First things first: Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Circle seems to have come in for either faint praise (this is a really good satire except for…) or a bit of a drubbing (Lionel Shriver – of all people! – complaining about the quality of the writing). From the outset you should know that we think The Circle is pretty damn terrific and then you can read on (or not) as the spirit suits you. We also, you may remember, enjoyed Eggers’ previous novel, A Hologram for the King – The Circle is in our view better than A Hologram for the King. Eggers is having a good run.
But what is the book about you may ask. Well, the eponymous Circle is an organisation much like your Googles and your Apples, a business that began by unifying all of your online activity (you only need one sign-in in Circle world) but is busy branching out – innovating, exploring new technologies, cloud bursting. It is our narrator Mae Holland’s first day at work – she has bitten the bullet and asked her longtime college bestie, Annie, a high-up at the Circle, for a leg-up and Annie obliged, getting Mae a job in CE – or customer experience – where she basically spends her days drafting responses she receives from small companies across the globe, answering questions and then pestering for ratings and improved ratings.
The environment in which Mae finds herself is exhilarating. In many ways, the ideal workspace – at least at first (although it should be said, the speed with which you sour on the Circle will be determined by your acceptance of social media and the world in which we find ourselves) – with speakers scheduled for lunchtimes and bands scheduled for evenings and free accommodation provided for anyone who wants to work late and all manner of lovely cuisines to try and all sorts of freebies ready to be beta-fied by the rank and file. Gradually, however, what is expected of the rank and file becomes apparent, with additional tiers of social interaction required of Mae if she is to maintain her position in the organisation. Mae doesn’t question whether or not she should be expected to absorb the additional responsibility, merely cracking on and doing her best to get on.
And get on she does, moving up the organisation, becoming known to at least two of the three Wise Men who helm the Circle, sitting in on lunchtime briefings in which she learns about new technologies, such as lollipop cameras that can be stuck anywhere and everywhere giving access to whatever anyone wants to access (tyrannical regimes will shudder before the might of the Circle!). Eventually, Mae herself becomes embroiled in a scheme for total transparency, wearing a camera around her neck all the time and espousing the idea that Privacy is Theft. She also engages in a sort of on again off again relationship with two men, one of whom is sort of weedy and needy and who is working to plant chips in the bones of children to stop them ever being abducted again and one of whom is a mysterious man who doesn’t show on the company database. Just who could Mae’s mystery man be?
Actually the mystery man is not so much of a mystery and some of Mae’s reactions are questionable (at the start of the book, rather than coming clean about not knowing something, Mae goes round the houses to do everything but admit she is in the dark – just own up the reader thinks) but the novel cracks along at such a pace that whatever slight wobbles there are dodge by like misshapen trees viewed from the window of a car travelling at speed. Eggers deftly manipulates his readers, switching the shade from light to dark, creating in The Circle a business and a future that is by turns awe-inspiring and horrifying.
There are, of course, nods to Orwell, not least in the climax of the book, but all told it is a tremendously thoughtful novel, original, appealing and intelligent, engaging with the world and painting a vision of the future informed by the Snowdon furore and the scurrying Intelligence hordes keen to look into every aspect of our lives. I’d even go as far to say that this is the best thing Eggers has done so far.
Any Cop?: Highly recommended.