When Mae Holland is hired to work for the Circle, the world’s most powerful internet company, she feels she’s been given the opportunity of a lifetime. The Circle, run out of a sprawling California campus, links users’ personal emails, social media, banking, and purchasing with their universal operating system, resulting in one online identity and a new age of civility and transparency.
As Mae tours the open-plan office spaces, the towering glass dining facilities, the cozy dorms for those who spend nights at work, she is thrilled with the company’s modernity and activity. There are parties that last through the night, there are famous musicians playing on the lawn, there are athletic activities and clubs and brunches, and even an aquarium of rare fish retrieved from the Marianas Trench by the CEO.
Mae can’t believe her luck, her great fortune to work for the most influential company in the world—even as life beyond the campus grows distant, even as a strange encounter with a colleague leaves her shaken, even as her role at the Circle becomes increasingly public.
What begins as the captivating story of one woman’s ambition and idealism soon becomes a heart-racing novel of suspense, raising questions about memory, history, privacy, democracy, and the limits of human knowledge.
Praise For The Circle…
“A vivid, roaring dissent to the companies that have coaxed us to disgorge every thought and action onto the Web . . . Carries the potential to change how the world views its addicted, compliant thrall to all things digital. If you work in Silicon Valley, or just care about what goes on there, you need to pay attention.”
—Dennis K. Berman, The Wall Street Journal
“Fascinating . . . Eggers appears to run on pure adrenaline, and has as many ideas pouring out of him as the entrepreneurs pitching their inventions in The Circle . . . [A] novel of ideas . . . about the social construction and deconstruction of privacy, and about the increasing corporate ownership of privacy, and about the effects such ownership may have on the nature of Western democracy . . . Like Melville’s Pequod and Stephen King’s Overlook Hotel, the Circle is a combination of physical container, financial system, spiritual state, and dramatis personae, intended to represent America, or at least a powerful segment of it . . . The Circlers’ social etiquette is as finely calibrated as anything in Jane Austen . . . Eggers treats his material with admirable inventiveness and gusto . . . the language ripples and morphs . . . It’s an entertainment, but a challenging one.”
—Margaret Atwood, The New York Review of Books
“A parable about the perils of life in a digital age in which our personal data is increasingly collected, sifted and monetized, an age of surveillance and Big Data, in which privacy is obsolete, and Maoist collectivism is the order of the day. Using his fluent prose and instinctive storytelling gifts, Mr. Eggers does a nimble, and sometimes very funny, job of sending up technophiles’ naïveté, self-interest and misguided idealism. As the artist and computer scientist Jaron Lanier has done in several groundbreaking nonfiction books, Mr. Eggers reminds us how digital utopianism can lead to the datafication of our daily lives, how a belief in the wisdom of the crowd can lead to mob rule, how the embrace of ‘the hive mind’ can lead to a diminution of the individual. The adventures of Mr. Eggers’s heroine, Mae Holland, an ambitious new hire at the company, provide an object lesson in the dangers of drinking the Silicon Valley Kool-Aid and becoming a full-time digital ninja . . . Never less than entertaining . . . Eggers is such an engaging, tactile writer that the reader happily follows him wherever he’s going . . . A fun and inventive read.”
—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The particular charm and power of Eggers’s book . . . could be described as ‘topical’ or ‘timely,’ though those pedestrian words do not nearly capture its imaginative vision . . . Simply a great story, with a fascinating protagonist, sharply drawn supporting characters and an exciting, unpredictable plot . . . As scary as the story’s implications will be to some readers, the reading experience is pure pleasure.”
—Hugo Lindgren, The New York Times Magazine
“Eggers is a literary polymath . . . The Circle is funny in its skewering of Internet culture. Holland obsessively tallies the reach of her Twitter-like Zings and enthuses about a benefit for needy children that raises not money but 2.3 million ‘smiles’ (think Facebook ‘likes’). The Circle's buildings are named for epochs, so at her first party Holland gets her wine from the Industrial Revolution . . . The ideas behind "The Circle" are compelling and deeply contemporary. Holland is an everywoman, a twentysomething believer in Internet culture untroubled by the massive centralization and monetization of information, ubiquitous video surveillance and corporate invasions of privacy. Compare that to A Hologram for the King, in which a middle-aged man thoughtfully but powerlessly observes America's economic decline, realizing that his efforts to participate in globalization led to his own obsolescence. The two books together are saying something foreboding about America's place in the world: We have traded making physical things for a glossy, meaningless online culture that leaves us vulnerable to those who see that information — in the form of data, video feeds, or our own consumer desires — is power.”
