I think it very hard to write historical fiction or even contemporary fiction set in a familiar landscape, especially one on which the media is cutting its teeth. I’m finishing a novel loosely based on events in the Tonkin Gulf during the closing months of the Vietnam War. In some respects, there is little new to be said about this period. Robin Williams has probably told many Americans all they need to know about US involvement in Vietnam in his “Good Morning Vietnam.” The comedian will always own Da Nang. The Tonkin Gulf Resolution that legitimized what was essentially an illegal war pricks the public conscience about as much as the WMD fantasy that sent us into Iraq. And George Bush is painting his dogs.
This dilemma is quite real for me. I served in the Navy in that region during this period. I know the historical narrative and the seascape quite well. For these and other reasons, I am casting my novel as a sea story, in the fullest sense of the word, replete with fictions, mythologies, and a range of characters who might be involved in conduct unbecoming. The ships, the weapons, and the weather all adhere to the strictest specifications, as any military manual would require. But I reserve the right to take appropriate liberties with those who roam the decks. The richness must be in the characters, the personas and the necessary fictions they create. And I know this is easier said than done.
I offer these remarks as a prologue to a review of the novel The Circle by Dave Eggers that seems like a loosely fictionalized account of some of the big boys in the data, content, and privacy game. It would be a little unfair to say that The Circle reads like a faintly disguised “roman-a-clef” about Google, though many of the themes promulgated by the Three Wise men who are the brains behind such quotable phrases such as Secrets are Lies and Privacy is Theft, seem faintly familiar, though inverted. By the end of the novel, “Do No Evil” will seem pretty tame.
One quickly catches on that The Circle will have little in common with Dante’s jaunt; the novel seems more like a parlor game that gets creepier as we get inside the workings of this company that is referred to on the first page as “heaven.” On arriving at the corporation, the lead character Mae marvels at the beautiful campus, the picnic tables arranged in concentric circles, and the children from the day-care center squealing. One can detect a thin layer of satire in the opening pages but that element doesn’t completely allay for me the sense that the narrative fix is in. Just follow the yellow brick road. This walkway has tiles with imploring messages of inspiration, including: Dream, Participate, Innovate, Imagine, and Breathe.
If The Circle is about technology, it is technology in the fanciful extreme. We soon learn that one of the founders had devised a Unified Operating System that combines everything online: social media profiles, payment systems, passwords, email accounts, preferences, and every last tool, real and imagined. From here the thematic hockey stick would track a familiar course, one slogan at a time.
This is a breezy, easy book. The author fills the book with enough human interaction and pathologies to make it interesting. Mae seems to remain, more or less, in a state of wonder and her character is not particularly well-rounded. The Circle offers a never-ending menu of good food, comedians, booze, and chamber orchestras, and dormitory rooms for those who indulge too much. On her first day on the job Mae has some wine and says to a fellow male traveler she’s just met: “You fuck me not.” Of course, this is a marker of sorts, suggesting Mae can’t handle her wine, is thinking about sex, or the ribald line is a hint that beneath the best Operating Slogans is an itch that needs to be scratched.
In a sense the novel is all about visual layers; about screens on top of screens on top of screens. But this is more about data than depth. More about the thematic than the dramatic! Mae begins her job in Customer Experience under the guidance of managers who remind her that “no robots work here.” This becomes a very visible inside joke. The Plan by one of the Wise Men to place cameras at surfing spots turns into a project that places cameras everywhere, even in the most repressive kingdoms. The business logic is simple: All That Happens Must Be Known. The novel now enters the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. Why not chips inside of children, inside everyone? And cameras on everyone, politicians included! Given that there is no real pushback to these schemes and no one is falling on her sword, the increasingly wacky efforts can continue at their riotous pace.
In time, the company will peer inside Mae’s body, soul, and psychological state. She is criticized for engaging in activities not included in her profile. She is caught on camera in a kayak she “borrowed.” This excursion gets her in hot water and to a meeting with one of the Wise Men. During her apology to the entire Circle team, Mae utters three phrases: Secrets Are Lies, Sharing Is Caring, and Privacy Is Theft. Her candor is greeted with thunderous applause and from that point on Mae will be on the inside and “would be going transparent.”
Mae wears a camera that records her day except for the private moments. In some respects she becomes the center of the Circle universe, relaying through her lens the inner workings of the company. The statements from the Wise Men about completing the Circle and Making the Circle Whole take on a touch of the delusional, even though these words find themselves at ground level on campus tiles. Mae imagines the Circle as the center of a perfect democracy.
Any growth in Mae’s character comes at the author’s hands. It seems a little forced, as if she has been anointed. A mysterious man, Kalden, who wanders the underworld of the Circle, warns her against descending too deeply into the inner circle. Mae seems more interested in having sex with this mysterious old/young man in some handy underground alcove. The heavy breathing might as well come from some indulgent comic book scene. Only the word balloons are missing.
Mae does have a family and a slight background, but these don’t seem to bear on her choices. In fact, she uses all available Circle technology to find a friend, Mercer, who is running away from everything the Circle stands for. In the language of an increasingly mean-spirited Mae, Mercer is a fugitive from friendship. The SeeChange cameras and the drones find him soon enough. Mercer drives off a gorge, killing himself. One of the Wise Men reminds Mae that she was “trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man.” Suicide is also evil. This is perhaps the best and most chilling scene in the book. Other parts of the novel could have benefited from such a close up of the price of dark technology.
The Circle is a novel about technologies that are all too familiar, if somewhat conflated. The author has simply taken these ideas and platforms to their illogical conclusions. One is not surprised that the Machine God appears in the form of her lover, the missing Wise Man, who counsels her against closing the circle, gives her a manifesto to read to her watchers, and then suggests they bike through the Mongolian steppe.
Mae had gotten so close to the Apocalypse, it rattled her.
It’s unlikely to rattle you.