The 24-year old protagonist, Mae Holland, thinks she’s reached Nirvana – and who wouldn’t? The Circle, the Internet company where she’s just landed a job, lavishes cool perks on employees: brownies in the fridge, clean, well-lit workstations, and a company store that stocks pharmaceutical-grade aloe.
It takes a few pages for Mae and the reader to figure out the dark purpose behind such cozy amenities as dorms to stay in after expected late nights: The Circle is using them to ferret out every aspect of its employees’ personal lives. And that’s a mere dress rehearsal for its larger campaign of amassing a detailed dossier on every citizen in the land.
At a time when stories about the government collection of our phone records evoke shades of 1984, The Circle doesn’t seem far-fetched. And my AOL experience tells me that Eggers has set The Circle campus scene with authentic detail. Company cafeteria? AOL had several – but they insisted on calling them “cafés.” The place was likewise crawling with bistros (more than a few), kitchenettes with ice machines, a gym, masseurs (yes, I indulged), a dry-cleaning store, pet insurance, and enough Nerfware to insulate my house.
The important point is, the 43-year-old Eggers, best known for his wrenching memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, has penned a fast-paced and suspenseful story – I gulped it down in a day – about what Mae does with her knowledge of her company’s intent. He ain’t the first to craft a cautionary tale of online excess – Jaron Lanier, for one, did a nice job of that in You Are Not a Gadget (2010) – but in The Circle Dave Eggers has produced the fable for our wired times.