Thanks to Annie, her college roommate and best friend, Mae’s escaped from her stupefying utilities job in her “wretched” hometown and entered the Circle, an enviable high-tech company (think Google + Apple + steroids) where Annie is one of the “Gang of 40″-power wielders.
Mae begins in CE – Customer Experience – where every call is scored and anything less than 100 is followed up with inquiries about improvement. Those numbers control Circlers’ lives far beyond work: personal worth becomes measured in smiles, zings, posts, responses, and rankings. The Edenic campus subsumes you: it’s abuzz 24/7 with concerts by the famous, epic parties, workshops that can take you virtually anywhere, and even luxurious dorm rooms so you never have to leave.
Initially drawn away from the halcyon Circle walls – her father is ill, her parents are struggling with inadequate health insurance – Mae is gently chided for not being more involved in her new enCircled life. But Mae succumbs to the unrelenting pressure to participate, quickly moves up the Circle rankings, until her very words (coached as they are) are literally cast in steel writ large: “SECRETS ARE LIES,” “CARING IS SHARING,” “PRIVACY IS THEFT.” When she embraces a life of total “transparency,” she’s catapulted into an unimaginable reality of neverending performance.
As intriguing and timely a premise as Circle presents, Dave Eggers (the bad boy-genius who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and founded that legendary once-indie-now-almost-mainstream-literary-empire that is McSweeney’s) falters markedly here. Too much of Circle just doesn’t work [choose What is the What or Zeitoun instead]. Eggers’ doom-and-gloom-techno-warning-in-a-shiny-package is heavy-handed, clumsy, and incessantly whining. Less than a quarter through, we get the warning signs loud and clear, but must tediously wait for Mae to catch up (but will she?). Throwing in a hoodie-d object of lust feels merely desperate, and you can’t help but wonder why Mae is so blind to his not-very-mysterious identity. That obsession at least provides a modicum of distraction from her cringe-inducing encounters with former foster child Francis. And the whole subplot of ex-boyfriend Mercer (who creates light from discarded animal parts – go ahead and ponder that) as the sole voice of reason just might cause your rolling eyeballs serious damage.
Perhaps the most intriguing detail here is that if you choose to go aural, you might be surprised to learn that African American male actor, Dion Graham (who turns out to be the best part of all that is Circular), narrates this morality tale told from the point of view of a young, small-town, presumably white woman. Perhaps Graham’s casting is merely habit – Graham appears to be Eggers’ go-to narrator for all his titles – but his smooth voice underscores a visceral layer of creepazoid, interchangeable, lack of individuality. So much so that it might be the only reason not to lectio interruptus until the less than satisfying end.