A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle

October 9, 2013 | 3 books mentioned 15 9 min read

coverIf every book review you read about The Circle makes some reference to 1984, it is not simply because all book reviewers are creatively exhausted, overworked sheep, but because Dave Eggers practically leaps off the page of his new novel to remind us of its lineage. When one of the founders of the Circle, a technology company with designs at market and world domination, sits down for a scripted come-to-Jesus with an errant employee –our heroine, Mae–three phrases appear on the screen behind them, arranged on the page the very same way readers first encountered that other trifecta of slogans almost 65 years ago.




When Mae inadvertently witnesses a modest marital handjob between her parents and simultaneously broadcasts it to an audience of thousands, her distress is soon quelled by the knowledge that “it would be only a matter of time. They would find each other, soon enough, in a world where everyone could know each other truly and wholly, without secrets, without shame…” Or, in Orwellian terms, “the place where there is no darkness.” Mae has her own Golden Country, the serene waters around San Francisco, where she kayaks among seals and prole-y old-timers who live on a barge. The social media activity of Mae and her fellow Circle employees is aggregated, and each employee receives a score, or “PartiRank.”

coverIn 1984, the Party has dispensed with the idea that the current state of affairs has any relation to the common good. As O’Brien tells Winston Smith during the course of his re-education:

Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A word of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being tramped upon, a world which will grow not less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress toward more pain…If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.

The rhetoric of the Circle is the reverse of this. Homelessness, pedophilia, low voter turnout, the pressing problem of not knowing how much sand is in the Sahara — the Circle is on top of all of these. Sharing is caring! However, the result is exactly that which O’Brien promises for the citizens of Oceania: “Already we have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman…in the future there will be no wives and no friends.”

Unsurprisingly, Mae’s unwitting broadcast of her parents’ sex life to the universe causes them to flee their home and suspend contact. Mae’s own re-education into a proselytizer for total transparency (read: zero privacy) puts an abrupt, grim end to her relationship with her technophobe ex-lover. Mae’s romantic life eventually devolves into watching the premature ejaculations of a fellow company striver, and then providing him with a user experience rating.

cover1984 is what the The Circle asks to be identified with, and I appreciated Eggers’s attempt to contextualize, his method of achieving the same end through different rhetoric. At several points, I was also reminded of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, probably one of the greatest young people books of all time. When newly employed Mae is admonished by a communications staff member for not setting up her “company social account” and fails to grasp the importance of the “extracurricular” use of social media, she expresses her contrition thus: “I’m sorry to have misstated my feelings” — this is right out of The Giver’s system of apologies for failure to use precise language, for inconveniencing classmates, for being late, for causing anguish.

The creepy nightly sharing-of-feelings, the Socratic-style instructional conversations, the ostensibly benevolent paternalism of The Giver are also a feature of The Circle, as here, during the conversation between Mae and Circle head Eamon Bailey (or “Uncle Eamon”) that marks Mae’s transformation from lone rule-breaker to proponent of collective onscreen life:

“I have a question, Mae. Do you behave better or worse when you’re being watched?”

“Better. Without a doubt.”

‘When you’re alone, unwatched, unaccountable, what happens?’

“Well, for one thing, I steal kayaks.”

The audience laughed in a sudden bright burst.

“Seriously. I do things I don’t want to do. I lie.”

The best-known dystopian novels show the horrors of society through the futile resistance of one soul, who is deviant through some quirk of temperament, a touch too much alcohol in their incubation solution, an ability to See Beyond. They don’t always have to be likable, but they have to be struggling. For the first bit of The Circle, it seems that Mae harbors some form of this leading-man deviance. She kayaks alone. Before she comes to work at the Circle, it is not her custom to Zing (Eggers’s version of Twitter) about everything that happens to her. She seems to understand that it is not in keeping with HR best practices to be called to the carpet for failing to RSVP to a “brunch for all staffers who had demonstrated an interest in Portugal.” When Mae so quickly morphs from good German to the worst German, it is jarring because it is not in keeping with the form, and because it offends our sensibilities as reasonable people.

