I received this book as part of the haul when my mom came to visit over the summer. I can’t quite remember when I finished it (though I’m sure if I wasn’t so incredibly lazy I could look up the date on goodreads), but at the time I felt so frustrated with the portrayal of the female character that I wasn’t ready to address it. I just wanted to have my procedure and then lay in my bed with Mindy Kaling’s words of wisdom.
This week, though, the novel feels incredibly relevant for two reasons. 1. The announcement of the app Peeple. (I’m going to use this space to clarify that there is already a non-evil app named Peeple that has nothing to do with rating anyone, so the new app is probably looking at a renaming ceremony.) 2. Gender seems to be everywhere in the news this week, but particularly in literature news with Stephanie Meyers pulling a gender swap on her Twilight characters as part of her anniversary release. (I really hate Stepanie Meyers’ writing but am incredibly curious about this, and would really appreciate it if someone trained in gender dynamics would read it and tell me what she thinks. Cough *Della* Cough. I hope you’re reading this.)
Anyway. Maybe what I was really waiting on for this review was social relevancy, because that is (to me) the entire purpose of the novel itself.
This is my first encounter with Eggers’ fiction. I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius while I was in graduate school and while stunningly heartbreaking and well written my response was “eh” on the genius part. But when I was browsing the bookstore with my mom (Barnes and Noble…I always wish I could do a shout out to some awesome indie store when I say things like that) the premise of this one jumped out at me. When I first started reading it, I told a friend of mine back in Ohio that it was an insanely intriguing plot with equally insanely asinine characters and unrealistic dialogue. He said that he referred to this as a good book with a bad editor.
The novel is about a company called The Circle that is essentially a merging of Google, Amazon, and Facebook. If your immediate reaction is that this company sounds terrifying then good, we are on the same page. Google is scary because they have all of this information about everyone everywhere, and they also ultimately control the access to said information. Facebook is scary because they collect loads of data on you, it’s accessible to others who know you (and even some who don’t), and it never disappears, never gets deleted. Amazon is scary as the leader in the marketplace for EVERYTHING. Put them together. Imagine all of your information open sourced to everyone everywhere? Everything google has on you accessible by your Facebook friends? Including those data files collected by your gmail? By those creating and selling you products? And there’s no delete button. Do you feel concerned yet?
In the book, The Circle is heavily recruiting millennials as employees, and one naïve young girl named Mae goes to work there, excited about the possibilities with this kind of access and information. For example, one of the first projects you as a reader are introduced to is that of a chip implant for young people. You would put it in your children when they are born, and then it would collect information not just about their location but health, well being, etc. The idea is to prevent 100% of future child abductions. Maybe a good idea on the surface? Maybe you could make that argument. (But I would fight you hard on it.)
This lead character Mae is what I define and admire in literature as a strong female. She used to work in a factory despite her college degree and a friend of hers pulled some strings to get her into this job. The company supplies her very sick family with full health insurance, and before long she recognizes the benefits she never dreamed she could have. (As someone racking up health costs, I get it.) They very soon give her expectations and rewards that are mindfully similar to inducting someone into a cult (i.e., expecting additional time spent on the company and placing people on a daily ranked list of success or failure based on time spent).
Eventually, the company expands into something called “transparency.” Politicians are able to wear a video camera all day long and it feeds through the company site. No more lies, no more backdoor meetings. That availability naturally forces a standard of transparency in politics, but soon seeps into the culture at large as well. Through some very overt manipulation Mae, while at first hesitant, eventually becomes a face of both The Circle and transparency itself.
This is going to be a movie with Emma Watson playing Mae, by the way. I didn’t know that until after I finished reading but it made immediate sense. Mae is an independent female. She’s motivated and desired to be on the frontier, the voice of her generation if she is able. At first she has little faith in herself, but with the backing of the The Circle she quickly excels in her position.
There is a character in the book that I cannot bring myself to ruin for you all, a romantic interest, playing the voice of reason in Mae’s ear throughout her time at The Circle. And yet…
Oftentimes in a cult situation the individual is encouraged to cut off communication with those who disagree with their mission. This is true of The Circle, as you see slowly happening with Mae’s family and friends. One of them even makes an astute observation about the people who come together to create such a mission: “First of all, I know it’s people like you. And that’s what’s so scary. Individually you don’t know what you’re doing collectively. But secondly, don’t presume the benevolence of your leaders. For years there was this happy time when those controlling the major internet conduits were actually decent enough people. Or at least they weren’t predatory and vengeful. But I always worried, what if someone was willing to use this power to punish those who challenged them?”
