AKA: Big Brother is Here
When I found Margaret Atwood’s review for the New York Times I scraped my review to present hers. But let me say Circle is a fantastic read. A great cautionary tale.
Eggers’s first major book was the much-acclaimed semifictional memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius(2000), which recounts the struggles of Eggers to raise his younger brother after the death of their parents. By that time he was already active in the underground worlds of comic strip writing, small-magazine founding, and columnizing in the then-embryonic realm of online magazines. He has continued along a multibranched road that has included the founding of McSweeney’s magazine and publishing house, and an associated monthly,The Believer; of 826 Valencia, a youth literacy charity; and of ScholarMatch, connecting non-rich college-age kids in the San Francisco Bay Area with donors.
Then there’s the writing: the screenplays, the journalism, and, of course, the books. These include two unflinching looks at man’s inhumanity to man, in Africa and America respectively—What Is the What and Zeitoun—and the novel A Hologram for the King, which glances at the decline of America’s international clout through the eyes of a sad salesman. Eggers appears to run on pure adrenaline, and has as many ideas pouring out of him as the entrepreneurs pitching their inventions in The Circle.
The outpouring of ideas is central to The Circle, as it is in part a novel of ideas. What sort of ideas? Ideas about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy. Dissemination of information is power, as the old yellow-journalism newspaper proprietors knew so well. What is withheld can be as potent as what is disclosed, and who can lie publicly and get away with it is determined by gatekeepers: thus, in the Internet age, code-owners have the keys to the kingdom.
Marshall McLuhan was among the first to probe the effects of different kinds of media on our collective consciousness with The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) andUnderstanding Media (1964). Even then, before interactive technologies, he pointed out that “the global village” could be an unpleasant and claustrophobic place. As far back as 1835, Toqueville’s Democracy in America predicted the tyranny of public opinion, a tyranny that can be amplified immeasurably via the Internet.
The concerns that underlie The Circle are therefore of long standing, but have been much discussed recently, not only in newspapers and magazines both online and off, but in books. Misha Glenny has written eloquently about cybertheft and cybercrime in McMafia and DarkMarket, and, in Black Code, Ronald Deibert has detailed various cyberthreats to democracy and privacy. In The Boy Kings, a 2012 memoir that chronicles the early days of Facebook, Katherine Losse questioned the desirability of making personal information public.
This, then, is the “real” world to which Eggers holds up the mirror of art in order to show us ourselves and the perils that surround us. But The Circle is neither a tract nor an analysis but a novel, and novels always tell the stories of individuals. In genre this novel partakes of the Menippean satire—distinct from social satire in viewing moral defects less as flaws of character than as intellectual perversions. It also incorporates passages of symposium-like Socratic dialogue by which the central character is manipulated, through rational-sounding questions and answers, into performing the increasingly outrageous acts that logic demands of her.
Some will call The Circle a “dystopia,” but there’s no sadistic slave-whipping tyranny on view in this imaginary America: indeed, much energy is expended on world betterment by its earnest denizens. Plagues are not raging, nor is the planet blowing up or even warming noticeably. Instead we are in the green and pleasant land of a satirical utopia for our times, where recycling and organics abound, people keep saying how much they like each another, and the brave new world of virtual sharing and caring breeds monsters.
The Circle takes its name most immediately from a fictional West Coast social media corporation that has subsumed all earlier iterations such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. It traces the rise and rise within this company of its female protagonist, Maebelline, a name that closely resembles that of a brand of mascara, thus hinting at masks and acting. (Names matter in The Circle because they matter both to its author and to its characters, some of whom go so far as to pick out new ones for themselves from the Internet.) Maebelline is commonly called “Mae,” and this nickname is then expanded by a coworker who’s bringing Mae up to speed on her Circle duties. She’s opened a “Zing” account for Mae—zinging being an amalgamation of tweeting, texting, and pinging. “I made up a name for you,” says Gina.
“MaeDay. Like the war holiday. Isn’t that cool?”
Mae wasn’t so sure about the name, and couldn’t remember a holiday by that name.
Clever Mr. Eggers. There is no real war holiday called MaeDay, but “Mayday”—from the French m’aidez—is a venerable distress signal. May Day was once a pagan springtime celebration, but was adopted in the nineteenth century as a workers’ holiday. It was then appropriated for military parades during Stalinism, a period noted for its hyperactive secret police, and satirized in Orwell’s 1984, a work that is echoed more than once in The Circle. Maebelline, Zing-christened as MaeDay: a makeup accessory, a distress signal, a totalitarian power-show. The reader feels a pricking of the thumbs.