We know some things about why Mae might go over to the dark side, namely, that she has skin in this game. Eggers has made her into the American Millenial everywoman, with everywoman’s attendant problems. She has a $234,000 education from Carleton College, and is on the hook for some not insignifacant portion thereof. Mae’s $62,000 starting salary at the Circle allows her to make loan payments and pay rent on a a dingy shared apartment. Mae’s dad, a former parking garage owner, has multiple sclerosis, and her parents spend most of their time managing his care and dealing with the insurance company, which, with the conveniently topical shittiness of insurance companies across the nation, has decided to drop his medication from its list of pre-approved drugs. When Mae is able to get her parents on the Circle’s health plan (which, it goes without saying, transcends Cadillac status; it’s the Maybach — no, the Tesla — of health plans), this plot device becomes the by-then superfluous tether tying Mae to the Circle. This is the real-life stuff that undergirds the plot of The Circle, but like other elements of this novel, it seems to have been built quickly and clunkily enough that it doesn’t quite feel load-bearing.

We are meant, I think, to relate to Mae. But by the time Mae is leading a world-wide electronic manhunt for her ex-boyfriend to demonstrate the efficacy of the Circle’s new SoulSearch program, when she is saying “Release the drones!” in “a voice meant to invoke and mock some witchy villain,” when she is proposing that every American be required to have a Circle account and transact all their civic business therewith, when this all seems to have happened within six weeks of her date of hire (serious question: is she still making $62,000 when she sketches out the annihilation of liberty?), Mae has left everywoman territory. Retroactively, her parents’ plight seems too unsatirical: if it is to scale with the excesses of the Circle’s plotting, her mother should have Type II Diabetes and be a veteran who lost her VA benefits and gave birth to octoplets after an unethical doctor implanted all of the fetuses. Her dad should have lost his garage due to a situation involving mortgage-backed securities and Islamic fundamentalism.

The Circle occupies an awkward place of satire and self-importance. What it does very well is create a catalogue of awful techno-cum-Landmark Forum-cum-HR-cum-feelings-speak. Uncle Eamon is legitimately avuncular and creepy. When Mae is chastised for failing to Zing about her hobbies, a colleague says “‘Just kayaking? Do you realize that kayaking is a three-billion-dollar industry? And you say it’s ‘just kayaking’! Mae, don’t you see that it’s all connected? You play your part. You have to part-icipate.'” And this stuff is often very funny. (These days, though, it’s hard to write a novel that can rival the comedy gold of reality. This week, Nathan Heller has a piece in The New Yorker about San Francisco’s startup culture: “The company had needed to figure out whether to spend its limited budget on beef jerky to keep around the office or 401k plans for the staff. ‘We put it to a vote: ‘Do you want a 401k or jerky?…The vote was unanimously for jerky. The thought was that well-fed developers could create value better than the stock market.'” Or this gem: “Serge was a software professional who, in his spare time, led people into deeply meditative states from which they could reëxperience earlier lives. Some people found that passing through past lives eased their fears of death, Serge told me that evening.”)

Orwell wrote 1984 from a knowledgeable position, as a person who had invested himself corporeally in the political system that he was later moved to skewer in his writing. Eggers, meanwhile, has been very open about his position vis–à–vis the facts of tech culture, a position that might be stated as IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH. There is some merit to the idea that the public perceptions of a company, particularly the storied, insular, tech giants, are as good as reality, but we wonder if Eggers is the right person to explain the specifics of why technology is scary. Mae’s nighttime kayak joyride, for example, seemed a strange catalyst for her re-education as an enthusiastic Circler. San Francisco residents are very sensitive to the perceived entitlement of the tech class, and spend the days reflexively muttering “Google bus” under their collective breath; when Mae borrows the kayak, a spontaneous, independent, un-Zinged act that brings about her meeting with Uncle Eamon, I was conditioned by my resentment to see it as evidence that she was starting to become a typical tech douche, who feels entitled to “disrupt” the rules of a lowly kayak rental facility. The fact that this is perceived as a major transgression at the Circle, and the Circle’s general obsession with “finding community” and normalizing behavior, rang a little bit false. (My own position, admittedly, is equally ignorant.)

coverEggers’s anxieties about technology are not new. In his first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity!, now more than a decade old, Eggers’s affable narrator and his sidekick, Hand, met a man in Senegal who “worked in cellphones.”

