Synopses & Reviews
is the exhilarating new novel from Dave Eggers, best-selling author of A Hologram for the King
, a finalist for the National Book Award.
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.
"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.” Booklist (Starred Review)
"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 Review)
"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....A fun and inventive read."
Michiko Kakutani, The New York 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
"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
"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
"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
"Entertaining....A sense of horror finally arrives near the end of the book, coming...though the power of Eggers's writing....The final scene is chilling."
Ellen Ullman, The New York Times Book Review
About the Author
Dave Eggers grew up near Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the founder of McSweeney’s, an independent publishing house in San Francisco that produces books, a quarterly journal of new writing (McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern), and a monthly magazine, The Believer. McSweeney’s publishes Voice of Witness, a nonprofit book series that uses oral history to illuminate human rights crises around the world. In 2002, he cofounded 826 Valencia, a nonprofit youth writing and tutoring center in San Francisco’s Mission District. Sister centers have since opened in seven other American cities under the umbrella of 826 National, and like-minded centers have opened in Dublin, London, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Birmingham, Alabama, among other locations. His work has been nominated for the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and has won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, France’s Prix Médicis, Germany’s Albatross Prize, the National Magazine Award, and the American Book Award. Eggers lives in Northern California with his family.
Reading Group Guide
1. 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?
2. 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?
3. 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?
4. 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?
5. 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?
6. 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?
7. 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)?
8. 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?
9. 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?
10. 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?
11. 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?
12. 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?
13. 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?
14. 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?
15. 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?
16. 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?
17. 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?
18. 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?
19. 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?