I want to thank all the watchers who sent frowns to the government there, both for their persecution of this artist, and for their restrictions on internet freedoms. We've sent over 180 million frowns from the U.S. alone, and you can bet that has an effect on the regime.
(Mae in Dave Eggers' The Circle)
When it comes to hyperbole in his parable The Circle, Dave Eggers isn't sparing his reader. The message is clear: a dystopia isn't something that only originates with malevolent tyrants. It can originate from benevolence and good will. It will be as terrifying as your favorite stereotype resident evil.
Reading The Circle left me with some ambiguity. What's more important? The message of Eggers to the reader, or the unrealistic way he formulates it? Both have the subtlety of a sledgehammer. And yet, the message arrives.
The Circle is the amalgam of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Microsoft, you name it, every successful West Coast tech company dictating our online lives. And increasingly our offline lives as well. It's a company enclosed on a campus full of happy employees doing happy things, developing happy ideas for the betterment of mankind. Mae Holland is glad to be a newbie at the company that everyone wants to work for. Leaving a dull job, she gets help from her old university friend Annie. Annie is one of the forty leaders at the Circle (The Gang of Forty). These forty are under the leadership of the Three Wise Men: Ty Gospodinov, Eamon Baily and Tom Stenton. As you can see, even the Bible is an inspiration. Jesus and his forty days in the desert. Mozes and forty years before reaching the promised land, and the holy trinity mixed in. In the end, Mae will be the prophet.
Ty is the mysterious technical genius, rarely seen, and of course there's more to that in the story. Eamon Baily is the visionary, with a happy public demeanor of Steve Jobs - and the cold-bloodedness behind the screen. Tom Stenton is the hard boiled money maker. He is completing the triumvirate of money, image and ideas. Mae starts working for The Circle and is rapidly consumed by it. She'll become the spokeswoman for the ideas the Circle wants to bestow upon the world. They are many, they seem benign, but they predict hell.
That's where I felt ambiguity coming up. To some extent you can believe Mae's descent into the cesspool that the Circle turns out to be. Her father has MS and can't afford his medicine. The Circle takes care of that. Mae is thankful. Soon it's no worker's benefit anymore, but a tool for blackmailing her into conformity. And in the end, Mae abides - more than that. Her parents, her ex-boyfriend, they all disappear from her life, and not all go without a bang. Mae doesn't seem to be bothered by it. She disposes them all like you bring your old stuff to the recycle station. Is she real?
The occasional voice trying to bring Mae to her senses sounds often way too pedantic and preachy. The regular voices convincing Mae that he who has something to hide is a criminal are quite familiar. Especially to those reading the papers and their comment section about new anti-privacy laws. But the arguments against them have been done better in real life than in The Circle.
Because Mae turns out to be such a stereotype and a cipher most of the time, I felt no real connection to her. At the turning point in the story, involving an arrest, her fate left me cold. On the other hand her life at the Circle made me feel more anxious and stressed than any book or movie ever was able to. Sometimes I almost felt the need to stop for a moment. Mae is constantly flooded with everything the Circle has: zings, frowns, smiles, reactions, friend requests and a dozen more. Eggers is precise: when Mae looks at the growing and ridiculous number of screens on her desk (and her wrists) she isn't flooded with " thousands" of messages, but with 8,094 messages, 1,245 Zings and 3,257 requests. She is able to answer them all - and more. It makes your head burst at the seams.
Eggers shows the tyranny of social media, the fake world of good people not so good at all. He shows what it is like to be unable to have your own time, your own private moments. And in the end maybe not even your own dreams. Even Mae has to take refuge in toilets to speak freely - yet doesn't understand the meaning of it. With it Eggers gives a strong signal to the reader: not all tyranny starts with bad people. Not all that is called better is best. The way to hell is paved with good intentions - and hell they get in The Circle.