Something involving GPS and cellphones and how soon enough, everyone would know–for their own safety, he insisted, with a fist softly pounding the table, in a way he’d likely done a hundred times before — where everyone else in the world was, by tracking their cellphone. But again: for good not evil. For the children. For the children. For grandparents and wives. It was the end of an epoch, and I didn’t want to be around to see if happen; we’d traded anonymity for access. I shuddered. Hand, of course, had goosebumps.

The children are invoked again in The Circle — concern for their well-being given as the motivation for a program of tagging and tracking that will eventually lead to an orgasmic union of state and corporate interests, the whole of a person’s data existing within one platform and operating system.

Eggers’s first novel is a humble tale about buddies and grief that channels a really lovely Bellovian style of joyful despair (“I look at the file, and its contents scream at me in a voice containing thousands of murders in unclean homes”). Perhaps the style of The Circle is a subversive comment on the uniformity that will be visited upon us by the tech overlords–revisiting his first novel renders the prose of his latest rushed and merely functional by comparison. “‘Hi Mae,’ a face said as it floated, gorgeous and smiling, toward her” hearkens back to Mae’s first day, when she encountered “a beautiful young head floating atop a scarlet scarf and white silk blouse.'” When Mae meets her team leader, she sees a “handsome man, compact and tidy.” Eggers’s prose has felt more alive than this.

His relationships have felt more alive, too. You Shall Know Our Velocity is founded on friendship, and friendship is likewise a central plot element of The Circle. Mae is brought on board by Annie, who has rapidly risen through the ranks of the Circle. Annie and Mae met in college and formed an “extraordinary bond, something like friends, something like sisters or cousins who wished they were siblings and would have reason never to be apart.” This turns out, though, to be a fickle sort of friendship; when Mae comes to occupy permanent Employee-of-the-Month status at the Circle, the friendship immediately falls apart. (You know. Ladies be resenting.) If this novel is meant only to serve as a savage farce, a detail like this isn’t important.  But we don’t always know where we are in this novel, what sort of expectations are reasonable. A lot of it feels farcical, but when you invoke 1984, the implications are deadly serious.

One of my favorite moments in 1984 is when Winston Smith sits down to perform the physical manifestation of his Thoughtcrime by putting pen to paper, and is overwhelmed by the prospect.

How could you communicate with the future? It was of its nature impossible. Either the future would resemble the present, in which case it would not listen to him, or it would be different from it, and his predicament would be meaningless.

In that spirit, I will share that I write all my reviews as Gmail draft messages. While I was writing this one, my netbook finally gave up the ghost and I wailed and gnashed my teeth and hauled an eight-year-old iBook out of the closet and again wailed and gnashed my teeth when I was unable to download Google Chrome because the operating system was too old, and I actually cried because it felt like nothing in my life was working. I unwind from a busy work day by compulsively heart-ing the photos on my friends’ and acquaintance’s Instagram feeds. My PartiRank score, if I say so myself, would not be negligible. The chilling implications of this novel were not at all lost on the part of myself that asks the other part why I know that I have three fewer Twitter followers than the last time I checked, and why I care.

There are noble impulses behind this novel–to prophesy, to warn, and to entertain–and it basically delivers on these fronts. But The Circle boldly asks us to reckon it alongside one or more of the most, to use the odious word, impactful, novels of the 20th century, and it’s not bold enough to carry that weight. It seems to hedge its bets, so that it is just a little bit sad, a little bit funny, a little bit scary, and a little bit thin. A little bit beta, if you will.

is a contributing editor at The Millions and the author of The Golden State. You can read more of her writing at www.lydiakiesling.com.


