Title: The Circle
Author: Dave Eggers
My rating: 3 / 5
Genre: Fiction (Dystopia)
Audiobook note: The Circle‘s main character is a woman. Soooo I’m still trying to figure out why it was narrated by a man. It doesn’t make sense. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to enjoy the audiobook, because Dion Graham honestly sounds like the voice of Aslan (which definitely doesn’t fit the book’s tone). After a while though, I got used to it—plus Graham’s “valley girl” interpretation of Annie’s voice is actually hilarious.
Is it worth reading? If you’re a sucker for anything dystopia, you’ll probably enjoy The Circle. If your only foray into dystopian fiction is The Hunger Games, I’d pass on this one. What I enjoyed most about The Circle was how it built on the dystopia genre and compared to other dystopian books, and not so much for its merits as a stand-alone book.
>>Minor spoilers ahead<<
In the spirit of full disclosure, the only reason I picked up this book was because I saw The Circle movie trailer.
Emma Watson with an American accent? Tom Hanks as a villain?! Creepy dystopian universe eerily similar to our own?!?!?!?
Yeah, I was in.
So I popped over to my local library (tip #2 in my 4 tips for keeping your 2017 reading goals post) and picked up the audiobook.
This is dystopia for our current era. I’m looking forward to more in this genre to come.
The Weird Stuff
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. There were many things I disliked about this book, to the point that it made me wonder if that was the point. Maybe Eggers is intentionally trying to create a certain revulsion in the reader so that we recognize the ultimate message behind the book (read more under The Good Stuff).
I don’t know if I’ve ever read a book from the perspective of one of the sheep.
By that, I mean that Mae Holland believes everything the Circle tells her hook, line, and sinker. Even when trusted people in her life challenge her to think critically about the company she works for, she rejects their ideas as stupid, ignorant, and selfish.
The speed with which the world adopts the tyranny of the Circle was a little unrealistic to me, but not too unrealistic that I completely rejected it. I was spooked by how mindlessly and willingly the characters were willing to give up their freedoms—without even realizing it.
(More on this under Critical Thinking is Critically Important)
Mae is Freaking Annoying
What an obnoxious head to be stuck inside.
I’m really curious how Emma Watson is going to play her in the movie. Mae accepts everything without question, ridicules and hates anyone who questions her wisdom or choices, and cares only about the power she has over people or the way they make her feel.
She is petty, vain, people-pleasing, self-centered, and thoroughly unlikable. She is completely asleep to the dangers of the world around her. Listening to her internal dialogue was agonizing at times. But what made it worse was that I was also sort of rooting for her at the same time.
Incongruous Sex Scenes
In general, I’m not a fan of sex scenes. But I have no problem just skipping over them, and normally they don’t ruin my reading experience. I can still find a lot to love about a book aside from the parts I skip over (like in Game of Thrones or Pillars of the Earth).
But for some reason, I never saw the sex coming in this book. It just seemed so oddly out of place with the whole theme/tone of the story to have kind of descriptive sex thrown in there 5-6 times.
I don’t know if Eggers was trying to highlight the vast gulf between the digital and physical at the Circle or what, but it seemed weirdly incongruous with the rest of the book.
The Good Stuff
While I definitely didn’t love The Circle, there were some redeemable points. If nothing else, it served as a warning, and it’s always, always a good idea to examine warnings.
Especially when we live in a world where the plot of The Circle seems plausible.
These were my main takeaways (aka The Good Stuff):
Great World Building
One thing I loved (and which I think is critical for a good dystopian novel) is solid world building. If I’m going to buy into a futuristic, oppressive society, a believable, well-constructed world is key.
The Circle excels at creating a believable setting.
Maybe we’re just used to the idea of sprawling tech company campuses, but I think Eggers takes it to the next level. I could picture going to work with Mae every day and experiencing the things she experienced. Even the sometimes-tedious descriptions of her moment-by-moment movements helped highlight Mae’s increasingly frantic mental world.
Critical thinking is critically important
Every program or initiative started by the Circle was good in theory: microchips to prevent children from being kidnapped, programs to prevent racial profiling, surveys to ensure quality products and services, etc.
But no Circler seems to recognize how each new, exciting advancement is another infringement upon personal freedom and liberty. Every initiative is cloaked under the guise of safety, wellness, and acceptance.
The groupthink was so strong and the ideas were so “good” for society that it’s nearly impossible for any person to disagree without being branded as outlier, anti-social, or luddite.
When society loses the ability to constructively critique itself, tyranny slips in the door.
Disagreement does not equal hate
The more the Circle takes over, the more that negativity, disagreement, or dissent is punished.
I think this reminder is especially poignant in the wake of the 2016 election season. It’s easy to assume someone who disagrees with you hates everything you stand for, or even worse, hates you. But in reality, disagreement is valuable and necessary for a thriving society. It drives us to look at problems from all angles, and it reminds us that each person is unique and brings their own perspective to the the table.
When we seek to erase all disagreement, we encourage a culture of robots.
The dangers of seeking approval in a digital world
The more likes, followers, and approval ratings Mae receives, the better she feels about herself. She gets an endorphin rush from the instantaneous affirmation the Circle encourages.
And the more she’s treated as an object (albeit, a loved object) by her fans, the more she treats other people as pawns in her attempt to feel loved, valued, and approved.
This is a real problem we’re facing right now.
Social media makes it incredibly easy to start basing our value and our worth as human beings on the impersonal approval of people we have no connection to in real life.
The Circle shows us the danger when every action we take is categorized, ranked, rated, and evaluated. When our performance in the job force, the classroom, and the social realm are ranked and rewarded, it’s easy to slip into a mindset where we believe arbitrary numbers correlate to real things like value. It’s a dead-end search that can never be satisfied.
State-imposed morality is bad, bad, bad
The flaw with the goals of the Circle is that Eamon Bailey believes he can eradicate sin and change human nature by instilling “checks and balances” that will ensure everyone is intimidated, harassed, or forced into perfect behavior.
And it’s impossible. You can’t force people to make moral choices and you can’t force people to be perfect.
Although a perfect society would (theoretically) eliminate pain, suffering, fear of the unknown, and heartbreak, it would also eliminate choice. It would rob us of the agency to do good, to love others, and to make mistakes and learn from them. It would remove the ability to heal.
There’s a biblical application here as well: Agency means we have the choice to move toward God or away from Him … He didn’t make us into robots who are forced to choose Him.
Is The Circle Worth Reading?
Either this book is kind of crappy, or Eggers is doing something powerful here. I’m honestly not sure. Maybe I’m reading too much into it … or maybe not.
But that’s what I love about reading. To me, a book isn’t wasted if it teaches or reminds me of something powerful and true.
So is it worth reading?
I’d say yes if you like dystopian novels. If not, some of the subtler themes may not be worth slogging through the droning of Mae’s sheep-like mind or the petty behavior or the sort-of-disappointing twist at the end. If you don’t like this genre, it might just end up on your Did Not Finish pile.
Have you read The Circle? What did you think? Will you go see the movie? Leave a comment below!