The Circle (10 October 2013) by Dave Eggers
First line: My God, Mae thought. It's heaven.
In this story, set in what could easily be today, or the very near future, perhaps two or three years into the future, the Circle is an all-powerful internet and technology company - a bit like Google, Apple and Facebook combined - which is exerting an increasingly hegemonic influence over society. The protagonist, Mae Holland, is a new hire at the company who has secured a customer service position through a much higher-ranking friend. In this version of the internet's future, an invention of the Circle's called 'TruYou' has virtually brought an end to online anonymity. All users are now required to use their real, verified identity for all web interactions and transactions, meaning complete transparency has become the norm (trolling is a thing of the past). The Circle follows Mae's progress as she is drawn deeper and deeper into the Circle, first doubting her ability to commit to the 'Clarification' the company demands, then, gradually, becoming subsumed by its ethos.
The action doesn't move much beyond the confines of the Circle's headquarters (inevitably a campus-like site), and I was pleased about this: I was concerned that it was going to turn into some dystopian fantasy with Mae discovering an underground movement of anti-Circlers or something. Instead, the limited setting gives the whole story more of an allegorical quality and it all ends up feeling a bit like a cautionary fable. If that sounds unpleasantly sanctimonious and preachy, it isn't: this is a thought-provoking drama with the tense atmosphere and black humour of a horror story, and it does portray a type of dystopia, just a fairly subtle, horribly believable one in which the main surprise is how few surprises there really are. Every time Mae was given a warning, allocated a new responsibility or seemed to slide further into the brainwashed state the Circle demanded of her, my skin crawled; yet it's also not too difficult to see things through Mae's eyes and understand why so many of the conglomerate's employees believe its aims to be honourable. After all, it's hard to argue that openness and honesty are inherently negative values to pursue, and the reader faces the same problem as the Circle's staff in defining exactly where the line should be drawn. This is a much more effective way to make the story frightening than the inclusion of anything explicitly horrifying or melodramatic.
I thought the concept and execution of this book were absolutely excellent, but it had weak points - most notably the characterisation, since Mae cannot be likeable in order for the plot to work and for her actions to be believable. This means that it's difficult to sympathise with her (or for that matter anyone else) specifically or care that much about what ends up happening to her, although on quite a few occasions I had a visceral reaction of horror to what was going on anyway - it's hard not to. I did, however, always feel a little bit distanced from Mae, and some of the events towards the end - particularly the fate of Mercer, which I suppose was meant to be shocking - seemed cartoonish and slightly silly.
I know absolutely everyone who's reviewed this has written about its similarities to Orwell and Huxley, but I still feel it's worth pointing out that The Circle does very much resemble a modern-day rewrite of either one of those authors' most famous books. I also thought there was something quite Ballardian in the way it depicted the Circle as a self-contained universe with an increasingly problematic moral code and a sense of detachment from the ordinary world. (The ever-growing bank of screens at Mae's desk was a particularly nightmarish motif.) It would perhaps be a bit over the top to say this feels like an 'important' book, but it's certainly a very timely one, which draws uncomfortable parallels with the social-media-centric world we're all used to - it's because of this novel that I keep feeling terribly alarmed every time Gmail keeps trying to throw 'one account for all of Google' at me, for a start. (Google+ even has things called Circles on it!! COINCIDENCE? I THINK NOT.) This, the first book I've read by Dave Eggers, created such a vivid impression that I don't think I'll ever forget my mental image of the Circle campus and its sinister foundations. Read it now, before something akin to the Circle actually does start taking over the world.
I received an advance review copy of The Circle from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Buy on Amazon: Kindle