Book Review: 'The Circle' has a great warning, but lacks great writing

Some books are fun to read and some books are important to read. Rarely, they can even be combined. This summer, I read “The Circle,” by Dave Eggers, which offers an important warning for modern society within a work lacking the appropriate literary merit. 

"The Circle," by Dave Eggers, was released on April 22, 2014. (Courtesy/Knopf)

The protagonist is Mae Holland, an ambitious millennial who just landed her dream job at a massive technology and social media conglomerate called The Circle, which also provides the book’s title. By the time Mae arrives, The Circle has replaced Facebook, Twitter, Google and basically all other major competitors. 

Although Mae starts out in the lowly customer service, or “customer experience,” department, she quickly rises through the ranks as she sacrifices more and more of her privacy and becomes brainwashed by the organization’s cult-like philosophy. 

Eggers has clearly read and loved “1984,” because he so badly wants to be George Orwell that the parallels are almost obnoxious. Midway through the book, Mae summarizes The Circle’s views as, “Secrets are lies. Sharing is caring. Privacy is theft.” These lines are practically begging to be compared to Orwell’s classic lines, “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”  

While Orwell focused on life in a well-established, all-encompassing dictatorship, Eggers is writing about a dictatorship that is just finding its legs and establishing itself. More comparisons can be drawn between “The Circle” and “1984,” as the role of big brother in this universe is split amongst the three big shots in the circle, collectively called “the wise men.” 

Eggers is no slouch when it comes to depicting the rise of the world’s first internet dictatorship. Although Mae is a small cog in a much larger machine, glimpses of the larger operation and what it all means are seen throughout the book. Just to hammer the point home, Eggers has a character summarize why The Circle is bad at the end of the book, in case you missed all the other hints. 

But while The Circle’s dictatorship seems plausible on its face, there are a number of questions that are never asked or answered. The circle believes that all information should be public, but never is the question asked, “what about the nuclear launch codes?” 

It might seem ridiculous, but if The Circle believes that everything should be public, surely no information can be exempt. But if it is, then The Circle’s entire philosophy implodes, because it acknowledges that some information must be kept private. 

My biggest problem with “The Circle,” and the reason that it will never hold a candle to “1984,” is the main character. Mae Holland is no Winston Smith. While Winston is constantly questioning the why of things, offering a private defiance to the rule of the party, Mae basically just does what she is told and practically brainwashes herself. 

Not only does Mae not question anything the circle does after a certain point, she also willfully ignores evidence that she is creating a dystopia. Every time Mae is presented with evidence that she is hurting her family, her friends or her co-workers, she dismisses it. Mae’s brainwashing and conversion is ultimately far less interesting than Winston’s, because it feels like Mae is brainwashed for most of the book.   

By the end of “The Circle,” the lapses in logic go far beyond two plus two equaling five. Mae basically loses all sympathy throughout the second half of the book, as most readers will find it difficult to root for a mindless drone. By the end of the novel, it becomes hard to focus on Eggers’ warning about privacy and digital rights because Mae is so annoying and frustrating to listen to. 

“The Circle” could have been a “1984” for the twenty first century. Unfortunately, it is tainted by a protagonist many readers will actively dislike and questions that are never answered. There is a good warning in this book that readers should take to heart, but getting to that message can feel like more of a challenge than any book should be.


Edward Pankowski is life editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at edward.pankowski@uconn.edu.