Here is the good thing about Dave Egger’s *The Circle*: the premise. And what’s the premise? A tech company “The Circle” in the not-so-distant future *cough Google cough* has saturated the market to the point where it controls access to all information and uses this ‘power’ to control all spending, government, actions, individual thought. Protagonist Mae begins the novel indifferent to the power of the Circle, but becomes increasingly infatuated and then utterly committed to the ideology of the Circle – “all must be known” and “information is a human right” and “privacy is theft.” She is intended to serve as a reader-surrogate so that the reader might recognize the ways in which her current unconcern or apathy about the reach of global information conglomerates could readily bleed into a) total obligation to and investment in the conglomerate, b) an inability to think independently or to be alone and c) the totalitarian endgame of one entity (re: company) controlling all aspects of a citizenry. That is to say this is a book with a partisan message: start thinking seriously about the power of Google, start actively questioning reasonable limits of information access/sharing, start protesting the erosion of privacy and public space.
And that’s where the good in the novel ends. The premise is executed with a clumsiness and heavy-handedness that made me suspicious of Egger’s trust in the intelligence of his readers. And in the clumsy and heavy-handed I was left with a book that was still brilliant in its idea, rich in its setting, but entirely frustrating to read.
George Orwell’s 1946 essay “Why I Write” posits that one of the principle reasons for writing is to articulate and argue a political position. It isn’t, I don’t think, a terrifically trendy way to write or read fiction in 2013. And so perhaps it’s the decidedly aggressive political argument of *The Circle* that rubs me the wrong way – not the message itself, rather, the heavy-handed way the novel goes about making its argument. It lacks elegance, subtlety or complication. In its rush to make sure the reader gets the allegory and adopts the position of protecting privacy the novel risks negating the potential disruption of the allegory itself. I became less unsettled by the message (and at first it really was compelling) and more annoyed by how little Eggers trusted me to get the idea without Being Showed It In Capital Letters: ALLEGORY.
This heavy-handedness is most obvious (and annoying) in the character development of Mae. We’re supposed to – I imagine – see her casual decline into full acceptance of all things Circle. We’re supposed to see the semi-climactic scene where she’s in a room with one of the Wise Men (really. did I mention it’s heavy-handed?) getting a lesson on the selfishness of secrets and the rationality/generosity of open and unfettered access to individual actions, thoughts and beliefs as some kind of moment of revelation and change. Except all this reader could concentrate on was how *obvious* the whole thing was. The move from dependence on the company – excellent health care! fancy workplace! prestige! – to acceptance of its doctrines for pragmatic reasons – I’ll tweet and email because I’m told to! – to an adoption of the dogma because people are unthinking and pliable enough to assume any ideology if exposed to it long enough.
So while I’ll recommend *The Circle* because I think the (albeit grossly heavy-handed) message is worth considering, I do so with the caveat that if you’re already suspicious of the influence of Google then go ahead and skip this one. However, if you were – like me (and I’ll admit it) – apathetic about questions of surveillance, privacy, access-to-information, public space then do read it. Or at least, do read the first 75 pages. It makes a compelling – if also tenacious and indefatigable – argument well worth considering and acting upon.
5 responses to “The Circle: May it be Unbroken”
After reading the book, I agree with your comments. I don’t think we are meant to read the characters as characters and therefore it is not a criticism of Eggers to say that the characters are not characters. That’s a heavy handed, cumbersome, awkward way to say that the characters are basically cartoon characters and meant to be.
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