves), alienate her from her parents (they watched a homeless man drown without trying to help him) and finally, tip her over into a nervous breakdown. Knowledge can be caustic, and the truth wounds as often as it heals, whether Eamon Bailey admits it or not.
His off-kilter utopian fervor is only one leg of the tripod that holds up this fantastical internet giant. He’s one of the “Three Wise Men” who created the company. The other two are a Sergei Brin/Mark Zuckerberg geek named Tyson Matthew Gospindov and ruthless entrepreneur Tom Stenton. Stenton fills the Eric Schmidt/Steve Ballmer slot.
Together these three archetypes resemble the three chemicals required for execution by lethal injection. Ty, as everyone calls him, enacts the role of the sodium thiopental in this experiment: his brilliant coding and the seductive internet experience putting the prisoner to sleep. Eamon is the pancuronium bromide, paralyzing the body politic with the false dreams of his perfect world. Then Tom Stenton, the Machiavellian master of monetization, acts as the potassium chloride, administering the death blow in a flurry of zings and recommendations and smiles and surveys.
Stenton has captured a deep-ocean shark and brought it up from the Marianas Trench. He delights in the way it devours everything around it, from tuna to sea turtles to the delicate sea horses that shared the deep water environment with the shark when they were left alone in the dark. Placed in this new setting, in brightly lit tanks, watched by the whole world, the shark turns rapacious and no creature is safe. The metaphor may seem heavy handed; in the context of the novel it seems cautious at best.
We can all sense the shark approaching. Even our jokes about it have a nervous edge. The laughter was uneasy at the Washington Correspondents’ Dinner last year, when Conan O’Brien quipped, “Here’s a suggestion for everyone live-tweeting this event – use the hashtag, ‘unable to live in the moment’.”
Like Henry Ford, feeling a twinge of apocalyptic uneasiness, watching the first cars roll down his production line, Ty himself finally realizes that his invention has gotten out of hand. He enlists Mae’s help to dismantle the monster, but it’s too late for both of them. He should have known better than to trust Mae. The clue to this tragic miscalculation could have been found in the demonstration she put on a few days before. The Circle was unveiling a new program to locate anyone on the globe in less than half an hour. Mae chose to track down her ex-boy friend, Mercer — a determined Luddite (and the primary voice of sanity in the novel) who fled from San Francisco to live off the grid. The good news: It only takes ten minutes to find him. The bad news: The event, complete with armies of phone-cam wielding acolytes and private airborne drones, pushes him to suicide. He drives his pick-up truck off a high bridge.
Eamon Bailey’s response? What a shame the boy wasn’t in a self-driving car. The on-board computers would never have permitted such self-destructive behavior.
But Mercer understands the world in ways that Mae never will, and Eamon refuses to. Earlier in the book, Mercer walks out on Mae during dinner with her parents, when she is “zinging” pictures of the deer-antler chandeliers he builds to her “friends” all over the world. She’s caught up with the screen of her phone, oblivious while he talks to her. She follows him out to the street and he says this, in the course of their confrontation:
Here though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication clues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom are looking at you and trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen, searching for strangers in Dubai. You know what I think, Mae? I think you think that sitting at your desk frowning and smiling somehow makes you think you’re actually living some exciting life. You comment on things and that substitutes for doing them … Mae, do you realize how boring you’ve become?
About as boring as the bride in my fantasy – or the kid texting as his dog-trainer friend runs his pet German shepherd through a series of perfectly synchronized commands; or the father texting continuously during his daughter’s dance recital. Or the driver texting his way into a fatal car crash. He was pressing send when the light turned red.
It’s the future and no one has seen it more clearly than Dave Eggers.
In the last image of his novel, Mae sits at Annie’s bedside, watching her comatose friend, studying the read-outs that show brain activity, furious that everything going on inside, all those dreams and memories, remains steadfastly secret, private, stolen from the world by the barricade of a woman’s skull. And the book seems to say: be patient, Mae.
It won’t be long now.
— Steven Axelrod
Steven Axelrod holds an MFA in writing from Vermont College of the Fine Arts and remains a member of the WGA despite a long absence from Hollywood. In addition to Numéro Cinq, his work has appeared at Salon.com and various magazines with ‘pulp’ in the title, including PulpModern and BigPulp. A father of two, he lives on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, where he paints houses and writes, often at the same time, much to the annoyance of his customers.
Thanks Steven, for this insightful review of Egger’s Freaky “novel” The Circle…It hits waaaay too close to home, out here in the Silicon Valley. I was at a dinner party last night with two people wearing google glasses at the table. When they refused to take them off, I left—disgusted and longing for more intimate, authentic connections.
I know what you mean. The whole book seemed just one step removed from reality. And a small one at that.
Excellent! This book sounds before its time in its message which is unfortunately most timely in its warning. Well read, Steve.