Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Circle

Dave Eggers' brilliant novel veers from post-apocalyptic thriller to satire to parody as he takes the tenets driving social networking and Silicon Valley meglomania to their logical conclusion in the tale of a young ingenue, Mae Holland, who goes to work at The Circle -- a combination of Facebook and Google with a dash of Twitter thrown in -- and quickly become an integral part of a proto-totalitarian surveillance tool.

The world at the beginning of the novel is recognizable as our own, given a couple of years and mergers. The insight of the Three Wise Men who run The Circle was to combine existing social network capabilities in a seamless web, so to speak, of communication.

Quickly, however, the "social" in in social networking becomes a fascist imperative, with first the workers at The Circle and then the population at large expected to participate constantly. Mae is chided after her first week for not participating enough in the online networking and the real life events of the sprawling campus that is a city unto itself. In a dazzingly brilliant pun, Eggers has all the workers ranked according to their level of participation -- their PartiRank -- which conjures up 1984 and Darkness at Noon.

Mae adapts quickly and becomes ashamed of her independent ways -- going on a late-night kayaking trip, for instance, without sharing the experience with The Circle. She is susceptible to the influence of the wise men and becomes a useful foil for propagating their agenda. She sums up the credo of The Circle in words she's not even sure are her own in what becomes a manifesto for the company: Secrets are Lies. Sharing is Caring. Privacy is Theft.

Oh my. Mae is brought to the Circle by her college friend Annie, a star at the company, but Mae's meteoric rise quickly takes her even higher, so that Annie finds herself bitterly envious of her friend's success. Mae must deal with Annie's burgeoning enmity, with the resistance of her parents and old boyfriend in Fresno to the surveillance world envisioned by the Circle, and with her passion for the mysterious Kalden, who seems to have access to the inner sanctum of the Circle but may be a spy from a rival company.

The reader hopes against hope that Mae will wake up to the peril of the world she is embracing and that suspense drives the reader to the climax of the novel when she must choose between the totalitarian vision of the Circle leaders and the alternative presented by the enigmatic Kalden. It is worth reading the novel to find out what she chooses.

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