Part of the What We Are Reading Now collection of Book Reviews by friends of Essex Book Festival

A Book Review by Imogen. L. Smiley

Have you ever seen that movie where Forrest Gump and Hermione Granger do a TED Talk? No? Well, it’s really good, but I prefer the book.

The Circle is a novel by Dave Eggers which is approximately four-hundred and fifty pages long. Depending on your reading speed it could probably take you a few days to read it. I personally, burned through it in three days. Once I’d sunk my teeth in, there was no getting me away from it. Even though, I only bought the book because of how much I enjoyed the film. But, like I said, I prefer the book.

The first reason I loved the novel was due to a lot of the same reasons that I prefer a lot of literature which have film adaptations; I find reading the books, or listening to the story, provides a more immersive experience of the world and problems that the characters are encountering. It felt much deeper, and more tangible than it did onscreen.

The characters are fantastic in this book, each significant is well explored, and as events unfold, you are privy to their mistakes and misdeeds. Its intimate.

Mae Holland is a character you hate to love and love to hate; so real and genuine with relatable flaws and insecurities. You watch this beacon of potential explore this utopia of access around her and be swallowed by an environment which seems equally as terrifying as it does reasonable. You understand her internal conflicts and issues; how she succumbs to impulse and temptations. The story provides insight into Mae’s life and her problems with choosing a partner. How her head is turned by Francis and in turn Kalden and then once again by Francis, then Kalden again. The conflict is real, easy to access and, with the distance the reader has from Mae’s own clouded mind, we are able to judge her for those decisions, form our own opinions of Mae and whether what she was doing was right, or if she really had just become inhuman, like her friend Mercer had implied.

The character of Annie is equally as endearing as she is repulsive. Through Mae’s transparent lens you understand her frustrations, and grow to view her as Mae does. She values her friend, her mentor, for giving her the opportunity, yet was desperate for more. The two women clash solely due to shared drive and ambition. Both want to succeed; to flourish in the environment they had found themselves in and watching them both support one another, whilst trying to out-do their companion was an interesting point of view. I found it so easy to explore, and the feminist undertones of the two women focussing on surpassing each other instead of the men they shared their workspace with were easy to relate to.

Another one of the main characters, who I admittedly struggled to relate to, was Mercer. Despite acting as the voice of reason, he is antagonised throughout the story, and his behaviour is regarded as irrational and crass. Watching Mercer make points which equally seemed reasonable and irrational was a striking antithesis to the ideals of The Circle. I found it so interesting to see his radical opinions slandered while the ideas from The Circle were embraced. Rapid change was encouraged, as long as it was forward, toward that common goal, it seemed. Watching him unravel in the distance, Mae no longer able to help was striking and dramatic. It added a thrill to the story, as you cannot help but wonder where he is or what he is doing in his absences.

The character of Kalden was amazingly thought out, he is shrouded in mystery and unable to be traced as he exists almost like a cryptid amidst the community, unable to be found amongst the thousands of employees and distractions that cloud Mae’s mind while she is working at The Circle. He parallels Mercer with his ideals and criticism but is able to level with Mae, engage her in conversation; debate with her about the situation that existed outside of The Circle, which made him striking in difference.

Francis in comparison is much easier to dislike, especially as a romantic partner for Mae. The readers, like Mae are made privy to his background and the intricacies of his upbringing prior to getting to know much about him as a character. He and Mae are shown to be similar, hard-working and innovative people, single-minded and driven toward their high ambitions. They would be integral to the progress of The Circle and thus would be a strong couple. His relationship with Mae, is however, much more complicated. Both demonstrate their humanity and their lack of it when they’re together but constantly encounter one another at work and find each other in their beds. It is both easy to dislike him for his behaviour, but it was equally as frustrating to dislike him due to understanding his motives.

The characters provoke volumes of layers to pick apart, I found when reading, that the story allowed me to change my opinion of the characters, which I enjoyed. There have been plenty of books I have read in the past where there has been little chance for me to change by opinion of the characters in the story, and I would simply seem ridiculous for having such strong opinions of them.

