If you write, you probably read. It’s one of the unspoken tenants of writing: to write, one must read. So what I’m trying to say, however indirectly, is: I read as much as possible. Whatever I can get my hands on, but from the face of this blog, it may appear that I only read non-fiction. Not true. I’ve been on a non-fiction kick lately, but even on kicks, I throw in a bit of fiction – there just might not be much I have to say because it’s hard to talk about fiction without giving away spoilers. If anyone’s reading this now, I will try not to ruin the book for you.
Sometimes, I can read like a reader (purely for pleasure), and sometimes, I read like a writer, and the two are not the same. When I picked up The Circle, I couldn’t help myself. I admire what Dave Eggers can do. He never writes about the same topic. He jumps from horrors of Sudan (What is the What) (Based on the life of Valentino Deng) to Hurricane Katrina (Zeitoun), to California (The Circle). There’s an inherent risk about the unfamiliar – you might get it wrong, it’s hard to find the right tone, you might give a superficial account and miss a lot of important nuances – and what’s the point of that? You step out on a limb when you take risks, and that is something I admire.
The Circle is a cautionary tale. Characters are tools that are given enough features to look like people, but are really there to help answer these questions: What would happen in a society where everyone willingly shared all their personal information through social media? What would happen to people that didn’t want to do that? (Answer: You’re SOL.)
Each of the characters is there to show you something. You begin by following Mae: naive, pleasant, a pleaser, who spends an average amount of her time online – and then you get to see her become addicted to social validation. In the Circle world, people use instant validation as their drug of choice – a written online recommendation, a “zing” – and if they don’t get their fix, they go slightly insane. I didn’t relate to Mae, didn’t like or dislike her, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy hanging around her when she campaigned to send frownie faces to Columbian Rebels, smileys to one of their victims, and thinks she’s making the world a better place. The point: social media is a waste of time.
Now, on the other extreme, is the character I most related to: Mae’s anti-social ex-boyfriend: Mercer, a “fat fuck” with back hair, who is so set against social media that he doesn’t even have a website to promote his antler chandelier business. If you have a choice between Mercer (fat), or The Circle (hired Mae and gave her parents health insurance), it’s not a debate. This goes to another point: Social Media – and sharing every little bit of yourself online – is winning.
As a writer, I have to appreciate the craftsmanship of this book. Eggers sets up and delivers some beautiful moments of irony through Mae, as she gives up her right to think for herself along with her right to privacy. Maybe the two are connected? I have a soft spot in my heart for irony: when the reader knows something, but the character does not, and you watch with slowly dawning horror as the story unfolds.
I like a lot of Egger’s choices in this book: the ways he uses his characters to deliver a message, the choice to portray the alternative to social media as an unattractive hairy Ex. The writer in me sees every detail as a deliberate, conscious decision.
That said, this is not a subtle book. In the world of The Circle, social media leads to totalitarianism. Characters chant “Secrets are lies. Caring is Sharing. Privacy is Theft.” And where do you think it’s going with this? The Circle is also more a book for the head than for the heart, if you know what I mean. There is a clear message at its core to really think about what it means to give up your privacy. It’s a question worth asking yourself.