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Brave New Reading List: The Circle

by Brita Thielen

I am not what you would call a tech-savvy person. I only joined Twitter this fall, and to date I don’t have Instagram, Tumblr, an e-reader or a smart phone. Needless to say, I’m a bit behind-the-times on the tech scene.

However, reading Dave Eggers’ The Circle (2013; Knopf/McSweeney’s Books) reassured me that maybe my relatively unconnected life is okay. The novel centers on Mae Holland, a young woman who has just been hired at The Circle thanks to her college friend Annie, who works in the company’s upper echelons. The Circle is basically a technological super-company: not only is it the leading social media and search engine platform, is also attracts the best and brightest minds to create everything from tracking devices that prevent child abductions to ultra-portable surveillance cameras and drones.

Mae joins The Circle in an entry-level customer service position, where her ability to perform (in multiple senses of the word) and her connection to Annie soon gain her all sorts of attention. While Mae suffers from insecurity and jealousy, she performs well under pressure and seems generally open-minded – except where her ex-boyfriend Mercer is concerned. Maintaining a strong online presence is a top priority for Circle employees, something Mae struggles with at first. However, her fear of disappointing Annie and losing her position spurs her to become increasingly “transparent.” Mae is slowly sucked deeper and deeper into the company – or rises higher and higher, depending on your perspective – at the expense of her non-work life, personal relationships, and privacy.

Interestingly, the plot of The Circle focuses on the development of a dystopian society, not one that is already established. I suppose even classifying this novel as dystopian depends on whether you see the novel’s outcome as undesirable. For me, the terrifying appeal of this novel is that The Circle’s technology is only a step or two beyond what we already have, and like Howard Jacobson’s J (which I discussed a few weeks ago here), much of The Circle’s dystopic vision depends on willing participation by us, the general public. So much of the book’s momentum is driven by everyday people asking the question: “If you aren’t transparent, what are you hiding?” By discouraging privacy as an act of “theft” – robbing the world of knowledge about your life and interests – the general populace bares their lives like a raw nerve. We see how these societal developments affect Mae, Annie, Mercer, and many other characters, before the novel’s end.

If you read and enjoy this book, I would also recommend checking out an eerie fairy tale written by Ingeborg Bachmann: “The Smile of the Sphinx.” While unfortunately I cannot find an online version, I know it’s available in this fairy tale collection (which, if you like fairy tales, I highly recommend). I was strongly reminded of “The Smile of the Sphinx” while reading The Circle because they both scrutinize the relentless desire to be all-knowing. What do we lose when we ensure there are no more unanswered questions – when there is complete transparency?

Recommended if: You have strong feelings about social media and Net Neutrality (pro or con) or issues of privacy and accountability. Also a good read if the backstory is generally your favorite part of dystopian novels.