Mae Holland is one lucky girl, for she’s just landed a job at the most prestigious and powerful internet company in the world. The Circle (ominous name, no?) has a sprawling campus in northern California that has everything from bowling alleys to libraries, dormitories and restaurants, day care centers and gymnasiums, and, quite often, employees never leave after the work day is finished. On campus, there are parties and athletic endeavors; there are famous musicians and artists and chefs and other celebrities brought in to perform or cook or just hang out.
Soon after taking the job, Mae becomes one of those Circlers who prefer life on campus, who prefer living in the ultra-modern dorm rooms to her own apartment. Mae’s rise up the corporate ranks is meteoric, and after she agrees to go “transparent,” which is when one wears a tiny camera on one’s person and broadcasts every minute of one’s life out to millions of strangers on the internet, she really gets caught up in the terrifying vision of The Circle’s three founders, this idea of Completion.
The Three Wise Men, as the Circle’s founders are called, invented an algorithm that links a person’s email, banking accounts, social media, and purchasing into one account known as a Circle account. No longer do users have to remember dozens of passwords; long gone is the hassle of identity theft, for a Circle account has eliminated these problems. The only issue is the Circle also has nearly unlimited access to personal information. As it gobbles up start-up companies left and right and gains more and more control of the government in Washington, D.C., the Circle will achieve Completion when it makes having a Circle account mandatory for all Americans, when it makes voting mandatory through the system it invented called Demoxie. For Mae, the stakes really escalate when she becomes romantically involved with Kalden, who may or may not be a spy looking to bring down the Circle.
What is truly stunning about this book is how Eggers captures the zeitgeist of the early 21st century, how he builds an entire technology-obsessed, dogmatically-idealistic world peopled with realistic characters, ones we would all recognize as friends, or neighbors, or colleagues, or students. Too, he manages to be funny and serious at the same, for this novel is both important and entertaining. The Circle is on the same plane as Orwell’s 1984 and Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here, but it also has the humor (and heart) of. . .pick any novel by Vonnegut. Eggers’s commentary on privacy, corporate monopolies, free market, government, human nature, and the Millenial generation are all spot-on, and, remarkably, not didactic or preachy in any way.
Bottom line, The Circle is a brilliantly written novel that is both timely and timeless. Eggers has always been an ambitious writer, and thematically speaking, in this book he throws up half a dozen targets and hits them all, dead center.