—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times
“You can’t really write a 1984 for our times, because 1984 is still the 1984 of our times. But one could think of Dave Eggers’ . . . new novel The Circle as a timely and potent appendix to it. The crux of The Circle is that Big Brother is still haunting us, but in an incarnation that’s both more genial and more insidious. We have met Big Brother, and he is us . . . In The Circle Eggers has set his style and pace to technothriller: the writing is brisk and spare and efficient . . . When I finished The Circle I felt a heightened awareness of social media and the way it’s remaking our world into a living hell of constant and universal mutual observation.”
—Lev Grossman, Time
“You may find yourself so engrossed in Dave Eggers's futuristic novel, The Circle, that you forget about Facebook entirely. And by the last pages, you may think twice before logging on again.”
—John Freeman, O, The Oprah Magazine
“Bravely, audaciously . . . [Eggers] takes on the online world in The Circle, a provocative novel named for the world’s most powerful Internet firm. Set in the not-so-distant future, the novel is part satire, part corporate thriller. But mostly it’s a cautionary tale about threats to privacy, freedom and democracy.”
—Bob Minsesheimer, USA Today
“Page-turning. . . . The social message of the novel is clear, but Eggers expertly weaves it into an elegantly told, compulsively readable parable for the 21st century. . . . What may be the most haunting discovery about The Circle, however, is readers’ recognition that they share the same technology-driven mentality that brings the novel’s characters to the brink of dysfunction. We too want to know everything by watching, monitoring, commenting, and interacting, and the force of Eggers’s richly allusive prose lies in his ability to expose the potential hazards of that impulse.”
—Laura Christensen, Vanity Fair
“In this taut, claustrophobic corporate thriller, Eggers comes down hard on the culture of digital over-sharing, creating a very-near-future dystopia in which all that is not forbidden is required. . . . Eggers has a keen eye for context, and the great strength of The Circle lies in its observations about the way instant, asynchronous communication has damaged our personal relationships. . . . A speculative morality tale in the vein of George Orwell . . . We go on using the social media platforms that have been used against us; we post geo-tagged photos that could lead potential criminals straight to our private homes and our children's preschools, and we do all of this with full knowledge of the possible consequences. We have closed our eyes and given our consent. Everyone else is doing it. In the digital age, it is better to be unsafe than to be left out.”
—G. Willow Wilson, San Francisco Chronicle
“Eggers surveys our privacy-annihilating, social media-infested world, recoils in horror at the inevitable consequences, and unleashes a primal scream: Enough! Stop! Stop liking and sharing and tweeting and texting! Stop it all! Readers who share Eggers’ concerns about the Facebook-opticon, the surveillance state that leaves no shred of daily life unscrutinized, this superficial, hollow sense of community spaned by digital connectivity will flock to stand before this brave rallying flag. . . . The world that the Circle is delivering to the online masses is very much our world. This isn’t science fiction . . . We need a legion of Dave Eggers in the world today, calling out the dangers.”
—Andrew Leonard, Salon
“Eggers’s works pulse with life . . . The Circle pushes his art even further . . . Eggers’s work, part dark comedy, part sobering glimpse into the near-future, stuns for two reasons: Mae’s humanity and compassion are apparent even as she helps erode our civil liberties; and two, it doesn’t feel like science fiction. It feels like the next horrific—but very plausible—small step for mankind.”
—Josh Davis, Time Out New York, five stars
“You can’t read The Circle, Dave Eggers’s novel about a powerful internet company, and not recognize the book’s dystopian vision in our own obsessions with sharing and social media. The novel, set in the near future, is an engaging mix of social satire and cautionary tale . . . captures the perils of the internet — and, in particular, the over-the-top utopianism sometimes espoused by technology executives — more than any other novel of recent years . . . both hilarious and foreboding.”