And the person in the cult can’t open her eyes to the argument, because she is so entrenched in it. But Mae doesn’t get the benefit of that argument. She has an individual within the structure who provokes deep emotion within her echoing the same feedback. She conspicuously chooses the manipulation rather than reason without recognition of its inherent evilness. She chooses more dangerous avenues showing a lack of thought to the long-term consequences. She mindfully chooses loveless, practical romance over emotion and intimacy. And I am frustrated by that.
I am frustrated that’s where Eggers took his portrayal of this amazingly strong female. If there’s one thing reading interviews with Amy Schumer and finishing Kaling’s sophomore book has done it’s made me wish there were more women receiving recognition for being incredible everywhere. And when we get the chance to be represented by a male author in a strong, real, dynamic way…we are ultimately portrayed as the idiots who cannot see the forest for the trees. And while I understand cults and the tendency to be swept up, the difference for Mae is that she was never isolated. She always had this other voice whispering in her ear. She just chose otherwise. Dammit, Eggers.
And that’s where the gender dynamics of the new Twilight come into play. Twilight is at its core about a very controlling and abusive relationship no matter how you want to spin it, and young women all over the country internalized it (along with its tag-along success: Fifty Shades of Grey). And switching those genders doesn’t mean that it is less so – though they are far more likely to be abused, women can certainly be abusers.
But I have to wonder how it reads now that Meyers has switched it around. Did she pull back on the controlling aspects? Did she make the character of what would have been Edward softer? Or do we now have in what was essentially the poster child series for passive, abused women an insanely powerful woman to the point of abuse? Is either really a success for Meyers or women? And where do we draw those lines for women, these “strong” women we want to be portrayed? And why am I sitting here judging the intricacies of these female characters when possibly I should just be supportive? It’s a frustrating line for a feminist to straddle. The Circle is a frustrating book for a feminist because it raises more anger and questions within myself than answers or strength. Can’t we be heroic in dynamic and realistic ways in anything besides The Hunger Games?
Switching gears entirely on my rant, if you want to understand the danger of this new (yet to be renamed) Peeple app that rates people, you should read this novel – because the answer is in between its lines. Essentially, what you really see as dangerous in a company like The Circle is the destruction of intimacy. In a life of transparency intimacy, true, delicate intimacy is wiped away. While interviewing the inventors of Peeple The Washington Post referenced the danger in a new app like this by considering an interaction such as a teacher/parent conference now being tip-toed around because of the concerns regarding how it might affect your ratings. The inventors’ only response was, “That’s feedback for you!” No, THAT’S NOT FEEDBACK FOR ME. That’s the fear of technology providing us with such “honesty” that our actual honesty disappears. An app like that suddenly makes something like this book, which felt like such far off science fiction because WHO IS DUMB ENOUGH TO MAKE SOMETHING LIKE THAT HAPPEN, actually come to fruition. It frightens me. The disappearance of my honesty and rawness and intimacy with other humans frightens me. I don’t want to worry about what my ex who broke my heart 2 days before I was moving across the country with him rated me on some app a potential employer could later look at. Dude deserves me being pissy. I don’t want to worry that when I disclose how sad this much pain can sometimes make a person in a true exposed moment with a friend or acquaintance that I’m going to have to find out that they might think I’m annoying because my rating went down. That’s scary. You should be scared.
But that doesn’t really tell you whether the book is good or not, does it? I was recently texting a new acquaintance and told her I was working on this review, and she said she liked the book but that it was divisive, as Eggers generally is. I concur. The book is full of stirred up controversy, which is why it lead me into a blog post where I rant about pop culture more than I speak to the merits of the book itself. That alone is actually a testament to what the novel can accomplish. I do feel frustration with the characters, but I also have to recognize the worth in Eggers’ ability to emote such caring from me for them. Plus, the plot is fascinating and original – it kept me hanging on until the last line, which then haunted me for days. Ultimately, it’s worth a read. Not only will you get an excellent plot, you will get a grey political field that will likely lead you down your own current events rant.