You know how every once in a while, someone in Hollywood gets a “deep thought” and then builds a movie around it — one in which the characters all stand for something, the dialogue is a constant stream of polemic and there’s no mystery at all as to how things are going to turn out. That’s what David Eggers’ “The Circle” feels like. It’s about as subtle as a kick in the groin.
Put another way, “The Circle” is the literary equivalent of “Crash.”
Here’s the thing: I’m not ashamed to say that I was a huge fan of “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.” And I’m on Eggers’ side in the debate he’s trying to set up. For those who don’t know, “The Circle” is the story of a young woman who goes to work at The Circle, a company that is obviously a mixture of Google and Facebook, where all seems perfect as the young technocrats try to bring utopia to the world, whether it be through child safety, online payments or participatory democracy. But is this vision wise? Is this safe?
Of course not. Get off my damn lawn, you silicon valley (and alley) nitwits! Those who’d impose technological utopia are dangerous!
And that ground has been covered repeatedly in nonfiction and fiction alike.
But as long as the character is convincing and the story is good, who cares? I’m not going to claim to be any champion of subtlety. I went after Mike Bloomberg’s foolish food laws with a hammer. But I’d like to think it was a funny hammer — or hammers. And they worked fast.
Sadly, Mae, the main character isn’t one I felt much of anything for other than frustration. I’m a big fan of unlikeable characters. I’m not a big fan of characters who seem to just coast along toward evil with no clear motivation other than a vague insecurity or two and a need to be liked. Now that might actually be how the real world works, but ultimately I felt like Mae was, at best, a bit of a needy dimwit and, at worst … well, a bit of an oblivious, needy dimwit.
Some could claim that I didn’t feel much for Mae because she’s a woman and a Millennial. Which is horseshit. I love me an interesting female protagonist, whether it be written by Kaye Gibbons or Marian Keyes. And as much grief as I give Millennials, I don’t actually believe their generation is that much different than any other generation — and I do believe that there are at least a few of them with some critical thinking abilities.
The story, too, is a problem. While it’s mildly interesting to watch the progress of the Circle, at no point is there much — if any — tension. There are a lot of speeches, though. Quite a lot. And the one thing that’s supposed to be a mystery — I’m assuming the mysterious stranger is indeed supposed to be mysterious — was so obvious that Scooby Doo could have figured it out without the help of the rest of the gang. (Yes, I had a fairly obvious twist at the end of my last one, but that wasn’t set up as a key mystery running throughout the book — and Scooby would at least have had to call on Shaggy for help on that one.)
Hell, I don’t know. Maybe the kids growing up on the OTHER side of the digital dividing line — the ones who’ve always known a world in which everything can be shared in a cloud — will need to read a book like this to understand how stupid and dangerous some of the techno-utopian preachers can be. And that privacy is a good thing. And you don’t need to share every damn thing in your life (says the guy who posts 100 poodle pictures a day). I certainly think everyone should be aware of that.
But I was just hoping it could be packaged in a more entertaining story.