—Allan Hoffman, The New Jersey Star-Ledger
“Ripped from recent headlines about privacy, technology and social media . . . A book that begins as a lighthearted cautionary tale grows into a claustrophobic portrait of relentless effort to achieve the culmination of ‘closing the Circle.’”
—Richard Galant, CNN
“Entertaining . . . A sense of horror finally arrives near the end of the book, coming . . . through the power of Eggers’s writing . . . The final scene is chilling.”
—Ellen Ullman, The New York Times Book Review
“Gripping . . . Set in the not-too-distant future, Eggers' story takes us inside a shiny-happy California-based media corporation called the Circle . . . a compelling exploration of how individuals excitedly opt into a corporately-controlled culture of complete surveillance billed as a ‘community,’ transforming ‘privacy’ into a quaint notion possessed only by the nostalgic . . . The Circle's brilliance lies in convincingly taking us inside an extreme vision of what is nascent in the 21st century cyber-utopianism we all endorse, showing us how the visions of digital media moguls are championed and propagated by an overly-willing society . . . Eggers creates for us a surprisingly contemporary world that seems strangely familiar to regular social media users — a world into which all of us excitedly join without much prompting.”
—Rob Williams, PolicyMic
“What fuels this novel is its thunderbolt of an idea: digital culture is suffocating us and, what’s more, is doing so under the duplicitous guise of widespread human beneficence . . . This is a novel about the silence inside your head . . . a powerful argument for turning off your iPhone and going for a walk.”
—Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek
“Dave Eggers is fast becoming one of our fiercest and most compelling writers on the dark side of technology. [The Circle] is a gripping and highly unsettling read.”
—Edmund Gordon, The Sunday Times (UK)
“It has taken Eggers the 13 years since his breakout memoir to give us a book that truly matched A Heartbreaking Work’s gravitas — but with The Circle, Eggers has given us everything . . . when you put down the book and go to check your email, you might just realize that we are living the fiction . . . [The Circle] takes place before a fall that we might really be approaching, and it’s this compelling sense of impending, unpredictable doom that makes this work of fiction feel very real, and very necessary.”
—Jason Diamond, Flavorwire
“Dave Eggers’ real heartbreaking work of staggering genius might be this one. The Circle is today’s version of dystopian classics such as George Orwell’s 1984 or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Eggers’ novel is terrifying, funny, real, suspenseful and visionary . . . Always keeping the focus on Mae, Eggers brings up all the Big Brother issues of our time: privacy, democracy, memory, history and the quality of how we’re connecting.”
—Holly Silva, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Eggers has updated Orwell’s vision by inverting it. In 1984, the members of the Party are watched by Big Brother; in The Circle, it is the people who watch the government . . . Perhaps our need for privacy will erode as technology continues to develop and the world continues to change. Or perhaps humans will still occasionally cling to the need for privacy simply because it is an essential quality of being ‘human.’ Either way, the fact that these questions linger long after finishing this book is a testament to the multiple layers and potential lasting impact of The Circle.”
—Karl Hendricks, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“The Circle is a deft modern synthesis of Swiftian wit with Orwellian prognostication . . . a work so germane to our times that it may well come to be considered as the most on-the-money satirical commentary on the early internet age . . . The pages are full of clever, plausible, unnerving ideas that I suspect are being developed right now . . . The book is also very funny . . . A prescient, important and enjoyable book, and what I love most about The Circle is that it is telling us so much about the impact of the computer age on human beings in the only form that can do so with the requisite wit, interiority and profundity: the novel.”
—Edward Docx, The Guardian (UK)
“Eggers’s past work has tackled sociopolitical issues such as the justice system, Sudanese refugees, and the plight of public school educators. The Circle gives him a new soapbox, and if he can convince a mass audience that Google is even a little bit evil, he’ll have produced some of the most subversive commercial fiction ever written. The novel is a pro-privacy, antitech manifesto masquerading as a Dan Brown thriller. It’s Evgeny Morozov dressed in John Grisham’s clothing.”
—Seth Stevenson, Bloomberg Businessweek
“Step away from whatever tweet you’re composing for your 484 followers. Don’t click “like” on that Facebook photo of a friend’s kids. Dave Eggers’ chilling and enormously absorbing new novel The Circle, about encroaching tentacles of the world’s most powerful Internet company, demands your thoughtful and committed attention.”
—Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly
“A fast-moving conspiracy potboiler . . . a zippy, pulpy read that puts pressing issues into sharp relief.”
—Jessica Winter, Slate
“The Circle is Brave New World for our brave new world . . . Now that we all live and move and have our being in the panopticon, Eggers’s novel may be just fast enough, witty enough and troubling enough to make us glance away from our twerking Vines and consider how life has been reshaped by a handful of clever marketers . . . There may come a day when we can look back at this novel with incredulity, but for now, the mirror it holds up is too chilling to LOL.”
—Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“The Circle may be . . . more fable than novel, but it has all that in common with Brave New World, Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Fahrenheit 451. One hopes that it will enjoy pride of place with those books in classrooms, as a reminder that surveillance and transparency were not always judged merely by what they might do for us.”
—Stefan Beck, Daily Beast
“Eggers's writing is so fluent, his ventriloquism of tech-world dialect so light, his denouement so enjoyably inevitable"
—Alexander Linklater, The Observer
“The Circle is intelligent and quirky, engaged and affecting and confirms Eggers’ place as one of the most interesting novelists currently writing.”
—Stuart Kelly, The Scotsman
“Dave Eggers takes the growing inescapabilty of social media and personal technology to clever and chilling places in his new novel.”
—Patrick Condon, Associated Press
“Game-changing . . . a fast-paced and suspenseful story . . . Eggers has produced the fable for our wired times.”
—Bethanne Patrick, AARP.org
“Most of us imagine totalitarianism as something imposed upon us—but what if we’re complicit in our own oppression? That’s the scenario in Eggers’ ambitious, terrifying, and eerily plausible new novel . . . Brave and important and will draw comparisons to Brave New World and 1984. Eggers brilliantly depicts the Internet binges, torrents of information, and endless loops of feedback that increasingly characterize modern life. But perhaps most chilling of all is his notion that our ultimate undoing could be something so petty as our desperate desire for affirmation.”
“A stunning work of terrifying plausibility, a cautionary tale of subversive power in the digital age suavely packaged as a Silicon Valley social satire. Set in the near future, it examines the inner workings of the Circle, an internet company that is both spiritual and literal successor to Facebook, Google, Twitter and more, as seen through the eyes of Mae Holland, a new hire who starts in customer service . . . Eggers presents a Swiftian scenario so absurd in its logic and compelling in its motives . . . sneaking up on the reader before delivering its warnings of the future, a worthy and entertaining read.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred)
Vintage, 9780345807298, 512pp.
Publication Date: April 22, 2014
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
How does Mae’s behavior during her first days at work foreshadow what happens to her over the course of the novel? In what ways is she an “ideal” employee of the Circle and its aims?
The wings of the Circle are named after different regions of the world and time periods, such as Old West, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Machine Age, the Industrial Revolution. What do these names say about the company’s vision of historical innovation versus its future-looking work? Is there an inherent hierarchy in these names, despite their apparent equality?
In what ways does Annie inspire and motivate Mae in terms of the level of success that can be achieved at the Circle? Does Mae consider Annie’s position the product of Annie’s own ambition, or something she imbibed from the company’s ethos? How does knowing first about their professional relationship shape your understanding of their shared past?
For a company that thrives on order and efficiency, the Circle also seems to endorse—require, even—loose and extravagant socializing. What do these two seemingly opposite values say about what working for them entails? How does Mae’s value set evolve to accommodate these expectations?
Mae’s first serious blunder on the job is failing to respond to and attend a social event, Alistair’s Portugal brunch. How does the meeting in Dan’s office set the tone for Mae’s pushing the Circle’s networks on others?
Among the Three Wise Men––Ty, Bailey, and Stenton––who has a vision of what the Circle can—and should—do that seems most viable? In the end, is this trifecta of power able to prevent tyranny? What might the novel’s conclusion say about man’s reaction to power—even when humanity is apparently subsumed under technology?