Something else that I loved about this novel was the scenery, and the strength in Eggers’ descriptive prowess. He captures the beauty of the moments Mae experiences with a clarity that is befitting of such a story, the visual imagery used throughout the book provides the reader with a great ability to access and imagine the things that Mae experiences with such precise and intricate qualities at the forefront of your mind as you read. This is so apt considering the subject matter of surveillance and people watching a world that they can’t experience.

The novel had plenty of amazing themes to pick apart, but the two most prevalent, referred to often in the story are the ideas of privacy and surveillance. Privacy is acknowledged throughout Mae’s plight with transparency throughout the second of the three parts in the book; she finds herself having private rendezvous in bathroom stalls with friends and lovers. She struggles to acknowledge and accept the idea that people may want to keep information to themselves despite her constant frustration that she begged for a video of her performing a sexual act could not be deleted. The contradiction and hypocrisy is equally fascinating and frustrating between the concept of keeping information intimate and “secrets are lies”.

Surveillance and the idea that someone is always watching is a related theme, but manifests itself in more physical instances. Mae finds herself in the public eye permanently throughout the story, from being the new member of staff, capturing the attention of her colleagues, to being made to feel alienated in her workplace by her reluctance to immerse herself in the activities that took place on The Circle Grounds. She is made to feel wrong by not being as avid in her use of social media and is exposed to the importance of her job when a reckless decision she made, under the guise that nobody was watching, nearly jeopardised her work, and instead provided her with a new opportunity. The idea that being under surveillance kept her in check, kept her from being irrational was fascinating, because it allowed the reader to understand the fears of being alone with one’s faults, a common fear amongst those with mental health issues, but allowed it to be perceived in a new vein.

The aspect of influx, a constant surge of date compilation, that is referred to in numerical form, crunched and compact in its purest form, was common. It reflected the idea of being overwhelmed by working in a desk job just as easily as it related to the idea that in working so closely with a major corporation was making Mae lose her humanity, her individuality and gain a dependence upon the screens around her.

One of the most striking parts of the writing in this novel was the use of metaphors. Throughout the story, the reader is provided with nods and updates about the state of Stenton and his aquarium, where three sea creatures were being housed; all three recovered from the depths of the Marina Trench: the octopus, the seahorse and the shark. Each creature is bizarre yet beautiful. Mae watches these creatures twice during the story, when they first arrive in the aquarium and when they are transferred to the same environment, a shared tank. I loved how this metaphor could be related to different scenarios. Was the shark The Circle, the octopus Annie and the seahorse Mae? Was the shark Stenton, the Octopus Ty and the Seahorse Bailey? The fact that it is flexible and has the ability to be applied to many characters and scenarios in the story made it so interesting. I would love to analyse them all in depth – but fear I would spoil the events of the story in the process.

The pacing of the book was, however, one aspect that could act as a hiccup. I struggled, admittedly, for the first few chapters to get into the flow of events. It felt like so much was happening across a couple-dozen pages and yet nothing had happened throughout the events of the book. It required patience to finally slip into the pace of the story, which gradually increased. Once you’ve got into that flow of the story, of the narration, of Mae’s life, you do find the events come to you easier. What I would suggest is not to go into this novel with the intention of burning through it in a day, lest you be disappointed that you aren’t ensnared in drama from the get-go. Instead, I believe it is imperative to take The Circle as an experience. Eggers has done a spectacular job carving this piece out and it is, in my opinion, worth taking it at a slower pace.

I found that The Circle thoroughly provided an interesting and relatable commentary on the concept of technological dependence, along with surveillance and privacy. It is a book that could provide pivotal talking points to encourage healthier habits with not only lessening screen time but openness of sharing information.

Overall, like I said, I loved the book. It was one that I would happily reread and analyse in detail, the depth of the content is so interesting and easy to find yourself immersed in. I can see myself revisiting this novel multiple times in the future. I would highly recommend reading The Circle by Dave Eggers, it was thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Imogen. L. Smiley is a recent graduate from The University of Derby, where she studied Creative and Professional Writing. She is a gothic short story writer and a spoken word poet with a passion for literature and exploring metaphors and social issues. She has lived in Essex for most of her life with her parents, sister, and four dogs; Eric, Cybil, Taters and Prudence. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram under @Imogen_L_Smiley, and her page Imogen Smiley can be found on Facebook.

Read other book reviews in the What We Are Reading Now collection.