Welcome to Part II of August in the Reader’s Den. We have been discussing Dave Egger’s novel about a monomaniacal digital corporation called The Circle. Our protagonist, Mae Holland, has grown ever more fervently to believe in the positive social impact of ‘completing’ the Circle. In the ultimate vision of the Circle, all politicians would be completely transparent (wearing cameras at all times for full-disclosure), with the idea of ending government corruption. It would also require that all citizens vote through Circle-based software called DeMoxie, relegating all important socio-political-economic decisions to the public. Kalden warns Mae that she is the only one now who has the power to stop the completion of the Circle as she can reach millions, possibly billions, of people through her daily online camera feed. It is also revealed that the mysterious Kalden is indeed Ty Gospodinov, the Circle's founding father, and did not foresee the company's potentially dictatorial impact.
Meanwhile, Mae's friend Annie becomes devastated by results of the project she is working on, called PastPerfect. This program was designed to reveal in complete detail personal ancestry and historical information. Annie is horrified to discover that her family were once owners of Irish slaves in Great Britain. She is so ashamed by the news of her PastImperfect that she winds up (quite unbelievably) catatonic and hospitalized.
The ending of the book unravels with a dull, sad thud. Mercer tells Mae that he plans to go 'off the grid' to permanently move away into the forests somewhere, away from the SeeChange cameras that are blanketing the Earth. But of course the Circle intervenes, with cameras tracking every move of Mercer's truck as he tries to escape, resulting in a tragedy. The scene harken's back to the OJ Simpson car chase that captivated audiences in 1994.
There is much fodder in The Circle that is relatable to our quotidian online lives. Amazon.com prods us to rate products purchased, customer service reps on the phone urge us to stay on the phone just a few minutes longer to give feedback. I understand that these ratings and opinions are important to job performance and to economic growth in general, and will willfully participate when I have the time and if truly compelled. The Circle takes this scenario to comic proportions, embroiling Mae in endless interactions with small business owners throughout the country who create a faux intimacy with her based on positive customer feedback.
These Customer Experience nuggets are some of the more innocuous points the book tries to make, on a more serious note the book drifts towards a policy to expose government secrecy that most recently echoes the apotheosis of a Julian Assange or Edward Snowden, but in a less sinister, more rah-rah, pep rally kind of way. Mae's obsession with popularity, zings, and ratings reminded me that she should probably check out some of Rachel Simmons's seminal works on female bullying and self-esteem.
Eggers is not the first contemporary author to contemplate the profound impact of digital media on human relationships (Douglas Coupland and William Gibson come to mind) and unfortunately, not the best. I think Eggers's theoretical ambitions may have soared at the expense of character development, prose, and suspenseful pacing. I like Eggers-as-social critic much better in books such as Zeitoun, What is the What?, and my favorite, You Shall Know Our Velocity. But despite what I perceive as the literary flounderings of this latest book, Eggers philanthropic works should not go unrecognized. He is the founder of McSweeney's publishing, 826 National—now a nation-wide writing tutoring program, and the VAD foundation, which benefits communities in Southern Sudan.
“But I'm a believer in the perfectibility of human beings. I think we can be better. I think we can be perfect or near to it. And when we become our best selves, the possibilities are endless. We can solve any problem. We can cure any disease, end hunger, everything, because we won't be dragged down by all our weaknesses, our petty secrets, our hoarding of information and knowledge. We will finally realize our potential.” ―Dave Eggers, The Circle