When we first meet Mae Holland, the naïve or is it gullible? protagonist of Dave Eggers's The Circle, she's agog at the campus of The Circle, the social networking giant where she's just landed a job. It's 400 acres of perfection, all rolling hills and meandering paths, with picnic groves and tennis courts and employee perks like free gourmet meals and daycare for dogs. Even the sky above is a flawless blue.
Mae thinks she's landed in heaven, but Eggers has plotted a swift trip to in the opposite direction. With a tour guide's zeal, he ushers us into the very near future, where a company that resembles the search-engine giant Google has absorbed Facebook and, as digital palate cleansers, gobbled up Twitter, Instagram, and Paypal as well.
Though The Circle's just four years old, 90 percent of all searches on earth go through it. The company owns 92 percent of all text messaging and controls 88 percent of the world's free-mail (think Gmail) market. But the killer app that secured The Circle's fortunes is TruYou, the online identity that is required of everyone who wants to use any of The Circle's array of indispensable Internet tools. Give just a smidgen of personal information your real name, which is then tied to your bank accounts, your credit cards, your email accounts, and all of your social media profiles and "anytime you wanted to see anything, use anything, comment on anything or buy anything, it was one button, one account, everything tied together and trackable?"
To Mae, it all makes sense. She comes to The Circle fresh from an eighteen-month stint as a cubicle drone at her hometown utility company, a job that offended her sense of self-worth. In the near- future of Eggers's tale, the deprivations of the Great Recession have ossified into a new normal. Jobs are scarce. A health care plan is a holy grail. For Mae, just twenty-four years old and carrying $250,000 of college debt, working within The Circle's utopia is the ultimate prize, a rescue she is desperate to deserve.
To that end, Mae quickly adapts to the company culture. She gives up all of her private information and, soon enough, all of her private time. It turns out that the Circle's 10,000 employees are judged not solely by their work but also by how much they participate in The Circle's internal culture. They're tracked by cameras, by GPS locators, and by their multiple social media feeds. Mae is pressured to attend the numerous after-hours events held on The Circle's campus, and unless she posts numerous photos and comments and tweets (here called "zings"), it's as though she wasn't there.
Social activism isn't volunteering with Habitat for Humanity it's sending "smiles" (think Facebook "likes") to posts written about Habitat for Humanity. In one particularly lacerating scene, Mae and fellow Circlers take comfort in having sent thousands of smiles to the cell phone of a woman being held hostage by rebels in South America.
Soon, leaving The Circle's idyllic campus for even an hour becomes an unbearable ordeal: "There were homeless people, and there were the attendant and assaulting smells, and there were machines that didn't work, and floors and seats that hadn't been cleaned, and there was, everywhere, the chaos of an orderless world."
When one of Mae's few private pleasures, kayaking on the bay, gets her into trouble with the law, her Circle superiors are upset not with the fact that she lifted someone else's kayak but that the things she saw and thought and felt during the excursion remained known only to herself. This leads to a series of chillingly logical conversations, after which Mae coins two of The Circle's new truths: "Secrets are lies" and "Privacy is theft." Beyond the critique of a new corporate culture that leans on its users and employees to turn every lived moment into social capital, the overtly Orwellian echoes in those phrases hint at recent revelations about the NSA's incursion into citizens' digital lives.
The Circle is billed as a thriller, and Eggers has some secrets and suspense up his sleeve. The three men in Mae's life an old boyfriend, a geeky colleague she takes up with, and a mysterious man she becomes obsessed with and who well may be quite dangerous all star in subplots that are strange and disturbing. But Eggers, a 2012 National Book Award finalist for his novel A Hologram for the King, is too invested in his gleeful send-up of Internet culture to take the time to flesh out either his characters or the story. The broad strokes and broad wit plant The Circle firmly in the world of social satire. But in Eggers's accomplished hands, that turns out to be a good thing.
Veronique de Turenne is a Los Angeles–based journalist, essayist, and playwright. Her literary criticism appears on NPR and in major American newspapers. One of the highlights of her career was interviewing Vin Scully in his broadcast booth at Dodger Stadium, then receiving a handwritten thank-you note from him a few days later.
Reviewer: Veronique de Turenne
Read an Excerpt
My god, Mae thought. It’s heaven.