At first Mae is winsomely innocuous. She’s recently been an Everygirl stuck in her own version of purgatory, the humiliating McJob in the gas and energy utility of her small hometown in California that she took out of the need to pay off her crushing college debts. Now she’s called back from the living dead by her college roommate turned Circle higher-up, Annie. Annie too is significantly named: Annies get their guns, being competitive, perky sharpshooting tomboys; they’re Orphan Annies, brave and adventurous and protected by Daddy Warbucks, who uses his wealth for Good. This Annie is a golden-girl scatterbrained “doofus” who slouched around at college in men’s flannel trousers, but then, after a Stanford MBA, was recruited into the Circle and has been soaring like a helium balloon, adored by all.
Annie comes from money and family class—Mayflower rather than MaeDay—not that eye-rolling Annie claims to take her aristocratic descent seriously. None of her privilege has been lost on second-fiddle Mae, who, as she enters the Circle, is suffused with gratitude toward Annie and wonderment at being actually there, part of “the only company that really mattered at all”; but as the reader may anticipate, an All About Eve girl-on-girl mud-wrestling glint soon flickers in her star-bedazzled eyes.
Eggers sets forth the players and ground of his novel right at the beginning, like a gamer setting up the board. The Circle, we learn, is run by a triumvirate known as the Three Wise Men. Like Melville’s Pequod and Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, the Circle is a combination of physical container, financial system, spiritual state, and dramatis personae, intended to represent America, or at least a powerful segment of it; so these three, like Melville’s three harpooners, are emblematic.
Tyler Alexander Gospodinov, known as Ty, is the “boy-wonder visionary” founder who, by inventing a system called TruYou, did away with passwords and fake identities and trolls, not because he wished to take over the world, but because he wanted things to be simpler and more transparent. The most telling element of his name is “Alexander”—the Great, of course, but also he who wept because he had no more worlds to conquer. Elusive Ty is seldom seen about the place except as an image on a screen, a hoodie pulled over his head. In the Circle, where the alleged mission is to render everyone and everything visible, he is hidden, shadowy: no one ever knows what he’s planning next.
The second Wise Man is Eamon (“rich protector”) Bailey (as in Barnum). A Notre Dame graduate, he’s the company’s genial, uncle-ish public face, combining the flair of a showman with the suave persuasiveness of a Jesuit. “Loved by all,” says Annie, “and I think he really loves them back.” That “I think” should give Mae pause, but it doesn’t.
The third Wise Man is Tom Stenton. In literature, Toms are often scamps and boundary pushers, as are Toms Thumb, Kitten, Brown, and Jones; or they may be pig stealers, as in the nursery rhyme, or rich thugs, as in The Great Gatsby, or even imps or evil geniuses, as in Tom Tit-Tot and Tom Riddle, respectively. A Tom coupled with a Stenton (“stone enclosure”) is likely to be a hard customer. So it is with this shark-like Tom, the CEO, who revels in his money and influence, fights the company’s battles and squashes its enemies, and has eyes that are “flat, unreadable.”
Serving under the Three Wise Men are the members of the inner circle, known jokingly as “the Gang of Forty.” This might seem a nod to the Chinese Gang of Four, but there’s more to it: in scripture, forty is a highly significant number. It rained for forty days and forty nights during Noah’s flood, Moses spent forty years in the wilderness, and Jesus fasted for forty days while being tempted by the Devil, who offers him the world in exchange for his soul. “Forty” signifies a period of trial and testing, with high stakes in the balance, and not only Mae but Annie are indeed tested throughout the novel.
These, then, are the major players of The Circle. There are a lot of small fry, and even some “plankton”—outsiders who pitch their ideas, hoping to be hired. They are the krill on which the larger fish graze, and yes, the marine life metaphors culminate in a Big Metaphor. Not for nothing does the Circle possess a large glass aquarium.
Next comes the physical layout or “campus,” described in lavish, enchanting detail: readers of lifestyle sections will salivate over the adjectives, and are sure to make comparisons between what’s on offer here and what real life has already provided on other such company “campuses.” The Circle’s security walls enclose a paradise of green spaces, buildings, fountains, artworks, and game spaces, with luxurious dormitories for those who may wish to work late and stay overnight, not that there’s any pressure, mind you. The restaurants dish up gourmet but virtuous food, the parties are übercool, and there’s a sample room full of products that their manufacturers are dying to have the trend-setting Circlers adopt.
