Dave Eggers has written a chilling thought piece. While I don’t think it fully works as a novel, the ideas it raises have stayed with me for many days since I finished the book. The main character, Mae Holland, is saved from the soul-crushing effects of her first post-college job (at the local utility company) by a job offer from the Circle, a Google-like company. Mae’s college friend, Annie, has been working at the Circle since they graduated from college and has quickly moved up the ranks, allowing her to be able to pull strings to get Mae an entry-level position.
As Mae tours the “campus” of this company with its copious green space, cafeterias serving organic and locally grown offerings, indie musicians and other entertainers performing for free every night, and many, many other amenities, Mae thinks she has died and gone to heaven. Even after she begins working in CE (Customer Experience), Mae is still overwhelmed by her good fortune, even as she struggles to learn the “culture” of her new workplace—a culture that demands you respond to every e-mail and that your every interest and/or past experience is open for all to see. There’s a moment early on when Mae blunders by not attending a meeting for those interested in Portugal. Mae isn’t particularly interested in Portugal but she had posted pictures of a college trip there on her Circle account and so the company assumes that she would like to spend time with others who have posted pictures of Portugal. She offends the organizer of this group by not attending even though his e-mail invitation was one of hundreds of messages she received that day.
As the novel unfolds, the reader realizes the degree to which the Circle is attempting to attain world domination or in Circle terms—to make everything transparent. The Circle believes that in an ideal world, the truth about everything should be there for the world to see, documented by cameras; to keep secrets or really anything to yourself is a supreme form of selfishness. Though Mae suffers occasional twinges of doubt, she takes big sips of the Kool-Aid from day one (one of the flaws of the novel, I think) and soon takes on a very important role in spreading the company’s message. Though Eggers attempts to make Mae a three-dimensional character (giving her a father with M.S. etc.), she never feels real for me and I never doubt what her ultimate decisions will be.
That said, the thing that worked the best for me was the character of the company itself. Almost every single innovation that the company develops starts from an impulse to do good—to keep children from being kidnapped and abused, to keep politicians from doing backroom deals, to help homebound people see the world, etc. However, this impulse is twisted and pushed to an extreme that ultimately leads towards a worldwide Panopticon, every introvert’s biggest nightmare.