The campus was vast and rambling, wild with Pacific color, and yet the smallest detail had been carefully considered, shaped by the most eloquent hands. On land that had once been a shipyard, then a drive-in movie theater, then a flea market, then blight, there were now soft green hills and a Calatrava fountain. And a picnic area, with tables arranged in concentric circles. And tennis courts, clay and grass. And a volleyball court, where tiny children from the company’s daycare center were running, squealing, weaving like water. Amid all this was a workplace, too, four hundred acres of brushed steel and glass on the headquarters of the most influential company in the world. The sky above was spotless and blue.
Mae was making her way through all of this, walking from the parking lot to the main hall, trying to look as if she belonged. The walkway wound around lemon and orange trees and its quiet red cobblestones were replaced, occasionally, by tiles with imploring messages of inspiration. “Dream,” one said, the word laser-cut into the red stone. “Participate,” said another. There were dozens: “Find Community.” “Innovate.” “Imagine.” She just missed stepping on the hand of a young man in a grey jumpsuit; he was installing a new stone that said “Breathe.”
On a sunny Monday in June, Mae stopped in front of the main door, standing below the logo etched into the glass above. Though the company was less than six years old, its name and logo—a circle surrounding a knitted grid, with a small ‘c’ in the center—were already among the best-known in the world. There were more than ten thousand employees on this, the main campus, but the Circle had offices all over the globe, and was hiring hundreds of gifted young minds every week. It had been voted the world’s most admired company four years running.
Mae wouldn’t have thought she had a chance to work at such a place, but for Annie. Annie was two years older and they’d roomed together for three semesters in college, in an ugly building made habitable through their extraordinary bond, something like friends, something like sisters or cousins who wished they were siblings and would have reason never to be apart. Their first month living together, Mae had broken her jaw one twilight, after fainting, flu-ridden and underfed, during finals. Annie had told her to stay in bed, but Mae had gone to the 7-Eleven for caffeine and woke up on the sidewalk, under a tree. Annie took her to the hospital, and waited as they wired her jaw, and then stayed with Mae, sleeping next to her, in a wooden chair, all night, and then at home, for days, had fed Mae through a straw. It was a fierce level of commitment and competence that Mae had never seen from someone her age or near her age, and Mae was thereafter loyal in a way she’d never known she could be.
While Mae was still at Carleton, meandering between majors, from art history to marketing to psychology—getting her degree in psych with no plans to go further in the field—Annie had graduated, gotten her MBA from Stanford and was recruited everywhere, but particularly at the Circle, and had landed here days after graduation. Now she had some lofty title—Director of Ensuring the Future, Annie joked—and had urged Mae to apply for a job. Mae did so, and though Annie insisted she pulled no strings, Mae was sure that Annie had, and she felt indebted beyond all measure. A million people, a billion, wanted to be where Mae was at this moment, entering this atrium, thirty feet high and shot through with California light, on her first day working for the only company that really mattered at all.
She pushed open the heavy door. The front hall was as long as a parade, as tall as a cathedral. There were offices everywhere above, four floors high on either side, every wall made of glass. Briefly dizzy, she looked downward, and in the immaculate glossy floor, she saw her own face reflected, looking worried. She shaped her mouth into a smile, feeling a presence behind her.
“You must be Mae.”
Mae turned to find a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse.
“I’m Renata,” she said.
“Hi Renata. I’m looking for—”
“Annie. I know. She’s on her way.” A sound, a digital droplet, came from Renata’s ear. “She’s actually...” Renata was looking at Mae but was seeing something else. Retinal interface, Mae assumed. Another innovation born here.
“She’s in the Old West,” Renata said, focusing on Mae again, “but she’ll be here soon.”
Mae smiled. “I hope she’s got some hardtack and a sturdy horse.”
Renata smiled politely but did not laugh. Mae knew the company’s practice of naming each portion of the campus after a historical era; it was a way to make an enormous place less impersonal, less corporate. It beat Building 3B-East, where Mae had last worked. Her final day at the public utility in her hometown had been only three weeks ago—they’d been stupefied when she gave notice—but already it seemed impossible she’d wasted so much of her life there. Good riddance, Mae thought, to that gulag and all it represented.
