I thought I first heard about this book on BoingBoing before it was even released. Except the only mentions of it I can now find on the site are for a bad review. Either I’m incorrectly remembering how I heard about it, or the BB editors realized their terrible mistake and took the post down. Whoever it was that told me about this book, I was intrigued enough to pre-order it. On paper, I should really like this book. It’s (as far as I can infer — we’ll get to this later) a pro-privacy, anti-Google/Facebook/etc, novel about a girl named Mae who goes to work for The Circle, a social network so big it puts the aforementioned web giants to shame. In practice, I hated just about everything about this book.
I have a really hard time enjoying stories containing characters I can’t relate to, and this book was lousy with terrible people. The only character in the book I actually liked is (I think?) the villain; Mae’s ex-boyfriend. Everyone else is just awful. By that, I mean they are all bad people, but they’re also poorly written. Every character in this book seems to be a one-dimensional Asperger’s sufferer without forethought or backbone. Especially the main character, Mae. Throughout the first “book” (“The Circle” is split into three sections), Mae is very obviously uncomfortable with most of what’s going on around her. However, rather than ever even once standing up for herself, she allows herself to be peer pressured, bullied, and brow-beaten into submission. Maybe this is supposed to be some sort of metaphor for how Eggers feels about social networking in general, but if it is, he isn’t a good enough writer to make that obvious.
By the time “book” two starts, Mae has been completely absorbed into The Cult of The Circle. She no longer thinks for herself. She has fully become an automaton of the company, and never says anything she thinks her employer won’t like. As The Circle grows in power, what little character Mae had disappears more and more. By the time the book abruptly ends, her Stockholm Syndrome is so bad it would make Patty Hearst think she was crazy.
If, at this point, you think this book seems interesting, I can assure you this review is better than the book itself. Eggers’ writing is so bad that I still don’t know for sure his opinion on anything that happens in the book. I think this is because there is no resolution whatsoever to any of the conflict (what little of it there is). If you do actually pick it up, once you catch on to what I think his point is (which I’ll get to in a minute), you can just stop reading. Honestly, if you set this book down on any page in “book” two, you know the ending. There are absolutely no surprises waiting for you at the end.
Ultimately, I think this is what I disliked so much about “The Circle.” I wanted Mae to stand up for herself, or do anything at all other than parrot what her betters told her (I say her betters not because I think they were better than her, but because I think Eggers wanted me to think that Mae thought they were better than her). Why? Because then I would have actually known what Eggers was getting at. Throughout the entire book, there are giant chucks of nothing but statistics on how Mae’s digital life is playing out. She got this many “likes” and this many “retweets” (Eggers uses slightly different language to avoid lawsuits, but it’s very obvious that these are what he’s referring to), and she recommended this many products to this many people, which will result in this much income for The Circle. It is completely overwhelming every time Eggers does this throughout the book. I assume that this was the point. He wanted to express his exhaustion with the state of our society and the value we place on social media, analytics, and the internet in general. But he just keeps beating the horse long after it’s dead. Maybe if he were a better writer, he could have found a way to make this point more directly. If he had, it would have made room for a proper ending which could have solidified exactly what it is he’s trying to tell us with this book.
This is the first book I’ve ever listened to, rather than read. Because of that, most of the time I was listening to it, I was also in front of a keyboard, so took quite a lot of notes. If you don’t mind all the cursing I did in them, you can read them in a share note on Evernote here.