Our first encounter with a shark in the novel is when Mae sees one from a kayak, and she complacently observes, “They were hidden in the dark water, in their black parallel world, and knowing they were there, but not knowing where or really anything else, felt, at that moment, strangely right” (p.83). Later, we see another shark that Stenton brings back from the Marianas Trench, in a cage with other sea life being viewed by Mae’s watchers: “Then, like a machine going about its work, the shark circled and stabbed until he had devoured . . . everything, and deposited the remains quickly, carpeting the empty aquarium in a low film of white ash” (pp. 476–77). What is essentially different about these two scenarios that garners such different behavior from these wild creatures? Do the humans that watch the shark in the aquarium—“terrified . . . in awe and wanting more of the same”—seem to learn anything (p.477)?
During one of her visits home, Mae tells Mercer, “I guess I’m just so easily bored” by what he considers a normal tempo of speech, but what Mae considers “slow motion” compared with the Circlers’ communication in person and online (p.130); and later that night, going through her Circle account to answer queries and social requests, she feels “reborn” (p.135). How much of this shortened attention span is evident in our society today? In the end, are Mae’s instantaneous relationships more or less gratifying than she expects?
The bracelet provided by the health clinic is a remarkable technological feat and would revolutionize health care if it existed. Mae even finds it “beautiful, a pulsing marquee of lights and charts and numbers . . . [her] pulse represented by a delicately rendered rose, opening and closing” (p.156). But what does this additional form of self-monitoring, along with her three work screens, contribute to Mae’s true knowledge of herself? For example, does watching their pulses rise in anticipation of sex bring Mae and Francis closer together emotionally, or push them further apart?
It is both a curse and a blessing that Mae is able to provide her parents with health care: while her father is able to receive the MS treatment he desperately needs, Mae seems to benefit even more from her ability to share his story online through support groups and ultimately drives those groups away. Did you ever feel that her actions became more selfish than selfless, and if so, when?
Even though Mae meets Kalden when she is relatively enmeshed in the constant connectivity of the Circle, she is still taken in by his holographic mystery: “his retreating form . . . [that] she couldn’t get a hold of . . . His face had an openness, an unmistakable lack of guile . . . [H]aving him out there, at least for a few days, unreachable but presumably somewhere on campus, provided a jolt of welcome frission to her hours” (pp.170–71). Why does she not feel the need to pursue him more aggressively through the knowledge databases she has available? How does this compare with the way she treats Mercer online––Mercer, about whom she presumably knows much more, given their past?
We see Mae involved with three very different men throughout the novel: Mercer, Francis, and Kalden. While they are on the surface wildly different, what might you say are traits they share that reveal what Mae is looking for in a relationship—and how do they satisfy these needs in their own ways? Does Mae ever seem truly happy?
After her conversation with Dan about skirting her social responsibilities, Mae stays up all night to boost her PartiRank and “felt a profound sense of accomplishment and possibility” (p.191). She is equally ambitious with her CE satisfaction scores, getting the highest average of any employee on the first day. Why, then, is she so offended when Francis asks for a score on his sexual performance? Where is the line between public and private, analog and digital, drawn for Circlers, and what does it mean that Mae eventually gives in to his request?
Does the Circle seem concerned with promoting and preserving traditional family life? In what ways does it threaten to replace biological families with a wider human family, including via transparency?
Kayaking is for Mae a twofold form of release: not only is it a way to expend physical energy and clear her mind, but when she steals the kayak and is caught on SeeChange cameras, it also leads to a liberation of sorts within the Circle. Does this connection, and Mae’s reaction to being caught, suggest that the Circle’s intentions are well meaning after all, or do they illustrate a more sinister shift in attitude enabled by the Circle?
Why do you think Ty felt the need to disguise himself in order to reach out to Mae as he did? How necessary was it for him to preserve his role as one of the Three Wise Men, even as he sought to dismantle the institution he helped create?
Is Annie in any sense a martyr of the Circle’s mission? Did you ever feel as if you understood the motives behind her intense devotion to her job?
What is the impact of having Mercer’s suicide seen by Mae through cameras—that is, indirectly? Do you think she genuinely believed she was trying to be his friend by launching the drones after him?
Many of the technologies the author invents in The Circle seem futuristic, but they are not so far from realities that exist now in 2013: myriad social media sites are obviously omnipresent, but the government is also developing facial recognition to screen for terrorists (The New York Times, August 20, 2013) and Google Glass seems not so unlike the camera necklace that allows for Mae’s transparency. After finishing the novel, did you find this overlap between fact and fiction unsettling? Did it affect how you personally engage with technology?