Book Review: “The Circle” and the masking of workaholicism

Oct. 27, 2013, 6:10 p.m.

Start-up eyebrows. It’s this tick I noticed when I arrived at Stanford, that thing when someone’s hinting about his idea for a new company and his eyebrows arch, ever so slightly, before he launches into a practiced-casual pitch with this surreal earnestness, this untrustworthy trust-me grin, about how his idea will undeniably change the world for the better.

Courtesy of Random House.
Courtesy of Random House.

It is this rehearsed sincerity, this unironic belief in the unquestionable capital-“g” Goodness of the tech-utopia mission (hey, Do No Evil), which Bay Area literary giant Dave Eggers most brilliantly captures in his latest novel, The Circle.

Eggers’ fifth novel follows 24-year-old Carleton College graduate Mae Holland as she begins work at The Company Where Everyone Wants To Work: the Circle. And how precisely Mae’s irritation at her first post-college job—and her subsequent, profound relief at finding work at the Circle—mirror the Stanford senior’s anxiety surrounding job interviews and second rounds at Facebook. How familiar is her clumsy setting-aside of ethical qualms as we ourselves grasp for reassurance that we will have a cushy campus to land on after we leave our present pseudo-paradise. How alarmingly recognizable Mae’s relief is. Mae’s gratitude at having found that trifecta of meaningful work and full-coverage healthcare and the envy of her peers renders her prone before the Circle’s commands. With Mae as his protagonist, Eggers shines a brutal light on how the most liberal-artsy among us no less than the minimum-humanities-requirement engineer can be swept up blind into the sturdy arms of stability and prestige which Silicon Valley offers bright young minds in abundance.

For Mae, the grand seduction of the Circle is its ever-arched eyebrows, its convincing display of good will for humanity. One Circler is working to create a tracking chip to embed into kids’ bones—in order to eliminate child abductions worldwide! Mae’s mind alights with the possibility that Circlers can solve millennia-long problems through the power of technology and sheer force of will. Other ideas—motion sensors in private homes to prevent domestic violence!; facial recognition cameras on city streets to eliminate racial profiling!—embody the type of let’s-solve-every-human-problem-with-an-app attitude that pervades the Stanford bubble.

As with your roommate’s app idea, there is an ongoing ambiguity in the ideas set forth in The Circle: like Mae, the reader first thrills at the possibility of solving such persistent human problems. Then, at Eggers’ disappointingly obvious urging, we realize the implications of such benevolently conceived, beautifully designed technology. The great tension of the novel is whether or not Mae herself will see beyond the Circle’s total-efficiency, total-power, total-knowledge attitude. But in an environment that mocks or destroys all challenges to the Circle ethos—in a world where companies build blood-tie loyalties with their employees—critical thinking is diminished to the faintest ding.

And if the do-good ethos and hefty paycheck were not enough to win Mae’s loyalty, there is the swag. What an orgy of free things! Warehouses full of organic powerbars and perfect-fit jeans and no-sweat running gear! Glass-floor eateries staffed by gourmet chefs while up-and-coming artists play live music! The utopian campus Eggers builds in The Circle seems not a stone’s throw from Google’s glass palaces and Facebook’s upcoming “company town,” the tales of free sushi and Swedish massages and nights of purposeful bacchanalia that waft to Stanford on recruiting days and panicked nights spent praying for the Job.

The Circle also captures the Valley’s convenient masking of workaholicism as community, the meaninglessness of the word “optional” in a culture that thrives on total participation. Mae receives repeated slaps on the wrist when she leaves the Circle campus. “We never want you to leave!” her bosses grin. As Mae becomes assimilated into Circle culture, Eggers’ narrative becomes increasingly locked in on the Circle campus, with scant scenes set in the world beyond. Eggers must intend the claustrophobic effect this has on his reader, but the novel’s “off-campus” moments become heavy-handed for their rarity, as though they are meant to stand for All Human Experience.

The same is true of the story’s characters. While Mae is an empathetic character at the novel’s opening, it becomes clear early in the narrative that Eggers will not be expending much of his 491 pages to the development of her or any character. Mae’s best friend, Annie, is a brightly crafted character for the screen but somewhat two-dimensional on the page; the popular, ambitious, blonde Stanford GSB graduate may well be a real person, but she comes across archetypal in The Circle. Eggers’ powers of human depiction are at their strongest when describing Francis, the exact replica of so many guys (not quite boys, certainly not men) one meets in the Valley: witty, sardonic, magnetic at one moment, but over-the-line, crude, socially unaware the next. After an abbreviated romp in the Circle dorm rooms, Francis asks Mae to rate his performance on a scale of 1 to 100. She thinks he’s joking. He’s not.

But beyond these sparse, “too real” moments, Eggers seems largely uninterested in creating human characters instead of parabolic everymen. The price The Circle pays to make Egger’s prescient point loud and clear is the same thing the Circle lacks as a company: human complexity.

