A few years ago, I tried to listen to Dave Eggers’ 2000 memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I noticed it on my sister’s bookshelf in the early 2000s (how could you not), further it was on the New York Times bestseller list and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize… but I couldn’t finish even listening to it. The story didn’t compel me and/or the audiobook narrator was turning me off. It felt aimless.
Of all places, I heard about Eggers’ The Circle in a “Social Media” discussion group* on my work’s internal social media platform (we use Microsoft’s Yammer) where someone posted about how it was a terrifying read. So on it went to my reading list!
To start, I listened to The Circle as an audiobook because listening to a novel makes so many tasks seem more enjoyable: routine tasks at work, brushing my teeth, washing dishes, etc. But I started getting irritated with the narration and besides that Eggers is a somewhat familiar writing voice, so was the narrator. I checked and, indeed, Dion Graham has narrated at least three Eggers novels including A Heartbreaking Work… and The Circle. Considering the dialogue was instrumental in perpetrating just how hard the characters had fallen into The Circle’s company culture to have lost sight of what you and I consider reason, it had to veer towards satirical and histrionic in the way early twenty-somethings would sound. I got confused: is The Circle a satire, young adult novel or scifi psychothriller? In any case, I stopped listening to the audiobook and read the second half of the novel – much better.
There seemed to be a great deal of set-up and exposition but it was building such that you could see just how much employees of The Circle – a over-the-top glitzy mash-up of Google, Facebook and other tech heavy hitters – increasingly buy the hype, drink the Kool Aid and influence the outside world. Eggers purportedly did not research the culture and details of the grand Silicon Valley campuses you hear about in order to not base The Circle too much on anything in existence.
In the near future, The Circle is a social media company that has subsumed the biggest tech companies of today and its time and 24-year-old Mae Holland has been rescued from her go-nowhere job with the hydro company by her college roommate, Annie, who joined The Circle earlier and has risen the ranks to be a shining star in the company. Mae starts in the Customer Experience (CE) which is tech support for The Circle’s clients with some lofty expectations and crazy work procedures. At The Circle, the mostly young employees work hard and play hard and the company goes to great extents to be everything to the employees such that they would win World’s Best Employer Award year after year and employees need not ever have to leave the campus and worry about necessities like food and shelter.
A 24-year-old today was born in 1991 and was 13 when Facebook arrived on the scene and 16 when the first iPhone was released. One might just remember what it’s like “in the past”, before we shared everything while on the go.
Twenty-four-year-old Mae in the near future presumably grew up in a more connected world but is relatable to the reader by initially being resistant to sharing everything. It doesn’t occur to her to share certain parts of her life that seem uninteresting and full indoctrinated colleagues go to extremes to justify how sharing her experiences helps the greater good. She is admonished for her actions and ambition and positive re-inforcement sways her to embrace the culture and become a mouthpiece, coining such gems as, “Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.”
Mae’s character seems at first mousy so her hot-bloodedness in the past (chalk it up also to the impulsiveness of youth) made me a little uncomfortable. She’s in a love “square” with three men: her relatively Luddite and stubborn ex-boyfriend Mercer, her colleague Francis and the mysterious colleague Kalden. They represent the options she has for the life she can lead, her past/present/future. Honestly, I felt sorry for each of those guys as the novel progressed and I didn’t find her character to be redeemable in the least.
The new advancements that The Circle rolls out starting with innocuous but frighteningly Big Brother-like SeeChange cameras keep escalating in mind-boggling but logical ways when in the future, they could justify anything on account of citing the good and necessity of transparency. Of course, it comes to a hilt and that’s where Mae, who is no longer just a mousy CE cog has to make a choice. What does she do?
So, out of curiosity, I Googled if The Circle had been picked up to be made into a movie and it has by Tom Hanks and will start filming this fall. Interesting… Even more interesting, is that while Hanks (age 59) is listed to play Kalden (a character who isn’t more than 30-something), Emma Watson (age 25) is listed to play 24-year-old Mae. It reminded me of the 2013 Vulture article, “Leading Men Age, But Their Love Interests Don’t” and look-ee, Tom Hanks is “guilty” and I just had to update his graph below. It is so scary I feel like I’ve made an error somehow.
This age gap (34 years) is surpassing Liam Neeson-Olivia Wilde (32 years) and Richard Gere-Laetitia Casta (29 years). Okay, off my soapbox now.
* Double-checked, actually it was a “Knowledge” discussion group but anyhow…