Self-Portrait in Translucent Shark
Book Review: Dave Eggers's The Circle
Katie Dieter and Kat Solomon
Sometime in 2016 we can expect the film release of The Circle, starring Emma Watson and Tom Hanks. Based on the book by Dave Eggers, the film is being billed as a “tech thriller.” It will be fascinating to see how this novel is adapted to the big screen. The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland, an enterprising young woman who takes a job at the titular Circle, a kind of Facebook/Twitter/Google hybrid whose quest for total knowledge and total transparency quickly turns sinister. We both happened to read the novel around the same time, and although we enjoyed parts of it quite a bit, we were left with similar feelings of ambivalence about the way the novel portrays its female protagonist. Below we have tried to articulate and examine that discomfort. (Spoiler Alert: We will discuss plot details, including the novel’s ending). Here’s to a life of unpacking the complexities of reading and writing! Here's to a life of reading deeply and writing about complexity!
–KD and KS
There were more than a few instances in my reading of Dave Eggers's The Circle that I found myself suddenly disgusted by my caress of that iPhone in my pocket. Eggers’s 2013 novel, in which the Circle, a super-mega-corporation, succeeds in stripping humanity of its humanity by achieving total invasiveness, is eerily successful in highlighting the creepiness of our ever-growing human obsession with all modes of technological interaction.
More concerning than Eggers’s chilling vision of a world inextricably bound to its depersonalizing gadgets, however, was my realization over the course of reading the novel, that Eggers ends up failing in a way that reeks of . . . run-of-the-mill sexism.
Eggers’s depiction of the downfall of humanity at the hands of rampant technological interference relies almost exclusively on its easily manipulated, air-headed female protagonist. Here is a successful book written by a contemporary male novelist of not-insignificant acclaim. Here is a book written from the close third-person perspective of a female protagonist—Mae Holland—who serves as a cog in a dystopian apparatus. Here is a female whose ignorance and gullibility ultimately lead to The Downfall Of Human Kind. (Thanks again, Eve, for biting that proverbial apple and setting us up for such jabs over the last several millennia.)
Don’t misunderstand. I am always interested in a juicy female antihero, but not a female antihero that merely serves to reinforce destructive stereotypes of lemming-like females marching humanity of the proverbial cliff-face.
Equally disheartening, I have not been able to find a single reviewer—male or female—who publically highlights the inherent dissonance of a successful male writer approaching writing from the perspective of a different, more disenfranchised gender, to such bumbling effect.
In a moment of the kind of winking, elbow-nudging situational irony that can only fully exist in real life, as I dug through The Circle’s many reviews, I discovered that virtually all of the major journals and news-sources that took it on did so through female reviewers. (Ellen Ullman for The New York Times, Susannah Luthi for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Jane Ciabattari for The Boston Globe, and even my own beloved Margaret Atwood, reviewing The Circle for The New York Review of Books.) All of whom were virtually silent about the radioactively air-headed Mae.
Margaret Atwood’s review comes close to the issue, skirts it, and ricochets away. It seems to me that, for reasons that remain elusive, Atwood uses the sweeping breadth of her intellect to provide Eggers an out. She cautions readers, “Don’t look to The Circle for Chekhovian nuance or thoroughly rounded characters with many-layered inwardness: it isn’t “literary fiction” of that kind. It’s an entertainment, but a challenging one.” She characterizes The Circle as a Menippean satire—a term that, admittedly, I had to look up. A Menippean satire critiques mental attitudes instead of specific individuals. And while this is certainly an apt term to characterize the manner of dystopian presentation Eggers strikes, it is not, to my mind, a good enough excuse for crafting this particularly unhealthy morsel of a female character.
Because it is not a requirement of Menippean satire that the locus of destructive “mental attitude” be a central female character, right? And while in “literary fiction” of a more typical kind, one character must certainly not be read as a stand-in for All Of Womankind, in this more allegorical sense, it almost certainly does take on such larger implications. Moreover, when satirizing the tech industry, which is, even now, almost wholly dominated by powerful men, it would follow that there are wells of resources to draw from for using flat male characters to achieve a powerful satirical pointedness on this subject.
Eventually, the “black tear” Eggers describes building up in Mae starts to feel like an actual, physical black tear I want to make in the flimsy white paper of her existence.
I think seeing the novel primarily as a satire does go some way toward explaining the particular flatness of its characters, but I agree that that interpretation doesn’t ultimately satisfy in terms of my uneasiness with Mae’s characterization. For one thing, it would seem to justify a more symbolic reading of her role in the novel, which only compounds the basic problem with using a clueless female character to bring about the world’s downfall.
Once she is hired at the Circle, Mae is quickly swept into events whose significance she does not understand (and will never understand). She is the reader’s eyes and ears, our avatar. From the moment she arrives at the company in the novel’s opening pages, Mae is struck by its physical space, a sprawling campus that forms a marked contrast to the drab interior of the utility company where she used to work. The Circle’s physical arrangement reveals the company’s underlying epistemology: sections are named after eras in human history, such as The Renassiance, the Middle Ages, or the Old West. The reader can recognize early on that Eggers is interested not so much in technology per se, but about the relationship between social media, knowledge, and control. The old saw applies here: Knowledge is power. Mae, however, is only swept up by the surface appearance of the Circle; it is a much more hip company than the one she left behind.
The Circle is ruled by a triumvirate called the Wise Men (Eggers’s cleverness abounds when it comes to naming). Really, in the world of Silicon Valley, it is hardly unreasonable to believe that a major tech company would be founded by a group of men. But as the Circle introduces a series of increasingly invasive innovations – cameras everywhere, recording everything and transmitting it to a progressively greedier public – Mae’s failure to question these developments becomes increasingly hard to accept.