  1. I enjoyed this review, thanks. There is a lot of mixed reaction about this novel by Eggers and I’m enjoying reading all the different perspectives. If nothing else, the novel is making us all carefully examine our own perspectives about the overly-sharing world that we now live in.

    Here’s how I see it for now – having read excerpts but not the entire novel (which I intend to).

    I think that those criticizing the novel too much are missing the point that it is a satire and, as such, requires certain hyper-realism. However, the underlying premise of the obsessions with hyper-connectivity, the almost-disappeared lines between private and public personas, the “quantified self” – absolutely spot on.

    I live in Silicon Valley and have worked in tech firms, I have often found that the earnestness with which technologists pursue the above obsessions is, yes, bordering on evangelical – they truly think they’re making the world a better place. This is not speculation on my part – you only have to read their interviews, blogs, books and social profiles to know this.

    And, while I’m no Luddite and enjoy my social media outlets as much as the next person, I do not, for a minute think that all of this is saving lives or the planet or achieving any such greater good. Perhaps, one day, it might.

    I do agree with this Ms Kiesling that the prose here is not upto the usual Eggers’ style. At The Guardian, they referred to The Circle as “deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication”, which I so totally disagree with. Swift and Orwell wrote with prescience about a future that was well ahead of them and with prose that is still unmatched to this day.

    Still, an interesting book by Eggers and one I want to read.

    Thank you.

  2. I really enjoyed the excerpt I read in the New York Times and plan to read the book. BTW, Velocity was an incredible read.

  3. Lydia, you kind of hint at this with your reference to the Heller article, but one of the (many) problems with this book is that it’s basically just an aggregation of several magazine articles, nonfiction books, and 1984, with the names/slogans changed. Maybe this is the ultimate meta technique (Huffington Post writes a novel?) but I doubt it. Does renaming a tweet a zing make it a brilliant satire? Is changing “Ignorance is strength” to “Privacy is theft” the stroke of a master? To me it’s just lazy. And it’s also the worst brand of novel: the soapbox novel, where the author sacrifices things like character and plot and (especially) realistic human dialogue in the interest of hammering his topic sentence home. And in this case, the topic sentence – social media is bad – isn’t particularly interesting, profound, or original.

    I suspect this book will go over well with people who don’t consistently read fiction but who constantly use the very social media he criticizes, who delight in recognizing in the book the things they use every day (hey! Smiles are like Likes! cool!) and don’t mind a little gentle ribbing about their lifestyle. From an artistic perspective, though, this book is, as the kids might “zing”, an epic fail.

  4. I am at the half way mark of my reading The Circle. It’s fascinating read. I do not thing I am alone in recognizing so much of myself in Mae and the types of experiences she is facing within The Circle. I tweet and tumblr and upvote just like the next person. It’s all very vain and masturbatory. I do not know that I will actively give up these parts of my on-line life. But I am a bit more aware of their impact and how I have changed as a result of these various technologies. It definitely makes you think. I’ve set the novel down several times after reading particular passages just so I can absorb the intensity of what I have just read. It’s definitely worth finding and reading. If possible, try to not read it on an e-reader. :)

  5. Was the “ladies be resenting” aside really necessary? Does a fictional instance of a friendship falling apart over jealousy, because the author was male and the characters female, warrant an implication of sexism?

    Just wondering.

  6. Just finished it. As the review stated it was very derivative of Orwell and Huxley but what was shocking was just how feeble it is – it’s basically one huge strawman.

  7. “A position that might be known as IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” may be my favorite line in a review this year (particularly given, well, this).

    I can’t quite decide if aping Orwell that closely is daring or just gauche. Or both. In any case, thank you for an excellent review.

    (Why is it that writing in a Gmail draft is so much less intimidating that writing in other formats? I think sometimes that I can only type in smallish boxes anymore.)

  8. For anyone who can’t be bothered to read Eggers’ book, Zadie Smith covered the same basic territory in her 25 November 2010 story “Generation Why?” in The New York Review of Books. It’s a great read, and still online for free. Indeed, I quite like it.

    Did Eggers really need three years to say the same damn thing that Smith already said, and much better at that?

