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July 30, 2014

'The Circle': Cautionary tale channels Big Brother nightmares of old

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Posted: Saturday, November 23, 2013 9:32 pm

“The Circle”

by Dave Eggers; Knopf/McSweeney’s, 2013; 491 pages; $27.95.

By its early pages, Dave Eggers’s new novel is already channeling Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

“The Circle” is a contemporary nightmare of monstrous proportions set in our world — a world that, more and more, converts our need to be known into an incontrovertible “right” to be known.

Mae Holland hasn’t caught a break for quite a while. In her mid-20s, with aging parents and bills to pay, Mae feels weighed down. When a college friend recommends her for an entry-level position with The Circle, she’s convinced her luck is changing.

Her first day on the job, Mae is overwhelmed as the new member of the Customer Experience team. But she has a fine health plan, comfortable conditions and access to all sorts of perks and social activities during her downtime on the work campus. So what if the number of computer screens at her workstation seems to be multiplying? So what if there’s really no need for her to ever leave the campus, except maybe to paddle around the bay in a rented kayak? So what if there seems to be an increasing number of intrusions into every corner of her life?

“Transparency” is the watch cry of The Circle, the world’s most powerful Internet company. Circle buildings are mostly glass — Circle lives must also be. Signs around the campus tout “Secrets Are Lies,” “Sharing Is Caring,” “Privacy Is Theft.” So what if that smacks of abject tyranny?

Mae navigates The Circle — a company whose main goal is “completion” — with three men in her life, men to whom she is drawn because of her need to be accepted, to be a part of anything. Francis is a devoted employee who develops social media that will quickly be adopted by The Circle. He, therefore, has no qualms about transparency. Mercer, Mae’s former boyfriend, sees the dangers of Mae’s “unnaturally extreme social needs”: “You’ll have helped develop the world’s first tyrannical monopoly. Does it seem like a good thing to you that a private company would control the flow of all information? That participation, at their beck and call, is mandatory?”

And there’s the third man in her life — the mysterious, slim, grey-haired Kalen, who knows about the tunnels under all those transparent buildings, who knows about those red steel boxes that store the raw data of a select few.

“The Circle” begins as a genial ramble about the American dream of new opportunity and promise. With deliberation it descends into a fascinating and frightening contemplation on the virtues of privacy and the dangers of transparency.

Eggers has given us a cautionary tale. So what if he worries that, instead of giving heed, we could decide to deal with his counsel as Mae deals with Mercer’s at the novel’s shattering end?

Steven Whitton is a professor of English at Jacksonville State University.

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