Renata was still getting signals from her earpiece. “Oh wait,” she said, “now she’s saying she’s still tied up over there.” Renata looked at Mae with a radiant smile. “Why don’t I take you to your desk? She says she’ll meet you there in an hour or so.”
Mae thrilled a bit at those words, your desk, and immediately she thought of her dad. He was proud. So proud, he’d said on her voicemail; he must have left the message at four a.m. She’d gotten it when she’d woken up. So very proud, he’d said, choking up. Mae was two years out of college and here she was, gainfully employed by the Circle, with her own health insurance, her own apartment in the city, being no burden to her parents, who had plenty else to worry about.
Mae followed Renata out of the atrium. On the lawn, under dappled light, a pair of young people were sitting on a manmade hill, holding some kind of clear tablet, talking with great intensity.
“You’ll be in the Renaissance, over here,” Renata said, pointing across the lawn, to a building of glass and oxidized copper. “This is where all the Customer Experience people are. You’ve visited before?”
Mae nodded. “I have. A few times, but not this building.”
“So you’ve seen the pool, the sports area.” Renata waved her hand off toward a blue parallelogram and an angular building, the gym, rising behind it. “Over there there’s the yoga studio, crossfit, Pilates, massages, spinning. I heard you spin? Behind that there’s the bocce courts, and the new tetherball setup. The cafeteria’s just across the grass...” Renata pointed to the lush rolling green, with a handful of young people, dressed professionally and splayed about like sunbathers. “And here we are.”
They stood before the Renaissance, another building with a forty-foot atrium, a Calder mobile turning slowly above.
“Oh, I love Calder,” Mae said.
Renata smiled. “I know you do.” They looked up at it together. “This one used to hang in the French parliament. Something like that.”
The wind that had followed them in now turned the mobile such that an arm pointed to Mae, as if welcoming her personally. Renata took her elbow. “Ready? Up this way.”
They entered an elevator of glass, tinted faintly orange. Lights flickered on and Mae saw her name appear on the walls, along with her high school yearbook photo. Welcome Mae Holland. A sound, something like a gasp, left Mae’s throat. She hadn’t seen that photo in years, and had been happy for its absence. This must have been Annie’s doing, assaulting her with it again. The picture was indeed Mae—her wide mouth, her thin lips, her olive skin, her black hair, but in this photo, more so than in life, her high cheekbones gave her a look of severity, her brown eyes not smiling, only small and cold, ready for war. Since the photo—she was eighteen then, angry and unsure—Mae had gained much-needed weight, her face had softened and curves appeared, curves that brought the attention of men of myriad ages and motives. She’d tried, since high school, to be more open, more accepting, and seeing it here, this document of a long-ago era when she assumed the worst of the world, rattled her. Just when she couldn’t stand it anymore, the photo disappeared.
“Yeah, everything’s on sensors,” Renata said. “The elevator reads your ID, and then says hello. Annie gave us that photo. You guys must be tight if she’s got high school pictures of you. Anyway, hope you don’t mind. We do that for visitors, mostly. They’re usually impressed.”
As the elevator rose, the day’s featured activities appeared on every elevator wall, the images and text traveling from one panel to the next. With each announcement, there was video, photos, animation, music. There was a screening of Koyaanisqatsi at noon, a self-massage demonstration at one, core strengthening at three. A congressman Mae hadn’t heard of, grey-haired but young, was holding a town hall at six thirty. On the elevator door, he was talking at a podium, somewhere else, flags rippling behind him, his shirtsleeves rolled up and his hands shaped into earnest fists.
The doors opened, splitting the congressman in two.
“Here we are,” Renata said, stepping out to a narrow catwalk of steel grating. Mae looked down and felt her stomach cinch. She could see all the way to the ground floor, four stories below.
Mae attempted levity: “I guess you don’t put anyone with vertigo up here.”
Renata stopped and turned to Mae, looking gravely concerned. “Of course not. But your profile said—”
“No, no,” Mae said. “I’m fine.”
“Seriously. We can put you lower if—”
“No, no. Really. It’s perfect. Sorry. I was making a joke.”
Renata was visibly shaken. “Okay. Just let me know if anything’s not right.”
“You will? Because Annie would want me to make sure.”
“I will. I promise,” Mae said, and smiled at Renata, who recovered and moved on.