BOOKS OCTOBER 7, 2013
Capturing the zeitgeist is something of an obsession for Dave Eggers. His work includes a recession-era treatise on the everyman’s dwindling power in American life, the near-biography of a Hurricane Katrina survivor (labelled nonfiction), the near-biography of a Sudanese child soldier (labelled fiction), and a film that wistfully captured the horrors of fracking. If you’ve read it about it in The New York Times Sunday Review, chances are Dave Eggers has considered it as source material.
With his latest novel, The Circle, Eggers has catalogued every technophobic fear imaginable—the rise of the digital surveillance state, the swelling ranks of zombified screen-starers, the overwhelming purchasing power of 26-year-old Silicon Valley entrepreneurs—and woven them into a bumbling and ill-formed satire on the invasive, monolithic beast he imagines the tech industry to be.
The titular Circle is a successor of Facebook (in fact, The Circle has “subsumed Facebook, Twitter [and] Google”); its focus is to unite every aspect of an individual’s digital activity into one verified, authenticated identity, called a TruYou. Flush with capital and staffed by eager bright young things, The Circle is, in its protagonist’s words, “perfected … the best place to work … utopia.” Of course, the company isn’t content with its share of the market and minds, but is bent on living up to its adage that “All that happens must be known.”
The premise is terrifying; the execution is absurd. Eggers’s vision is so clouded by righteousness that he fails to provide his characters with any sense of humanity; instead, he’s created cardboard cutouts representative of Our Scary Internet Future. Mae, The Circle’s protagonist, is mealymouthed and naive. Other Circle employees wander about the page in raptures, gleeful about their Elysian employment. One has a hard time imagining why they’d be hired in the first place—their vision and intelligence is sorely limited. And the more knowledge-hungry The Circle grows, and the more the company exposes its dastardly plans, the more comical the novel feels.
But the most galling aspect of Eggers’s unsubtle pen is the disservice it does to the very real threat that digital conglomerates pose. Eggers’s monster is a lumbering Godzilla, easily seen for miles. The real invasions to our privacy are small, creeping, and slipped into our bloodstreams with a series of small pinpricks.
Paging George Orwell: Someone’s gone and made a mockery of your masterpiece.
Hillary Kelly is the digital media editor of The New Repulic.