Despite my best efforts, I read The Circle as I read most books these days: with my iPhone nearby. Every 100 pages, with that meaningless apology we offer others when they’re around (“Sorry, just need to check this email”) and grant ourselves when we’re alone (‘Well, there might be something important happening somewhere in the world’), I check my phone, knowing that I needn’t. But as I set down the fat hardcover for a break, the sleek new interface of iOS 7 seems so easy, so efficient, so smart. And then: horrifying. The Twitter stream of a thousand thoughts in real time and the Instagram curation of an unsustainable aesthetic imposed on everyday living and the Facebook Likes and Friend Requests and Updates Updates Updates and the emails in my inbox about designing a smartphone app to win a chance to meet the Dalai Lama — “Tech for compassion!” it reads, and I shiver.

In The Circle, there is no talk of world domination; there is talk, instead, of total human knowledge, the elimination of uncertainty. Loss of privacy? No: transparency. Loss of humanity? Perfection. The founders’ talks read like pitch-perfect TEDtalks: “When we become our best selves, the possibilities are endless. We can solve any problem. We can cure any disease, end hunger, everything, because we won’t be dragged down by all our weaknesses, our petty secrets, our hoarding of information and knowledge. We will finally realize our potential.”

The Circle—until its concluding pages, which rush forward with the pace and predictability of a Dan Brown novel—hovers between excellent dystopian sci-fi and biting, light-of-day realism. The week of the book’s release, Facebook announced new features: expanded facial recognition technology and reduced privacy for teenage users. As always, there was brief outrage and then swift, silent acceptance. None of us know if we are paranoid luddites to be skeptical or if what is happening really is unthinkable, dangerous. The Circle fails to capture this tension; the society Eggers depicts either accepts the Circle wholeheartedly or retreats, literally, into the woods. And while Eggers’ forefinger rests heavy on the pulse of the Bay, his prose and plot are far from the electrifying, Adderall-heartbeat energy of his earlier works. (Though, to his credit, Eggers writes a great sex-in-a-Google-bathroom scene which we should all look forward to seeing in the movie adaptation.) I say that tongue-in-cheek, but, like so many moments in the novel, perhaps this one is also front-loaded with meaning. In an office outfitted with “SeeChange” cameras, the last private space is the bathroom. The most convincing moment of connection in The Circle is a quickie in a bathroom stall. (And what was the last moment that felt real to you? Was it something you could Snap or save?)

It cannot be ignored that the story’s most human moments are framed by sex. In the context of a society always seen and seeing, is the last refuge for connection the most basic and private of acts? Eggers denies even this possibility: during one intimate scene, Mae finds her partner has been filming the encounter on his phone, as a keepsake. It is uploaded instantly and irrevocably into the Cloud.

This uncanny irony is The Circle’s greatest gift. Silicon Valley, our campus notwithstanding, suffers from an enormous deficit of irony. Students and “entrepreneurs” speak in buzzwords without realizing they are self-satirizing. “It’s an obsession of mine. Communication. Understanding. Clarity.” Lines from The Circle are indistinguishable from conversations overheard on campus. When Eggers introduces us to Stewart, the Transparent Man, we are literally re-introduced to a character from our world.

It is a shame that The Circle is not a beautiful novel. It will change the way you think but not the way you feel. It is a parable more than it is a work of literary fiction. It is the outline for an excellent film, the rights to which have already been auctioned. It is a necessary book and an honest one. But the insights it offers remain at the macro-level. We see through the glass. We do not see through the heart.

A friend once said that it is the parts of ourselves that we do not share with the whole world, that we keep for ourselves or open to only a close few, that make up who we really are. We live in era obsessed with capturing, keeping, sharing, spreading. But it is the moments we can hold only in our flawed and failing minds that make up our real lives. It is those moments, then, reckless and out of sight, uninstagrammable and untweetable and lost in the instant, that make us human. It is the drought of such moments in The Circle that makes it, ultimately, an unsatisfying experience. This is a book that makes you want to find a human face and watch it for hours, grab someone tight by the hand and take them somewhere unseen, or just touch, even lightly, something that isn’t a glass screen. Perhaps in leaving us hungry for messy beauty, with this metallic, crunched-iPhone taste in our mouths, in giving us terrifying satire instead of sustenance, Eggers is urging us back into the world. And shouldn’t we go? Set down the book and the phone, walk outside, live. Be of the world. Be in it.

But when the book is closed and you walk back out, onto our pristine Californian campus, with our perfect screens and full-circle networks, our “compassionate technology,” our ambitions, our anxiety for security and our eagerness to please, our convenient ignoring of the nagging in the backs of our minds like a volume-rising alarm set to snooze, our desire to be liked and to be known and to be a part of what is happening, whatever is happening (#FOMO!), our fear of disappearing, our anxiety always to know — How familiar it all feels, like scrolling through our own reality, like the eeriest deja-vu. How familiar this all feels.

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