  9. King Baeksu: Thanks for recommending that Zadie Smith article. I had missed it when it came out as I wasn’t on Facebook or interested in it at the time. I joined a year ago finally because of friends asking me to connect (and I still have very mixed feelings about it).

    I agree with you that Smith says everything that needs to be said rather eloquently. Of course, Eggers is using a fictional narrative to do so – for those who find their their reading more palatable when structured as such. So, I don’t know that we would be fair in comparing the two. Evaluating Eggers’ book as a fictional work or comparing to other similar fictional works might be more fair.

    Back to Smith’s article – her points about reductionism through software are spot on. The way she explains how Zuckerberg’s Facebook is just for the kid in the college dorm – even now – is sobering. Especially when you consider the growing number of 25+ year olds that are on it – including the generation older than mine. What does that say about us as a society? Her answer: X million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore. Ouch. True, but, ouch.

    And, now I’m going to have to find and read Lanier, who she quotes a lot (at least 15 times).

  10. “Of course, Eggers is using a fictional narrative to do so – for those who find their their reading more palatable when structured as such. So, I don’t know that we would be fair in comparing the two. Evaluating Eggers’ book as a fictional work or comparing to other similar fictional works might be more fair.”

    Point taken, but let’s not kid ourselves that Eggers is doing any serious intellectual heavy lifting with “The Circle.” Indeed, it’s a common complaint that European critics have of contemporary American fiction: How afraid it often is of big ideas and genuine intellectual sparring. It didn’t always used to be like this, and the fact that Eggers’ novel is provoking such “debate” now merely proves how weak and tepid literary discourse in America has actually become at this point in our history. One might even argue that social media are partly to blame for this present condition, but to complain about it now is a bit late, the literary equivalent of crying over spilt milk, don’t you think?

    “The Circle” may be a clever cash grab, and possibly entertaining to many middle-brow readers, but it’s hardly a novel to save The Novel, is it?

  11. King Baeksu:

    Thanks for replying. I was nodding all the way as I read your latest response.

    I am in complete agreement that this is not the novel to save The Novel and that Eggers hasn’t done any intellectual heavy lifting here whatsoever. That’s why I objected to The Guardian using “Swiftian” and “Orwellian” in their review.

    That said, I can’t say that all contemporary American fiction has gone to the dogs – there’s the odd 2-3 books a year that keeps my faith up. I have to admit, though, that, coming from the UK, I have yet to find the sort of literary discourse on US sites that I have found (and continue to) on UK-based sites like The Guardian (the Books section generates thoughtful 100+ comments per article within 24 hours often – and they are all moderated so there’s no trolling) or The Independent.

    But, absolutely, yes, literary discourse across all media continues to get watered down. And, yes, this is likely because the various forms and forums of media are more readily accessible today than, say, a decade ago. The noise factor is greater and you really have to look hard to find opportunities to engage in meaningful ways. It’s both a blessing and a curse, which is why I don’t complain. There’s also something to be said for books-related sites that pander to the lowest common denominator just to get more viewers to increase their ad revenue – but, that’s another (related) discussion.

    Earlier in my life, I spent 10 years living in the rural Midwest with just a dial-up connection. Literary discourse couldn’t be had for hundreds of miles and all I had was the internet (which, back then, for mostly for the intrepid adventurers). As awful as some people used to be online back then, I was still thankful for the lifeline those early social networks offered. Of course, they were still the weak, superficial connections that Smith mentioned in her piece. But, at least we didn’t have the over-sharing of banalities back then. That is what bothers me more – and what both Smith and Eggers have addressed or tried to.

  12. You do realize that you are saying that The Circle, a dystopian novel about the future, is not on a level with other classic dystopian novels? Can you tell what will be a dystopian classic within days of publication? You do realize that people did not know if Orwell’s 1984 or Huxley’s Brave New World would be a classic the week they were published? And you do know that Orwell “aped” the Russian Zamyatin’s We (1921), which he reviewed three years before 1984 appeared, and that Orwell was sure that Huxley had copied it, too? Did this hurt the impact of 1984 or Brave New World?