The different buildings are named after historical periods: the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, and the like. (He who controls the past controls the future and he who controls the present controls the past, as 1984 puts it.) Artists, both starving and otherwise, are brought in to entertain, like the troubadours in the Middle Ages or Voltaire at the court of Frederick the Great; for such corporations are the modern equivalent of kingdoms and Renaissance dukedoms. Lest we miss the point, there’s a marvelous collection in the Circle, assembled by Bailey, who, despite his folksiness, is a “connoisseur.” He’s amassed all kinds of obsolete objects, such as leather-bound books and green-shaded reading lamps, loot he’s bought from “distressed estates”—the losers of capitalism, we gather. If you hear an echo of rich financier and art collector Adam Verver from Henry James’s The Golden Bowl, you might be correct: one of the things money buys is the past, all the better to gloat over it.
The palatial buildings are made of glass, ostensibly to underline the Circle’s mantra of “transparency”—everyone should be open to everyone else in all ways, a goal within the Circle’s reach thanks to the ingenious schemes and doodads cooked up by its collective brain trust: the tiny “SeeChange” cameras that can be planted everywhere (no more rapes and atrocities!), the scheme to embed tracking chips in children’s bones (no more kidnapping!). Why wouldn’t any sane person want those things? People who live in glass houses not only shouldn’t throw stones—they can’t throw them! Isn’t that a good thing? And if you have nothing to hide, why get paranoid?
But literary structures of glass, or its close cousin, ice, are never reassuring. Glass buildings are halls of mirrors where one may become lost; or they are illusions that easily melt or shatter; or they are prisons that permit others to look at you unchecked, like the glass cage in which Billy Pilgrim is kept by the Tralfamadorians in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The glass buildings in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We—precursor of both Brave New World and 1984—allow the totalitarian police to snoop on everyone all the time. To see everything without being seen is, needless to say, the prerogative of the biblical God whose eyes run everywhere, as well as the labor of spies and surveillance agencies, and the fondest desire of the voyeur.
As we move deeper into The Circle we may recall the Snow Queen’s palace in the Hans Andersen tale, where hearts are frozen, the cold queen rules from her throne on the Mirror of Reason, and the puzzle of “eternity” cannot be solved without love. We may also be reminded of the “stately pleasure dome” from Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan,” “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice.” The poet dreams of recreating this fabled edifice through art, but others find something demonic about his enterprise. “Weave a circle round him thrice,” they chant. The woven circle is to protect others from him, because he’s entranced; in modern parlance he’s been drinking the Kool-Aid and is, like, totally out of his mind.
Which brings us to circles. Both the reader and Mae encounter the Circle first through its logo, which is obligingly depicted on the book’s cover and then described through Mae’s eyes: “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 the best-known in the world.” Looked at by someone unfamiliar with it, the logo would surely suggest a manhole cover. I certainly hope Eggers intended this: as a flat disc, the thing might imply a moon or a sun or a mandala—something shining and cosmic and quasi-religious—but as a portal to dark, sulphurous, Plutonian tunnels it is much more resonant.
The circle motif may be Eggers’s wink at Google’s “Circles,” a way of arranging your contacts on its counterpart to Facebook: but it’s much more than that. The circle is an ancient symbol that’s had a variety of incarnations. There are divine circles—the Egyptian sun, the vision of the poet Henry Vaughan, who “saw Eternity the other night,/Like a great ring of pure and endless light”; in case we overlook the point, inside Eamon Bailey’s private lair is a stained glass ceiling with “countless angels arranged in rings.” Bailey himself weighs in on circles: “A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it, nothing can improve upon it, nothing can be more perfect. And that’s what we want to be: perfect.” A man with Bailey’s Catholic background should know that he’s verging on heresy, since perfection belongs to God alone. He ought to know also that circles can be demonic: Dante’s Inferno has nine circles. Maybe he does know those things, but has discounted them.
As the story advances, our view of the Circle moves from bright to dark to darker. At first, viewed through Mae’s eyes, the place seems wondrous:
The rest of America…seemed like some chaotic mess in the developing world. Outside the walls of the Circle, all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected. The best people had made the best systems and the best systems had reaped funds, unlimited funds, that made possible this, the best place to work. And it was natural that it was so, Mae thought. Who else but utopians could make utopia?
