A Heartbreaking Work of Subpar Genius: Dave Eggers’s Dystopian Tech Novel Misses the Point

For one thing, he doesn't get that the delusions of grandeur are usually delusions.
Remainder-table-level Orwell.

Remainder-table-level Orwell.

After a decade and a half of the Internet wreaking havoc on the way we live our lives, the literary world has decided it’s time to tackle its influence. Hard on the heels of Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon’s take on Silicon Alley’s first tech boom, we have The Circle, a patched-together dystopian fantasy by Dave Eggers, who is quite clearly very worried about the pernicious influence of Facebook and its ilk.

Many, many words have already been devoted to the ways Mr. Eggers misunderstands Silicon Valley, and they’re justified. The novel reads like it’s cobbled together from what Mr. Eggers has overheard in the bars, coffee shops and parks of San Francisco. He’s nailed the sound of the tech world’s delusions of grandeur, but he doesn’t see them for the delusions they usually are.

The Circle is set in the near-future and named for a shady company that’s already stripped the Internet of its anonymity and has set its sights on destroying any semblance of real-world privacy using cheap, ubiquitous cameras and a large user base of suckers. Mr. Eggers’s easily manipulated protagonist, Mae Holland, is bombarded with her insidious bosses’ fervor in the value of transparency.

“My point is, what if we all behaved as if we were being watched?” one of the company’s executives asks her in a particularly Orwellian passage. “It would lead to a more moral way of life.” This is an absurd fantasy, if we are to take as examples all the men made rich by social media. Consider the highly secretive wedding of Sean Parker, and the subsequent maelstrom after details of the ceremony leaked to the press, or Mark Zuckerberg’s chronic camera shyness.

Mr. Eggers has been accused of plagiarizing Kate Losse’s The Boy Kings, and honestly, his book would have been better off if he had just word-for-word ripped off her work about tech’s 20-something royalty. His greatest defense against her charges of appropriation is the fact that The Boy Kings was a critique and a personal account of a specific time and place, instead of a fever dream born of the author’s own uninformed worries about Twitter. Mr. Eggers’s tepid critique rests somewhere between realism and satire, failing to do either very well.

He does get patches right, ephemera that’s merely floating in the Bay Area atmosphere at this point, like all the infantilizing start-up social occasions and the cultish insistence on treating work like one big happy family—which makes it OK for a supervisor to guilt-trip an employee into attending another company BBQ. Self-quantification is also taken to its extreme in this scene where Mae’s doctor explains the sensor she’s just slipped into her milkshake:

It’ll collect data on your heart rate, blood pressure, cholesterol, heat flux, caloric intake, sleep duration, sleep quality, digestive efficiency, on and on. A nice thing for the Circlers, especially those like you who might have occasionally stressful jobs, is that it measures a galvanic skin response, which allows you to know when you’re amped or anxious.

(One imagines Mr. Eggers riding the BART next to some preening Fitbit wearer and growing increasingly horrified the longer he listens.)

But the conspiratorial hand-wringing is not enough to carry the novel. Mr. Eggers focuses too much on his caricature-esque executives and their overly evil empire. If, as Mr. Eggers suggests, the inflated commerce of the Internet is becoming increasingly fascistic, why not take a real Orwellian step back and examine the impact of this, rather than focusing emptily on the mechanics of corrupted power? Mr. Eggers’s fear mongering makes the grumpy rants of Jonathan Franzen look downright reasonable.

The Circle comes across as another middle-aged man’s misguided fears about a generation he has lost touch with, and worse, it reads like a conversation from five years ago. He told the New York Times in a brief Q&A accompanying an excerpt in the Times Magazine that, “[Mae’s] interactions with actual people are more chaotic, and there isn’t a simple rating system — so the choice between a confusing real-world interpersonal life and a more predictable, rating-driven online life becomes difficult.”

The real missed opportunity, though, comes when Mr. Eggers also neatly sidesteps his own complicity in the hipsterfication of Silicon Valley. The conscience of the novel is Mae’s tut-tutting ex, Mercer, who might as well be Mr. Eggers’s stand-in (or at least a dead-ringer for some low-rung editor at McSweeney’s, the literary journal and publisher Mr. Eggers founded in 1998.) Mercer makes chandeliers out of deer antlers and says things like “You look at pictures of Nepal, push a smile button, and you think that’s the same as going there.”

Once upon a time–for a certain subset of the American populace, anyway–Dave Eggers was practically synonymous with San Francisco. Now, as Silicon Valley’s center of gravity shifts toward the city, it’s the techies, and so many of them have adopted the cultural signifiers of the McSweeneys crowd. Zuck’s got a second home in the Mission District, near-IPO Twitter’s on Market Street. I’d bet a thermos of Blue Bottle Coffee that your average start-up king has a copy of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius knocking around his bookshelf somewhere.

In reality, Mercer would be doing a brisk business on Etsy and appearing on panels about tech and the importance of craft. Sean Parker would own one of those chandeliers.

And yet, in many ways, the Circle (the company) reads like any big, powerful modern American corporation, with some dorms and beer-soaked parties grafted on. Mr. Eggers might as well have set the novel at a thinly veiled Monsanto or Walmart. The two dominant execs, responsible for much of the nefariousness, are a swashbuckling type who calls himself Capitalist Prime (?!) and owns a NASCAR team. The other is an open, earnest Midwestern type who prefers to be called “Uncle Eamon,” who could just as easily work for GE.

But, without giving too much away, it’s a hoodie-wearing boy-wonder type who—in what is probably the novel’s least believable tangent—actually decides to take a stand against the Circle’s creeping totalitarianism.

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