1. Nothing about The Circle is very surprising or new. Big Brother is a clichéd, outdated reality show. The privacy vs. transparency debate is as ubiquitous as the scope it describes. It’s obvious from page one which side the novel will end up on.
2. I don’t care about any of this. The transparency-obsessed campus of The Circle (a proxy for Google) is not an unappealing environment to me. Most of the time, it’s ridiculously attractive.
3. The relentless lists of online activities that the protagonist, Mae, conducts daily are not the downward spirals of doom they should be. Instead, the repetitive passages feel hypnotic and pleasurable and I live vicariously through Mae’s Internet high. I should read her decline into web addiction and over-sharing critically, but instead I feel the same breathless, click-through-again compulsiveness that I do staying up too late online, browsing websites and managing my own social media accounts.
4. I can’t figure out if I’m the exact target audience for The Circle, or the exact opposite of it. Are its warnings meant for those younger than me who’ve never known a world without Google? Or those older, who take a certain pride in refusing to get an Internet connection or email account?
5. The novel circles around the same few themes, visits the same few locations, and its protagonist, Mae, repeats the same tasks over and over again. This repetition gives me an intense, almost physical pleasure: a caffeine-like tightness in my brain, behind my ears; a lifting in my chest; the impulse the read as quickly as possible.
6. It’s more engaging to read about what Mae does on her computer than about her interactions with human characters, who are consistently flat—placeholders for perspectives.
7. Internet Rorschach: is this passage a dark chute of terror or an energizing, endorphin-generating endurance run? “[Mae] embarked on a flurry of activity, sending 4 zings and 32 comments and 88 smiles. In an hour, her PartiRank rose to 7,288. Breaking 7,000 was more difficult, but by 8, after joining and posting in 11 discussion groups, sending another 12 zings, one of them rated in the top 5,000 globally for that hour, and signing up for 67 more feeds, she’d done it. She was at 6,872, and she turned to her InnerCircle social feed. She was a few hundred posts behind, and she made her way through, replying to 70 or so messages, RSVPing to 11 events on campus, signing nine petitions and providing comments and constructive criticism on four products currently in beta. By 10:16, her rank was 5,342, and again, the plateau — this time at 5,000 — was hard to overcome. She wrote a series of zings about a new Circle service, allowing account holders to know whenever their name was mentioned in any messages sent from anyone else, and one of the zings, her seventh on the subject, caught fire and was rezinged 2,904 times, and this brought her PartiRank up to 3,887.” The passage continues for several more pages.
8. Fiction Writing 101: A complex character should always want something. For effective character development, ask: what does the character want? Mae wants a job at The Circle, and she gets it on page one. Her character is empty, simplistic, a shell.
9. Perhaps stripping Mae of any real wanting is the novel’s innovation: what happens when we want for nothing? Are we human anymore, or just shells of ourselves?
10. Something Mae sort of wants is a good rating of her work at The Circle (99% or higher for every inquiry she answers, which number in the hundreds each day). But this obsession with approval and high ratings doesn’t quite ring true to me: with quantity comes ambivalence, not a desire for quality. When reviews are always perfect, they have no meaning.
11. A book about the technology apocalypse feels pretty embittered. An interactive online e-book might be a less biased medium for this portrait.
12. Can a dystopian novel be nuanced? Can a post-apocalyptic novel be optimistic?
13. While I was reading The Circle, Google changed its login screen to read, “One Account. All of Google.” On the day I read about the novel’s politicians going “transparent,” the news broke of the NSA spying on Angela Merkel.
14. The Circle isn’t really dystopian or post-apocalyptic. It doesn’t provide a warning about the future. It describes today—a lament for the present.
15. But it also fails massively at emulating today’s world: the book is very long and very linear. There are no significant jumps in time, no flashbacks, no shifts in point-of-view. Its simple structure builds to traditional a climax. The plot exists only to service the author’s ideas. It’s structured around the premise of a new hire (Mae) being shown around the company and inducted slowly into its cult, so that the reader can experience the same progressive, manipulative induction. This structural focus seems antiquated: where’s the fractured, preoccupied multi-tasking that characterizes Silicon Valley life in the new millennium?
16. When you know exactly where a novel is going to end up from page one, does this inevitability mean the book depicts something recognizable, and therefore interesting? Or is it therefore boring? What’s the value of seeing ourselves from such a close-up?
17. Literary Analysis For Dummies: There’s satisfaction to be had at deciphering the book’s simplistic code. Its structure, symbols, and messages are all as transparent as the glass walls throughout The Circle’s campus.
18. But the message is not as simple as Google = Evil. Eggers’ critique seems more about something incredibly subtle and nuanced – the ins and outs of online infrastructure, and the etiquette, ethics and expectations for interacting upon it.
19. To the extent that Mae, the protagonist, is a fleshed-out character, she resembles me with pleasurable precision, right down to the former college roommate with a Stanford MBA and enviable networking skills.
20. Mae’s lack of complexity is useful in keeping the focus on The Circle, the real center of the story. But I wonder if giving her more dimensions wouldn’t crack the veneer of Eggers’ dystopia. Mae doesn’t try to analyze her occasional unconscious impulses toward privacy, toward turning off the cameras surveilling her continuously. She doesn’t attempt to understand why others (her parents, her best friend Annie, her ex-boyfriend Mercer) are uncomfortable with the surveillance. How realistic is her closed-mindedness? Do most of us have more analytical impulses than Mae that would, en masse, prevent the outcomes described in this novel?
21. Is it possible to describe both a world and a human with equal complexity?
22. I’m worried that a novel that includes modern technology can’t be about anything else than modern technology. I’m thinking about Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, which sort of tried to be about something else (relationships between humans) but was mainly about relationships with technology. The popularity of historical fiction might have something to do with avoiding this question.
23. The Circle does not actually portray the world of 100% transparency it builds towards. It only depicts the consequences of partial transparency (alienation, among others). I can’t tell if a completely transparent world would be as appealing to me as a partial one. In fact, I can’t visualize a completely transparent world at all—Eggers doesn’t give me enough hints about what it might look like.
24. Why choose a female protagonist? Is it more difficult to believe that a male would be slowly manipulated as Mae is by The Circle? Or simply more natural to imagine a woman happily giving ratings to hundreds of brands, products and moods throughout the day?
25. And then, I logged the book on Goodreads and posted about it on Twitter, because it felt natural, because I sincerely wanted to share it with people I care about who share my interests and who live far away, because that’s the easiest way I know how, because it made me feel good.