When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.
As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO.
Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.
What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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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.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, topics, and other material that follow are intended to enhance your group’s conversation about The Circle, Dave Eggers's hauntingly prescient, page-turning novel about an all-powerful internet company—and what happens when the benefits of technology exact a dangerous price on humanity.
1. How does Mae’s behavior during her first days at work foreshadow what happens to her over the course of the novel? In what ways is she an “ideal” employee of the Circle and its aims?
2. The wings of the Circle are named after different regions of the world and time periods, such as Old West, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Machine Age, the Industrial Revolution. What do these names say about the company’s vision of historical innovation versus its future-looking work? Is there an inherent hierarchy in these names, despite their apparent equality?
3. In what ways does Annie inspire and motivate Mae in terms of the level of success that can be achieved at the Circle? Does Mae consider Annie’s position the product of Annie’s own ambition, or something she imbibed from the company’s ethos? How does knowing first about their professional relationship shape your understanding of their shared past?
4. For a company that thrives on order and efficiency, the Circle also seems to endorse—require, even—loose and extravagant socializing. What do these two seemingly opposite values say about what working for them entails? How does Mae’s value set evolve to accommodate these expectations?
5. Mae’s first serious blunder on the job is failing to respond to and attend a social event, Alistair’s Portugal brunch. How does the meeting in Dan’s office set the tone for Mae’s pushing the Circle’s networks on others?
6. Among the Three Wise Men––Ty, Bailey, and Stenton––who has a vision of what the Circle can—and should—do that seems most viable? In the end, is this trifecta of power able to prevent tyranny? What might the novel’s conclusion say about man’s reaction to power—even when humanity is apparently subsumed under technology?
7. Our first encounter with a shark in the novel is when Mae sees one from a kayak, and she complacently observes, “They were hidden in the dark water, in their black parallel world, and knowing they were there, but not knowing where or really anything else, felt, at that moment, strangely right” (p.83). Later, we see another shark that Stenton brings back from the Marianas Trench, in a cage with other sea life being viewed by Mae’s watchers: “Then, like a machine going about its work, the shark circled and stabbed until he had devoured . . . everything, and deposited the remains quickly, carpeting the empty aquarium in a low film of white ash” (pp. 476–77). What is essentially different about these two scenarios that garners such different behavior from these wild creatures? Do the humans that watch the shark in the aquarium—“terrified . . . in awe and wanting more of the same”—seem to learn anything (p.477)?
8. During one of her visits home, Mae tells Mercer, “I guess I’m just so easily bored” by what he considers a normal tempo of speech, but what Mae considers “slow motion” compared with the Circlers’ communication in person and online (p.130); and later that night, going through her Circle account to answer queries and social requests, she feels “reborn” (p.135). How much of this shortened attention span is evident in our society today? In the end, are Mae’s instantaneous relationships more or less gratifying than she expects?
9. The bracelet provided by the health clinic is a remarkable technological feat and would revolutionize health care if it existed. Mae even finds it “beautiful, a pulsing marquee of lights and charts and numbers . . . [her] pulse represented by a delicately rendered rose, opening and closing” (p.156). But what does this additional form of self-monitoring, along with her three work screens, contribute to Mae’s true knowledge of herself? For example, does watching their pulses rise in anticipation of sex bring Mae and Francis closer together emotionally, or push them further apart?
10. It is both a curse and a blessing that Mae is able to provide her parents with health care: while her father is able to receive the MS treatment he desperately needs, Mae seems to benefit even more from her ability to share his story online through support groups and ultimately drives those groups away. Did you ever feel that her actions became more selfish than selfless, and if so, when?
11. Even though Mae meets Kalden when she is relatively enmeshed in the constant connectivity of the Circle, she is still taken in by his holographic mystery: “his retreating form . . . [that] she couldn’t get a hold of . . . His face had an openness, an unmistakable lack of guile . . . [H]aving him out there, at least for a few days, unreachable but presumably somewhere on campus, provided a jolt of welcome frission to her hours” (pp.170–71). Why does she not feel the need to pursue him more aggressively through the knowledge databases she has available? How does this compare with the way she treats Mercer online––Mercer, about whom she presumably knows much more, given their past?
12. We see Mae involved with three very different men throughout the novel: Mercer, Francis, and Kalden. While they are on the surface wildly different, what might you say are traits they share that reveal what Mae is looking for in a relationship—and how do they satisfy these needs in their own ways? Does Mae ever seem truly happy?
13. After her conversation with Dan about skirting her social responsibilities, Mae stays up all night to boost her PartiRank and “felt a profound sense of accomplishment and possibility” (p.191). She is equally ambitious with her CE satisfaction scores, getting the highest average of any employee on the first day. Why, then, is she so offended when Francis asks for a score on his sexual performance? Where is the line between public and private, analog and digital, drawn for Circlers, and what does it mean that Mae eventually gives in to his request?
14. Does the Circle seem concerned with promoting and preserving traditional family life? In what ways does it threaten to replace biological families with a wider human family, including via transparency?
15. Kayaking is for Mae a twofold form of release: not only is it a way to expend physical energy and clear her mind, but when she steals the kayak and is caught on SeeChange cameras, it also leads to a liberation of sorts within the Circle. Does this connection, and Mae’s reaction to being caught, suggest that the Circle’s intentions are well meaning after all, or do they illustrate a more sinister shift in attitude enabled by the Circle?
16. Why do you think Ty felt the need to disguise himself in order to reach out to Mae as he did? How necessary was it for him to preserve his role as one of the Three Wise Men, even as he sought to dismantle the institution he helped create?
17. Is Annie in any sense a martyr of the Circle’s mission? Did you ever feel as if you understood the motives behind her intense devotion to her job?
18. What is the impact of having Mercer’s suicide seen by Mae through cameras—that is, indirectly? Do you think she genuinely believed she was trying to be his friend by launching the drones after him?
19. Many of the technologies the author invents in The Circle seem futuristic, but they are not so far from realities that exist now in 2013: myriad social media sites are obviously omnipresent, but the government is also developing facial recognition to screen for terrorists (The New York Times, August 20, 2013) and Google Glass seems not so unlike the camera necklace that allows for Mae’s transparency. After finishing the novel, did you find this overlap between fact and fiction unsettling? Did it affect how you personally engage with technology?