But if this is utopia, why is Mae so anxious most of the time? True, her workload in “Customer Experience” is crushing, as she answers questions, sends “smiles” and “frowns”—the Circle equivalent of Likes and Dislikes and Favorites—to other websites and accounts, fields an avalanche of messages and invitations from other Circlers, and is under increasing pressure to spend all her time “participating.” But her main terror is being cast out of the Circle: she’ll do almost anything to stay inside, and worries constantly about what sort of impression she’s making. Is she getting enough approval, a substance she measures by messages, Zings, “smiles,” and online watchers? Is she making the grade?
The Circlers’ social etiquette is as finely calibrated as anything in Jane Austen: how fast you return a Zing or your tone of voice when saying “Yup” can matter deeply, and missing someone’s themed party is a lethal snub. Every choice is tracked and evaluated, every “aesthetic” ruthlessly judged. The nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin—who famously said, “Tell me what you like and I’ll tell you who you are”—viewed bad taste as a moral offense, and the young Circlers subscribe to this dogma: nothing gets you the brushoff more quickly than a pair of uncool jeans. Utopia, it seems, is an awful lot like high school, but with even more homework.
Just as there are Three Wise Men, there are also Three Inadequate Boyfriends: a conforming wanker who wants to post recordings of his ersatz sex with Mae online; a hapless, arts-and-crafts Jiminy Cricket conscience from her previous life who tries to warn her about the unreality and inherent totalitarianism of the Circle’s proceedings; and a mysterious, sexually charged older man who pops in and out of tunnels like the Phantom of the Opera. It’s this third one who plays demon lover to the Circle’s sunny pleasure dome, and who shows Mae the caverns measureless to man, in this case the underground river cave in which people’s total data profiles—call them souls—are stored in red boxes. His name—not his real one—is Kalden, Tibetan for “of the golden age.” Point being: the golden age is over.
Eggers treats his material with admirable inventiveness and gusto. The plot capers along, the trap doors open underfoot, the language ripples and morphs. Why has he not been headhunted by some corporation specializing in new brand names? Better than reality, some of these, and all too plausible. But don’t look toThe Circle for Chekhovian nuance or thoroughly rounded characters with many-layered inwardness: it isn’t “literary fiction” of that kind. It’s an entertainment, but a challenging one: it demands that the reader think its positions through in the same way that the characters must. Some of its incidents are funny, some of them are appalling, and some of them are both at once, like a nightmare in which you find yourself making a speech with no clothes on.
And there’s quite a lot of that: who has the right to see whose dangly bits, and under what circumstances? If everything must be accessible to everyone else—if you’re on camera all the time, so to speak—what times and places can be private, apart from sex and bathroom functions? Sure enough, it’s not long before sex is taking place in toilet cubicles, though not for the first time in either literature or life. Private communication is driven in there too, and those aware of the fact that all their e-mails are potentially monitored—and who can be more aware of that potential than the Circlers?—are driven back on a pitiful Stone Age technology: the note scribbled with some obsolete mark-making device on that despised substance, paper.
But apart from the moments of almost farcical discovery—among them the discovery by the characters themselves that there is indeed such a thing as TMI, or Too Much Information—Eggers has a serious purpose, or several. One of them is to remind us that we can be led down the primrose path much more blindly by our good intentions than by our bad ones. (He’s entitled to speak about good intentions, having manifested so many of them himself, in his various other lives.) A second may be to examine the nature of looking and being looked at.
A face with a direct gaze is said to be one of the first images a baby recognizes. It’s a primary pattern. The human gaze, when languorous, is much celebrated in love poetry, but a blank or hostile stare is intimidating at the biological level. Who can look at whom, and at what, informs not only the parental admonition “Don’t stare” and the insulting childhood challenge “Who’re you looking at?” but a wide range of other human behaviors, from the use of mandatory body and head coverings to PGlabels on films to Peeping Tom legislation. “Don’t make a spectacle of yourself,” kids used to be told; but in the world of the Circle, people must make spectacles of themselves: to refuse to do so is selfish, or, as Bailey leads Mae to declaim,PRIVACY IS THEFT.
Publication on social media is in part a performance, as is everything “social” that human beings do; but what happens when that brightly lit arena expands so much that there is no green room in which the mascara can be removed, no cluttered, imperfect back stage where we can be ‘“ourselves”? What happens to us if we must be “on” all the time? Then we’re in the twenty-four-hour glare of the supervised prison. To live entirely in public is a form of solitary confinement.