The Circle. Dave Eggers.

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. Knopf, McSweeny’s, 2013. Electronic retrieval for Kindle.  F;7/15.

This isn’t, frankly, a great read.  It has a few redeeming features and the author is a respected person in the fiction world, I think. But sad to say it doesn’t look to me like he’s one of the great fiction writers.

It’s the familiar genre of technology nightmare, like Frankenstein, 1984, the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, etc. Here, something that looks a lot like Google gets out of hand and turns into a technologic, philosophic, economic, and political monster that eats the world. This might interest anybody involved in social media or even a frequent user of a search engine, but the plot is buried under a pile of not-particularly-credible and in some cases just two-dimensional characters, sub-par writing, and plot development that made me struggle to stay interested.

Mae Holland is our twentysomething ingénue who lands a dream job at the bay area campus of technology giant Circle, where her successful former roommate Annie is one of the top executives. Circle is planting thousands of tiny cameras all over the world, signing up 90% of the smartphone-packing population, and successfully encouraging politicians and others to go “transparent”: carrying a camera at all times so that every conversation they have is publicly broadcasted, allegedly eliminating graft and backroom deals. Children are being implanted with chips so that they can’t be abducted (and so everybody knows where they are at all times).

Mae succeeds spectacularly at her entry-level job, and pretty not-credibly challenges even Annie after a month or two and vaults into the top echelons of the huge national corporation. Meanwhile, a mysterious older guy in a hoodie seduces her, and she is conflicted over his apparent skepticism about the Circle enterprise of eliminating all uncertainty about everything and becoming the sole conduit of political and financial as well as social networking (“Sharing is Caring”, “Privacy is Theft”…). Mae’s father who has multiple sclerosis and is having trouble getting treatment through American insurers, receives fabulous free healthcare from Circle, but her parents along with Mae’s former boyfriend aren’t thrilled about having dozens of surveillance cameras in their home and about “transparency” in general.

To make this overly-long story short (PLOT ALERT. Like a couple of other books I’ve read lately if you haven’t read this one I don’t think you should bother, but I won’t spoil the fun in case you are determined) the hooded lover turns out to be Ty, the supernerd who started Circle only to have it hijacked by a social visionary and a greedy business tycoon. He understands the danger of Circle’s enterprise and tries to get Mae — who is now among the three or four most important people in the corporation — to denounce it. She doesn’t, and the story ends with Circle’s world domination. (END PLOT ALERT).

As I usually do, I downloaded a free sample of this and two pages in had almost decided to trash it because of not-very-captivating writing. But I got interested in the plot line and Mae started to seem to have some substance and depth when she had a quite moving vision of black fabric tearing, with millions of people screaming beneath it, as if underwater. So I persevered.

But about two-thirds through my never-fail sense of doom took over. There was way too much detail of all the not-very-interesting sci-fi plots of the corporation, Mae’s inner life and her conflicts were not cohering (she had a few credible emotional experiences but nothing that brought the main dramatic issue of the book alive for her, or for us), and I started impatiently skipping over paragraphs and pages, waiting for the end, to find out what would happen.

Now Dave Eggers wrote a preface to Wallace’s Infinite Jest and obviously knew the great writer and admired him. He said of that novel that it didn’t contain a single lazy sentence (I would say that’s pretty close to accurate). Eggers has also founded a publishing house, and done a lot of work in bringing young fiction-writers forward. Obviously a dedicated and lovely fellow. But check this out:

Across the silver bay she saw a pair of birds, egrets or herons, gliding low, heading north, and she sat for a time, her mind drifting toward blank. (Toward blank?)

All night she pivoted, turning a few degrees, like a haywire clock, to greet each new well-wisher. (Try as I might I don’t see that haywire clock)

She guessed at it all, what might live, moving purposefully or drifting aimlessly, under the deep water around her, but she didn’t think too much about any of it. It was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing she would not, and really could not, know much at all. (This quite nice sentiment prompted by a natural setting that he’s done some work to get the character into could have been said with so much more emotion, it seemed to me.)

I’m not saying this writing consists of lazy sentences, just that it doesn’t have what it takes for real conviction. The main idea of this novel is interesting, and the writer seems a serious committed man who is doing some wonderful things. It’s disappointing that The Circle isn’t one of them. 6.2/7.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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