'The Circle' - Review

There’s a one-word endorsement from The Times on the front cover of The Circle by Dave Eggers – ‘Unputdownable’. Aside from my lack of surety that unputdownable is even a word, my reaction to this pithy assessment is binary – yes-no, one-zero, agree-disagree - which is pretty funny given The Circle’s subject matter.

In Eggers’ fictional yet just-over-the-horizon world, the Circle is the largest and most pervasive internet company on the planet headquartered in an impressive, manicured and ordered city-state-style campus near San Francisco. Think Mountain View, Menlo Park or Cupertino and you’d be very warm.

Anyone with a mobile phone anywhere in the world with wi-fi (and that’s everywhere it seems) has a Circle TruYou account which is so much more than a social media platform.  TruYou aggregates all of a person’s online presences and transactions into one – one identity, one profile, one password, one set of ubiquitous and free online tools – everything one needs to negotiate (and be tracked) in this brave new perpetually online, uber-connected and algorithmed-beyond-all-reason world.

As Mae Holland, the main protagonist in the story says of the Circle, ‘It’s the chaos of the web made elegant’, that and virtually compulsory. Add to this equation another Circle innovation - SeeChange cameras that are tiny, cheap, easily installed and always connected - and the Circle’s corporate push to have all elected officials wear one of these for complete transparency.  Not too far into the book the cult-like, ubiquitous, ‘all that happens must be known’ credo of this Circle-world starts to come into unsettling focus.

Helped by her college friend Annie, Mae lands the job of her dreams at the Circle declaring ‘it’s heaven’ the first time she walks onto the campus. Pretty soon she never wants to leave the campus which really is a world of its own, specifically designed to encourage/coerce ‘Circlers’ to stay inside its gates with free food, curated events every night and on weekends, a myriad of social interest clubs and support groups, and even dormitory accommodation.

It’s here, while Mae undergoes orientation to her new place of work, that my binary reactions to this book’s ‘unputdownable’ claim started bubbling up. Actually, saying I agree/disagree with unputdownable is too clean-cut.  My reactions to three particular events in the early part of the book are better described as ‘don’t want to watch but can’t look away’.

The first time this happens is when Mae attends a ‘Dream Friday’ session where Eamon Bailey, one of the Circle’s so-called ‘three wise men’, demonstrates SeeChange cameras. During the presentation Bailey shows footage from Cairo where several dissidents have placed cameras along the route of a protest rally.  Bailey exhorts the congregation of eager Circlers to imagine the possibilities for enhanced democracy and human rights when these always-on cameras broadcast everything to the world.  No longer will riot police deployed by oppressive regimes be able to drag activists down dark alleys to administer rough justice without witness or impunity. The assembled Circlers roar their approval as the mantra of ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN appears on the screen.

Then the scene switches to something a little closer to home. With one-click Circlers see Bailey’s own elderly mother padding down a hallway in her house wearing nothing but a towel.  To a chorus of laughter Bailey freely admits that he placed SeeChange devices throughout his mother’s home without her knowledge because, “she wouldn’t have let me do it otherwise”. Any privacy or outright creep-factor concerns are far outweighed by the benefits of Bailey being able to ‘keep an eye’ on his increasingly frail mother who lives alone. The assembled wholeheartedly agree.

The second time my can’t-watch/can’t-look-away reaction popped up is when Mae is sent for a routine health check as part of her orientation. Her assigned doctor is already in possession of Mae’s medical records and is already aware that her father suffers from multiple sclerosis. Mae is asked to drink what looks like a wheatgrass smoothie and after she’s drained the glass, the doctor informs her that she’s just swallowed a sensor that tracks and analyses her vital signs. The data is visible to Mae via a bracelet monitor which she wears all the time and, naturally, that real-time data is also received and stored on the Circle medical centre’s database. Spooky doesn’t quite cover it.

The third time something like this happened while I was reading The Circle I almost disproved the theory that the book is unputdownable.  I felt actual physical discomfort when, not too long into her new job, Mae gets a visit from Denise and Josiah from HR to ‘counsel’ her on lack of input to the social media life of the Circle.  D and J know Mae went off-campus at 5.42pm the previous Friday and did not return until 8.46am on Monday morning. Mae’s father had had a turn and, understandably, she’d headed home to help her mother deal with the situation. Over that weekend, however, Mae missed a couple of on-campus events but worse than that, her Circle social media feeds had gone dark.

Under the guise of caring for Mae and her family’s welfare, Denise and Josiah explain that while social media activity is not a pre-requisite of employment at the Circle, it is, nonetheless, an important measure of a Circler’s commitment to the job.  Mae is sure she’s about to be fired but saves the day by quickly acquiescing to the assertion that she’s been incredibly selfish, causing worry and hurt to her Circle-family by not sharing her every waking moment both on and off campus.

For someone who regularly ditches the always-on demands of social media in favour of actual work or home duties liking washing clothes and cooking meals, Mae’s exchange with the HR drones made my flesh crawl.

And it gets worse from there. Before long Mae’s life within the Circle extends outside her place of work to invade and inveigle the lives of her parents and her old boyfriend, Mercer, with creepy, voyeuristic and ultimately tragic consequences.

And it’s here we see the stark juxtaposition between those inside the Circle, like Mae, Annie and several thousand other Kool-Aid drinking ‘Circlers’; and those on the outside, desperately trying to get in or trying desperately to avoid being sucked into the Circle’s all-encompassing, global connectedness, ‘all that happens must be known’ vortex.

In the wash-up, however, I guess I’m more often in the agree camp than not in relation to The Times’ claim that The Circle is ‘unputdownable’.  It is eminently so due undeniably to the way in which Dave Eggers has written it. The book is an intricately detailed, inexorable march of a story overlaid with blink-and-you’ll-miss-something compulsion. A bit like a Twitter feed in fact.

The Circle is not so much a cautionary tale for our times but a billboard on a busy highway screaming THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING!

The Circle movie, directed by James Ponstold, starring Emma Watson, Tom Hanks and Karen Gillan, has just been released in Australia.


Click on the cover image to buy your copy of the book from Booktopia.