When I finished reading Dave Eggers’s chilling and caustic novel, “The Circle,” I felt like disconnecting from all my online devices and retreating for a while into an unplugged world. I gather that’s what he had in mind.
Eggers displayed a scrappy ironic side in “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” his 2000 memoir about raising his younger brother after their parents died of cancer. He has written with finesse and empathy from the perspective of a “Lost Boy” forced to fight in Sudan’s civil war (“What Is the What,” 2006), a Syrian businessman caught up in a post-Katrina nightmare (“Zeitoun,” 2009), and a failing American salesman suspended in a desert limbo, hoping to cut a deal with a Saudi monarch (“A Hologram for the King,” 2012). “The Circle” is his most satiric work, with shades of Orwell, Swift, Voltaire, even Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein,’’ in his dark vision of an insatiable Internet monopoly that breaches the barrier between public and private.
The novel opens as Mae Holland, 24, begins her first day of work at the Circle, a slightly futuristic amalgam of the social-media and personal-tech companies that have emerged over the past decade, from Google to Facebook, Twitter and Square. Mae is enchanted. “My God, Mae thought. It’s heaven. The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands.”
The 400-acre Circle campus seems like a mash-up of the Googleplex and Disney World, with a picnic area, tennis courts, clay and grass, organic gardens, and towering brushed steel and glass structures with names like Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Cultural Revolution.
On Dream Fridays Mae gets glimpses of “the Wise Men,” the trio at the top of the Circle — avuncular Eamon Bailey, ruthlessly capitalistic CEO Tom Stenton, and, via video, reclusive young founder, Ty Gospodinov, who usually wears an oversized hoodie. Ty devised a unified operating system, which combined all users’ needs and tools into one TruYou account — e-mail, social networking, banking, and purchasing. “TruYou changed the Internet, in toto, within a year,” Eggers writes.
The novel unfolds in an ever accelerating narrative flow. On her first day answering online customer questions, Mae is instructed to score 98 to 100 percent satisfaction on follow-up surveys. By her second week she is supervising a group of newbies. Within a month she is staying up all night to post continuously on the company’s social networks after being criticized because her Participation Rank was low. She discovers that the community-building after-work and weekend events — concerts, circuses, theme nights, and all-night parties — are obligatory. And there’s a dorm for those who don’t want to go home.
Like a modern-day Candide, Mae maintains an optimistic front as she submits to the Circle’s increasingly invasive demands. But her impulsive side leads her to take surprising risks. A nerdy coworker videotapes their wine-soaked sexual encounter (the Circle does not delete, she learns). And she enters into a clandestine on-campus affair with a mysterious, wiry, grey-haired man who calls himself Kalden. This relationship grows ever odder.
Back home, her high school boyfriend calls Mae’s new colleagues “Digital Brownshirts,” and her parents struggle with an insurance quagmire as her father is treated for multiple sclerosis. Mae’s parents end up on the Circle’s health plan. A miracle? Not exactly, as it turns out.
At the novel’s midpoint, as Mae sinks deeper into the cult-like culture of the Circle, Bailey and Stenton begin rolling out newly minted Circle inventions, like SeeChange cameras the size of lollipops planted at Tahrir Square, along beachfronts, and in private homes.
A congresswoman goes “transparent,” wearing a camera around her neck and allowing a live feed of her workdays to go online. Within weeks, 80 percent of politicians have followed her, leaving the other 20 percent to fight public perception they must have something to hide. Bailey and Stenton suggest that paying taxes, voter registration, even voting, should be woven into each individual’s mandatory TruYou identity and constantly monitored. (If you don’t vote, your TruYou account is frozen.) The developers get to work.
Like a concerned uncle, the smooth-talking Bailey coaxes Mae into making statements highlighted onscreen during a Dream Friday chat: “SECRETS ARE LIES. CARING IS SHARING. PRIVACY IS THEFT.” Then he announces that Mae, “in the interest of all she saw and could offer the world,” would be going transparent immediately. Soon she accumulates millions of followers whose opinions she tracks from a wrist-mounted screen in a continuous flow of smiles, frowns, and zings. Closing the Circle, with mass birth-to-death transparency, becomes the new corporate goal.
Exhausted, Mae has a brief “blasphemous flash” that “the volume of information, of data, of judgments, of measurements, was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people and too many opinions of too many people, and too much pain . . . and having all of it constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if that all made it tidier and more manageable — it was too much.” Indeed.
“The Circle’’ reads as if it were written in an urgent rush, just barely ahead of the headlines. Its ending comes as abruptly as one character’s drive off a bridge. We are, Eggers warns, at a pivot in history. “There used to be the option of opting out. But now that’s over.’’ It’s a “totalitarian nightmare,” he writes.“Everyone will be tracked, cradle to grave, with no possibility of escape.”
“The Circle” is biting, even vicious at times. Despite the polemics, Eggers raises timely questions about transparency, privacy, democracy, and the sinister side of the Internet. And he offers a corrective, in Kalden’s manifesto, “The Rights of Humans in a Digital Age.” “Not every human activity can be measured,” Eggers writes.
The list ends with a plea: “We must all have the right to disappear.”
Jane Ciabattari is vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle. Reach her at email@example.com.