The Circle

The CircleThe Circle, Dave Eggers

It is interesting that no word yet seems to exist relating specifically to distaste for or distrust of social media. The word ‘technophobe’ is unsatisfactory, carrying with it as it does connotations of fear and outright rejection of technology generally, and taking no account of the simple distaste one might feel for the tyranny of the unsolicited advance so often wielded by tweeters and pokers. I have decided to style myself a ‘technowarian’ until such time as something more Greek can be tracked down.  But, I hear you cry, were it not for social media, your review would not be broadcast to the universe. Yes, yes, dear reader, but in that case, I would be nailing these reviews to the door of one of our fine local Ranelagh coffee houses (#ErBuchetto), eateries (#TheWildGoose), or hostelries (#Humphreys), and probably to more advantage.

But to th’effect, as a chap who wrote with a quill and still managed to reach millions, once said.

The Circle by Dave Eggers is a terrifying book. I knew it would be as soon as I read the blurb on the back: ‘The Cirlcle [the world’s most powerful internet company], 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.’ What’s wrong with that?, I hear you ask. Nothing, of course, nothing at all.

As the story opens, it’s Mae Holland’s first day at work for the Circle, and the novel effectively tracks her life and progress from that point. The campus is perfection itself (‘heaven’, the opening line tells us); free this, that and the other on offer to employees, delicious food, countless social activities. (Every customer to whom I have described the premise of the book comes up at this stage with the same corporate name, which already means that the tale has a chance of being convincing.)

The first thing that strikes one on reading the book is how bald the prose is. There is no adornment, and on occasion the writing borders on bad (‘Mae turned to find a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse’). If you like your prose sophisticated and your arguments teasingly subtle, this will initially disappoint. For the first few pages it reads like a teen novel (almost as if Mae is the narrator, though she is not), but after a short time you forget the medium and begin to concentrate on the message. And that, indeed, is part of the point: in a culture where assent or disapproval is conveyed by means of a simple icon – a smile or a frown – allowing for no subtlety of expression or argument, there is no need, or indeed opportunity, to pause and craft your communication. And so the book in one way might be said to mimic this mode of hackneyed expression, which may well be part of its cleverness: it’s perfectly designed for the principal target it needs to reach, the wide-eyed Maes of the world who are happy to respond by reflex. If the thought of unsophisticated style is offputting to you, then the best way to approach the tale is with the idea that it is a parable, upon which the issue becomes largely redundant.

This is one of those books where to give a detailed plot synopsis would be to detract from the reading experience. This technowarian (yes, thank you, Windows, for the red underlining to tell me that there is something wrong with that word) – anyway, this technowarian was gasping in horror very early on in the book at the notion that Mae ends up having to deal instantaneously with varying business and social communications on four different worktop screens, so you can imagine the strangled noises that were being emitted four hundred pages later as the technological advances proceeded apace.

One of the cleverest things about the book is that none of the technological innovations seems beyond the bounds of possibility. There is no feeling that any of this is so far off as to be of no real concern. On the contrary, one reads with the increasing certainty that much of it is already well under way. The other clever thing is that for almost every unsettling proposal a benefit is posited (install cameras in the home of your elderly parents so that you can always be sure that they’re safe and well; tag your children and know where they are at all times, etc. – this gives nothing away; these are just the early ideas). There are so many issues raised by this book that it should almost be required reading. In fact, it’s a book that when you’ve read it, you’ll want to hand it to someone else and urge them to read it quickly so that you can discuss the ideas it sets up.

By the end of the book, the arguments and metaphors are signposted, highlighted, and hammered home in the most blunt fashion. A particular event is described as “natural in a way seeing a plane falling from the sky can seem natural, too. The horror comes later.”

Leaden, but laden.