Many have praised Dave Eggers' new novel as a superb business book or a much-needed dose of modern-day muckraking. Just one problem: It's not a great story.
In 1971, Roger Waters told his bandmates in Pink Floyd that he wanted their next album to tackle one subject: What are the forces in modern life that alienate people from one another and their hopes?
It's a question with enduring appeal. And it's one reason Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is a masterpiece. Yes, the songs kick ass melodically, but they also address the way capitalism ("Money") and the pressures to succeed while you're young ("Time") can terrorize us and create socioeconomic divisions ("Us and Them").
At its best, Dave Eggers' latest novel, The Circle, illuminates these timeless topics with a contemporary immediacy. Many scenes are sketches or sendups of the way we live today. Earnest conversations fall prey to smartphone scans and tablet glances. Obsessions with tracking and measuring leave little breathing room for vital intangibles, both in and out of the workplace. Corporations co-opt and monetize the moments that once occupied the precious provinces of our private lives. Ethics become a farce. Work-life balance becomes a contradiction in terms.
When Ideas Trump Storytelling
To the extent that The Circle dramatizes these pains, it is an astounding success. You'll want all your busier-than-thou friends to read it, so they can see what inconsiderate jerks they've become. You'll want the leaders (in government and at large corporations) to read it, so they can see how their actions, sanctimoniously pursued in the name of transparency or democracy or health or even child safety, thinly disguise their greed.
So what's the problem? Call me old-fashioned, but the novels I like best tend to possess three qualities: Complex characters, unpredictable plots and intelligent ideas. From my perspective, The Circle deserves an "A" in the third category, but falls short in the other two. Here's my explanation of why. (And don't worry, there are no spoilers in any of the below.)
Complex characters.The Circle begins when its 24-year-old protagonist, Mae Holland, gets a job at The Circle, a post-IPO juggernaut located on a sprawling campus in a fictional city in northern California. For the duration of the novel, we never leave Mae's side. The narration is in the third-person, mostly filtered through Mae's point of view with occasional (and occasionally jarring) seasonings of storytelling omniscience. Through Mae's lens (figuratively and, later on, literally), we witness what it's like for a young woman to join the juggernaut. At first, she is an entry-level employee handling customer-service inquiries. Later, her role and power grow significantly.
As an independent-minded fictional character with complex motives and ethics, Mae will hardly make anyone forget about Lady MacBeth, let alone Edna Pontellier or Janie Crawford or Oedipa Mass. This, it seems to me, is intentional. Most independent thinkers would not last one week at The Circle, after getting a taste of its cult-like culture or its HR staff's demonization of introverts. Malleable Mae blends right in, with nary a protest.
You can see the conundrum: For the plot to work, the protagonist has to be something of a lemming. But as a reader, we're forced to experience the inferno with a boring guide who seldom offers a skeptical thought or wisecrack. As Michiko Kakutani points out in the New York Times, "Mae isn't the most appealing, or intriguing, character. She's no Winston Smith, the protagonist of 1984, who has come to deeply question life under Big Brother....No, Mae is an eager-beaver newbie, driven by insecurity and a need to ingratiate, and she is keen to help her hubris-ridden bosses implement their cultural revolution."
Unpredictable plots. The good news about The Circle is that it keeps you reading. It places its characters in a cauldron, and you wonder how and when everything will boil over. The bad news is that nearly every conflict is predictable. For example, one key revelation toward the end is completely expected, to the point where Mae's shock and surprise border on unbelievable. More damaging to my experience as a reader was the book's reductive dynamic of good-and-evil in which--you guessed it--the large corporation was evil while workaday citizens and artisans were good. Is there a level of truth in the above stereotypes? Of course. It just doesn't make for the most compelling or original of storylines.
Did Eggers want to write the book this way, so it would be a more effective agitprop, to rattle the insular, arrogant, know-it-all attitudes of certain leaders or societal segments? I'm guessing he did. So does Dennis K. Berman in the Wall Street Journal, who states that while The Circle is not great literature, "it is a great warning" to leaders of all stripes about the potential perils of contemporary capitalism.
So, Should I Read it?
Yes, you should, if you're a business leader. You might not need "the warning" Berman talks about, but you'll benefit from the way The Circle frames and articulates the issues of privacy, technology, and civil liberties.
That typed, let me emphasize: When you recommend a novel for its ideas, more than its plot or characters or prose, you're also damning it with faint praise. As Margaret Atwood points out in an otherwise positive review in the New York Review of Books: "Don't look to The Circle for Chekhovian nuance or thoroughly rounded characters with many-layered inwardness: it isn't 'literary fiction' of that kind. It's an entertainment, but a challenging one: it demands that the reader think its positions through in the same way that the characters must."
There's a connection between The Circle and Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury's classic on the destruction of civil liberties and individualism) that I'm dying to point out, because I'm almost certain it's intentional.
The most memorable characters in Fahrenheit 451 are the protagonist, Montag the fireman, and a brilliant woman he meets named Clarisse McClellan. You can feel the echoes of the early obedient Montag in The Circle's Mae. Likewise, you can feel the echoes of McClellan in a Circle character named Mercer (for my money, the only complex character in the book), who keeps trying to open Mae's eyes to the big picture.
Notice all the "M" names? As Atwood explains, Eggers' name choices (for characters and settings) are fascinating, on many levels. One of these levels is the way that the names pay homage to The Circle's artistic antecedents, such as Fahrenheit 451,1984, and Slaughterhouse-Five.
Those earlier books, in my view, provide a more enriching and amusing reading experience on comparable themes. But The Circle offers its own rewards and provocations, the best of which is its frightening warning about the large-scale destruction that today's corporations can wreak.