What’s it about.com?
As the hip founder of McSweeney’s, Eggers is LinkedIn to everyone who’s anyone, but he claims that he’s never been to the Googleplex outside San Francisco. Until he posts his complete My Location history, I’m skeptical because it’s awfully easy to recognize the setting of “The Circle”: the sprawling campus of an omnivorous Silicon Valley search company where 10,000 of the brightest young people in the world glide around the glass headquarters, enjoying free gourmet food and Pilates classes. “Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth,” Eggers writes. “But here, all had been perfected.”
The novel has a lot of fun with this breathless tour — imagine a Pinterest board maintained by Walt Disney and Kim Jong Il. “The Circle” is working in an old tradition of warnings about schemes to deify mortals, stories that go back to the serpent who promised to help us know everything. But like Gary Shteyngart in “Super Sad True Love Story,” Eggers strains to stay one Instagram ahead of the real-life absurdities made possible by the new fortunes of social media. After all, it was only two weeks ago that the cover of Time magazine asked, “Can Google Solve Death?” Next to that ambition, driverless cars and reliable restaurant reviews don’t seem so far-fetched.
The Circle is directed by the three Wise Men, which is just the first example of the corporation’s cutesy messianic lingo. One member of this triumvirate is Ty, a socially awkward visionary who wears an enormous hoodie. (Tell your lawyers to stand down, Mark. It says right here that “any resemblance to actual persons is entirely coincidental.”) A few years before the story opens, Ty and his two more seasoned partners devised TruYou, a transformative new way to interact with the Web and the world: “Anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable and simple, all of it operable via mobile or laptop, tablet or retinal.” Their goal is nothing less than creating a world in which “uncertainty is eliminated.”
Our wide-eyed Candide through this technological wonderland is a new employee named Mae Holland, who starts at the bottom of the Circle in Customer Experience. “Oh my God,” she says on her first day. “It’s heaven.” (Dramatic irony +1.) As the weeks pass, Eggers buries poor Mae beneath an ever-expanding range of technological distractions: On two, three, four, finally nine different monitors, she must answer customers’ questions while monitoring their satisfaction on a 100-point scale, fill out online surveys, rate people’s photos, respond to preference choices piped into her earpiece, “zing” out newsy tidbits about her activities, swap messages with “friends,” and send “smiles” or “frowns” to help various social causes.
In this del.icio.us satire of corporate culture, everything is rated, ranked and evaluated for continuous improvement. Whenever Mae raises any questions about the Circle’s inanity, glossy folks from HR sweep in to counsel her toward enlightenment. But she keeps poking around the dark underbelly of the headquarters, not knowing what she might StumbleUpon next.
Because “The Circle” is all about its argument, the characters are Super Mario-deep, and the novel doesn’t have as much plot as it has momentum. The corporation rolls out one miraculous new service after another, from cheap little Web cameras to monitor every spot on Earth (no more crime!) to ingestible sensors to track children’s movements (no more sex abuse!). Everything the Circle does is guided by the founders’ culty belief in the boundless benefits of information and the flattering notion that “the world needs to know . . . your opinions on just about everything.” Pushing aside her nagging suspicions, Mae cashes in the bitcoins of her soul and helps the company develop its Orwellian principles:
SECRETS ARE LIES
SHARING IS CARING
PRIVACY IS THEFT
Like some tweeting thought-leader from Babel, one of the Wise Men announces, “We will become all-seeing, all-known.” The grand promise of happier living, better health and especially easier purchases overwhelms any concern about the loss of confidentiality. Your space is MySpace. “The momentum crushed all such arguments,” Eggers writes. “If you weren’t operating in the light of day, what were you doing in the shadows?” Politicians who dare to object soon find their browser caches laced with incriminating pornography.
The only flickr of hope in this story comes from Mae’s parents, who are struggling with bills and chronic illness. Though initially proud of their daughter, they provide a powerful counterpoint to her enthusiasm for the Circle’s enervating distractions, its presumption that we’re just “a matrix of preferences.” Before this apotheosis of consumer culture, they stand aghast at the way privacy and intimacy have been replaced by a synthetic community of “friends.”
Given how self-evident these satiric points are, though, it’s a shame Eggers can’t trust his readers more. We hardly need Mae’s ex-boyfriend to look directly into the novel’s webcam and hector us like some Luddite preacher. The clever writer who once dazzled us with mercurial emotions, ironic asides and rambling footnotes in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” is now painstakingly explaining such dead-obvious symbols as an omnivorous, translucent shark that one of the Wise Men keeps in a giant aquarium. Part of respecting privacy might be leaving readers space to draw their own interpretations. (Please retweet!)
On the other hand, who can afford subtlety in these latter days of Jenna Marbles and apps for babies? “The Circle” is “Brave New World” for our brave new world — and let’s be frank: Aldous Huxley’s classic is no model of understatement, either. Now that we all live and move and have our being in the panopticon, Eggers’s novel may be just fast enough, witty enough and troubling enough to make us glance away from our twerking Vines and consider how life has been reshaped by a handful of clever marketers.
I’m not worried about giving away the end of “The Circle” because we’re already living it. There may come a day when we can look back at this novel with incredulity, but for now, the mirror it holds up is too chilling to LOL.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can, of course, follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.