  13. Cynthia – not sure if your comment questions are addressed to the article author or to other commenters. They are good questions and, for the sake of dialogue, I’ll give my 2 cents.

    1) The contemporary-classic dichotomy exists. Inherent in that dichotomy is that a contemporary novel is never on the same level as a classic novel till it, well, becomes one. Posterity will tell.

    2) And, no, of course, no one can tell whether a contemporary novel will eventually become a classic. But, it is the many debates that a contemporary novel generates that all eventually add up to defining its future state and position, surely? So, there will always be debates that praise, denounce, dismiss or dissect contemporary novels. If the net outcome is favorable eventually, such a novel may be on its way to enduring as a classic. If not, it will likely prompt more debate and more such novels. The circle of fiction, not unlike the circle of life.

    3) Re. people not knowing whether Orwell’s and Huxley’s novels respectively were classics the week they were published – of course not. Refer to 1 and 2 above.

    4) Re. Orwell aping Zamyatin’s We – for myself, I don’t have any hangups about authors borrowing from other authors. If they’re not doing it explicitly, they’re doing it implicitly because, after all, authors bring the sum total of their own reading to their writing. The more pertinent question, for me, is whether they had something new and interesting to say or a new and interesting way of saying it, I think. Having only read excerpts and reviews of Eggers’ novel, I’m not going to emphatically reply with a yes or no to this question just yet. But, that is what drives my curiosity about a novel like this. And, so far, of the many good-bad-indifferent reviews and comments I’ve come across, it seems that Eggers hasn’t said anything new and interesting or even in a new and interesting way with this novel. Still, of course, I intend to spend some time with the book myself soon enough.

  14. Thanks for your response, Jenny.

    “But, it is the many debates that a contemporary novel generates that all eventually add up to defining its future state and position, surely?” No.To provide extreme cases, think of Jane Austen and Eugene Sue. The latter was a wildly popular 19th- century French author. Was. The only real prerequisite status is that the work come to the light and somehow survive, like Melville’s excellent Billy Budd.

    I’ve read the book and think it does say something new in a new way. The tricky thing about dystopias is that it’s hard to recognize you’re in a budding totalitarianism- much easier to recognize dystopias in the past or far away. Everyone (well, almost) knows that Nazism is horrible and untenable, but the average German in 1933 didn’t. So, will the average American in 2013 see the potential for totalitarianism and take it seriously? I advise you to read the book.

  15. Thanks, Cynthia.

    “The only real prerequisite status is that the work come to the light and somehow survive, like Melville’s excellent Billy Budd.”

    I do think we might be saying the same thing here. Austen’s books, to pick one of your author examples, generated plenty of debate / discussion both during and after her time (one only has to read the many authors who either spoke/wrote well or poorly of her – Twain, Woolf and many others come to mind). That her books survived those debates is what makes them classics. If no one’s talking about or reading those books, then how can they survive? How can they come to light?

    Of course, now we’re into another hotly-debated topic – what makes a classic a classic. So, I’ll stop before going to far down that somewhat tangential route, if that’s ok. On a lighter note, whenever this topic comes up in any discussion, I’m always reminded of Jonathan Swift’s satire “Battle of the Books”.

    I do agree with you entirely that it is very difficult to see totalitarianism or indeed any other such subversive political / power structures taking over entire cultures / societies as they are doing so.

    But, Eggers has not been the first to bring this to light – so many have done so. Sticking to fiction, to keep the comparison fair, dystopian literature, from the 18th century onwards, with Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, to, say, MaddAddam by Atwood – such a wide, dense, rich tradition, Many of them were prescient and visionary well before their time. My question is simply – does Eggers measure up to the classics within that long-standing dystopian literature tradition? Has he given us prescience and vision or simply assimilated existing commentary (like the Zadie Smith article cited earlier) into a fictional narrative?

    I do intend to read the book beyond the excerpts and reviews but I am not feeling too encouraged – particularly from the excerpts that I can judge for myself.

    That said, I’ve enjoyed this discussion because it is making me/us think harder about several topics. Thanks.

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