Goodreads: The Circle
When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency. As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO. Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world–even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.
What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge
I was initially intrigued by this book because it was mentioned in The Bestseller Code: The Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel as, well, a prime example of a bestselling novel. Apparently, it gets a lot of ingredients right to get people buying it and reading it, everything from focusing on the popular topic of “technology” to having a captivating pace. Notably, its success earned it a movie deal in 2017. Thus, it was with some surprise I found that I didn’t like this novel at all.
Although the novel was published only six years ago and even though the setting seems as if it’s meant to be near-ish future from 2013, parts of the premise and execution feel dated. Our society is still facing concerns related to the two main ones raised — invasion of privacy and the threat of a single company (Amazon?) becoming an all-powerful monopoly — yet reading a novel fear-mongering about these these seems almost cliche in 2019. The message also seemed heavy-handed; this is a novel about an idea, a warning that Big Tech and loss of privacy are bad. Characterization, plot, setting, etc. are all secondary to the message. So when the message seems like old news? The book becomes boring.
The heavy-handedness also makes many of the characters irritating (at least to me). Sure, Eggers strives to give some of them layers, particularly protagonist Mae, but the reality is that most of them are just representing something, almost like a modern-day allegory. Mae, although she likes kayaking and has a few other interests to make her “real,” is basically the representation of the “average” person; she likes technology but initially doesn’t start out photographing, “zinging” about, or otherwise “sharing” literally every single thing she does. Then there are the people working at the Circle who want *everything* recorded, the character who hates technology and wants to go off-grid, etc. And they all make speeches explaining their points of view. Some write letters. It’s almost like reading a George Orwell novel with all the monologues about idealogy. Except more annoying because people keep repeating the idealogy.
Plot-wise, there may be something to the theory that the pacing keeps readers turning pages because I didn’t like the book, but I did finish it–albeit by skimming here and there. Awkward sex scenes interrupted the pacing rather than helping it (and the asides about characters “ample chests” made me think of all those Twitter and Reddit threads about “men writing women”). The end is also predictable because, well, the book has one point and one point only to make about the badness of technology developing in this specific way.
So, do I recommend this? No. It was a bestseller, but the ratings on Goodreads actually aren’t that generous, and the movie adaptation didn’t fare much better. The public might interested in technological dystopians and the loss of privacy, and that’s enough to get people to buy the book or pick it up, but the execution just isn’t here. This book isn’t that good.