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You probably already know that tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter know a lot about everything you do. We give up tons of data about ourselves every day without really thinking about it. It's convenient, right? And we like to share. But what would happen if, someday, all that data got turned against us? What if the people in charge of it started using it to control us?
Welcome to The Circle.
The novel gets underway when 24-year-old Mae Holland lands a job at the main campus of the world's most innovative and prestigious tech company, called—you guessed it—the Circle.
For Mae, the job is a dream come true. She can bid sayonara to her sucky 9-to-5 at the utilities company in her hick hometown, and she can start to realize her full potential on the most immaculately landscaped tech campus the world has ever seen. And, hey, so what if realizing her full potential means that Mae needs to completely reorient her habits, her ideas, and her personal values? Nothing good is without sacrifice, right?
The Circle comes to us from Dave Eggers, the man who founded McSweeney's and charmed the world by having enough sheer pluck to call his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. You may also know him as a promoter of literacy education or as a writer committed to bringing human rights violations to light. If none of that rings a bell, maybe you know him as one of the scribes behind the 2009 film adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are. Say it with us now, Shmoopers: "Let the wild rumpus start."
In The Circle, Eggers takes a stab at something new. Wielding satire like a machete, he serves up a work of dystopian fiction that takes aim at our social media-saturated lives. In the world of The Circle, "transparency" is fast becoming the ultimate proof of your goodness and value as a human being. Privacy is basically seen as stealing from your fellows, and secrecy of any kind is the very same thing as a lie. As one reviewer has suggested, as we follow Mae Holland's rise through the ranks of the seemingly utopian Circle, what we're actually seeing is her steady descent into dystopian hell (source).
The Circle has met both praise and criticism since its publication in 2013, and it even became the subject of controversy when a former Facebook employee accused Eggers of stealing the plot of her book, Boy Kings (source). One of the novel's detractors has said that it shows just how little Eggers knows about the internet (source), while one of its advocates has described it as challenging entertainment—as in, it challenges us to think (source).
If you've ever been to Silicon Valley, you'll know that Eggers' satire, like the TV show Silicon Valley, definitely hits a little too close to home. The world Eggers writes about isn't so different from the tech world you'll find in California's San Francisco Bay Area. But how close to reality does Eggers come? Are the risks he sees in technology and the tech world realistic, or are they exaggerated?
What side will you come down on, Shmoopers?
Chances are you've encountered dystopian literature before. Maybe you've read George Orwell's 1984 or Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Maybe you've even reached way back into classics like Yevgeny Zamyatin's We or explored more recent offerings like Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. And hey, even if you haven't read any of those, we're willing to bet that their pop culture influences have seeped into your brain somehow.
But tell us honestly, Shmoopers: when you read those books or watched their film adaptations or listened to your friends give you the lowdown on their plots, did you ever feel like the stories were speaking to you where you were, right here, right now? Did the characters in those novels say and do things that you yourself might say or do? Were those characters' lives like yours? Did they talk on their phones, text their friends, send photos, comment on threads, tweet their thoughts, sign online petitions, share news stories, or shop online?
We didn't think so.
Unlike most of the other dystopian novels you'll encounter, The Circle is ultra contemporary. The characters in this novel are recognizable as millennials, and the world they inhabit isn't so different from the one we live in today. Their obsessions, their idealism, their means of communication—all of these things will probably seem familiar and ordinary to you.
Brave New World? Pshaw. Brave Same World is more like it.
Whether The Circle speaks to your soul or enrages you, whether it makes you reconsider your online presence or makes you want to throw the book across a room—either way, you're going to have a reaction. Dave Eggers is looking around at the world as it exists today and is telling us that it might not take much to turn the progressivism and exuberance of the world's young people into corporate groupthink on a global scale.
Do them sound like fightin' words to you? Well, then, roll up your sleeves, pick up The Circle, and decide for yourselves if Eggers is a prophet in the wilderness or a jaded Gen Xer spouting nonsense.
Dave Eggers on McSweeney's
Follow this link for a handy summary of Dave Eggers' publications, awards, and activities.
Take a look at that cast, folks.
"Sharing Is Caring Is Sharing"
Check out Betsy Morais' review of The Circle in The New Yorker for some great background information about real-life developments that may have inspired themes and events in the novel.
"When Privacy Is Theft"
This sweeping review of The Circle by Margaret Atwood is well worth the time it'll take you to read it.
"Dave Eggers' The Circle: What the Internet Looks Like If You Don't Understand It"
Graeme McMillan, writing for Wired, isn't a fan of The Circle. Read his review of the novel to hear some tech-savvy points raised against Dave Eggers' dystopian creation.
"Did Dave Eggers 'Rewrite' Kate Losse's Book?"
Want to dig deeper into the controversy that greeted The Circle when Kate Losse argued that Dave Eggers had stolen the plot of her Facebook tell-all, Boy Kings?
"Why the Hipsters Have Finally Turned on Writer Dave Eggers"
Want a handy summary of some of the other negative responses that preceded and then followed The Circle's publication? Russell Smith's take in The Globe and Mail will help you out.
A Review of The Circle in The New York Times
Ellen Ullman sure gives a "frown" to Eggers in this review.
A Review of The Circle in The Guardian
Edward Docx's way-less-snarky review of The Circle makes a great point of comparison to the thoughts that Ellen Ullman published in The New York Times.
"A [Very] Brief Q&A with Dave Eggers About His New Novel, The Circle"
This short McSweeney's article will give you some good insight into the Silicon Valley cultures that Dave Eggers had in mind as he penned The Circle.
Dave Eggers on Late Night With Conan O'Brien
Want to see Dave Eggers interviewed by America's favorite ginger comedian? Sorry, Carrot Top, we don't mean you.
A Reading From The Circle
Want to spend a lunch hour listening to parts of The Circle read out loud? Reader Don Graham makes more than one of the novel's characters sound a whole lot like Keanu Reeves, and you know you don't want to miss that.
The Bright Book Cover of The Circle
Looks like that letter "c" is just about to close.
Dave Eggers, Looking Sharp
Author photo, anyone?