Eventually, a chorus of men warns Mae about WHAT IS COMING. Long before Mae, the reader (or this one, at least) divines that the quest for complete knowledge poses a basic threat to human freedom. The company is trying to “close the circle” by completely eliminating privacy – everyone will be recorded, all the time—allowing The Circle to control the world, i.e., the basic dystopian sci-fi scenario.
Mae is seduced – literally and metaphorically – by the Circle. Early on, she has a sexual encounter with a mysterious man named Kalden. Unable to locate him in the company database, Mae (though this reader, not so much) is shocked when Kalden turns out to be none other than the Circle’s reclusive founder, one of the Wise Men himself, a Dr. Frankenstein who alone realizes that he has, through his company, created a monster. Toward the end of the novel, Kalden lays out the impending doom of the situation for Mae: “We’re closing the circle around everyone – it’s a totalitarian nightmare.” No kidding.
We may be in the realm of satire, but the novel condescends to Mae in a way it does not toward its male characters. Mae remains at all times a puppet, a cog in the machinery of the novel’s plot.
The Circle feeds on knowing and owning everything, nourished by such critical components as its SeeChange project (a perpetual live-stream from tiny, wifi-connected cameras set up at every street corner and in every living room), alongside passion projects like counting the total number of grains of sand in the Sahara Desert.
Meanwhile, Mae Holland is nourished by her male handlers and never by her own insight or critical understanding—an anti-feminism which singlehandedly enables her rapid assent through the ranks of the male-controlled Circle.
Mae is eventually coerced into becoming the first Circle member to take the leap into the Circle’s crowning achievement, going fully “transparent,” and as a result becomes the Circle’s most famous and game-changing employee. (“Going transparent” involves equipping oneself with a camera around the neck that constantly streams one’s actions, conversations and surroundings to eager watchers. It is a political gesture as well as a pop-culture-selfie-obsessed grab for airtime, fame and the total elimination of privacy. Even a trip to the bathroom becomes something of a public act.)
The difficulty here is the anti-nourishment this nourishing process of Mae provides for the portrayal of women. The more duped Mae allows herself to become, the more power the ruling men bestow upon her. The message that blasts out of the empty space of Mae’s cranium: even when it comes to sinking the ship of humanity, the only way for a woman to possess a crumb of power is to strut her ignorance and play the part of dutiful pawn.
There are moments in the first half of the novel when I still felt the possibility for character expansion; Mae had not yet cut off her options, and neither had the author.
In an important scene, Mae takes a kayak out into the Bay at night. This is the last time that she is really alone, indulging in a private moment of communion with nature: "She guessed at it all, what might live, moving purposefully or drifting aimlessly, under the deep water around her, but she didn’t think too much about any of it. It was enough to be aware of the million permutations possible around her, and take comfort in knowing she would not, and could not, know much at all."
The Circle insists on knowing everything, but here Mae seems to have a moment of what used to be called mystical or spiritual knowledge; her recognition of her own small place against the background of geologic time, of the great mysteries of being. There is a difference, Eggers suggests here, between information and knowledge, between seeing and understanding.
But does Mae actually realize any of this? As the novel progressed, my sense of the distance between Mae as protagonist and the authorial voice widened. A scene like the above, written in close third person, seems to represent a moment when the authorial voice and Mae’s thoughts come together, but in the book’s ultimate trajectory it signals a cleaving. Mae never returns to this moment of wisdom, nor does it seem to have any impact on her future actions. In the next scene, she completely disowns her midnight excursion and arrives at a slogan right out of 1984: “Privacy is theft.”
These words about the importance of the unknowable are not Mae’s then, but the narrator’s, and they are not for Mae, but for us, the readers: highlight this passage. What occurs here through indirect discourse appears in the rest of the novel mostly through dialogue, a chorus of voices announcing the Theme Of The Book and the threat that the Circle poses to human freedom and democracy. A fact which Mae herself will never pick up on.
This brings us to translucent sharks. Toward the end of the novel, Stenton, one member of the Circle’s all-powerful triumvirate of wise men, brings back a collection of never-before-seen sea life from a trip he takes in a special submersible created by researchers at the Circle. He returns from his trip with jellyfish, seahorses, manta rays, an octopus and one shark, all of them in possession of a special transparent quality. The shark is, in particular, a radiant and headline-catching specimen, especially ferocious in its eating habits despite the fact that it is blind and cannot see its prey. The shark is also, in its translucency, a beast blunt in its beastliness, see-through to its vicious, predatory core: "One minute a herring or squid would be dropped into the tank with it, and moments later the shark would deposit, on the aquarium floor, all that remained of that animal—a tiny grainy substance that looked like ash. This act was made more fascinating given the shark’s translucent skin, which allowed an unfettered view into its digestive process."
The metaphorical message in these passages is struck gently as a sledgehammer: Look! Translucent like a screen! And gobbling everything up!
In one of the novel’s most disturbing scenes, Mae shares a feeding of the shark over her transparent live-feed as Stenton maniacally releases the rare and translucent octopus, jellyfish and seahorse into the tank. Within a few short minutes, the shark has eaten all of his fellow creatures, the only remaining evidence of their existence a dusting on the aquarium floor not unlike a thin layer of snow.
But when I, a female reader, look hard at the shark, the blind shark incapable in its blindness of returning my gaze, I do not so much see flickers of mega-corporations and the monstrosity that is social media’s exponentially ratcheting intensity. Instead, I am greeted by an image of myself, roundly digested in in a world of Eggers’ creation, and neatly discarded against the backdrop of time as dull, meaningless residue.
The actors in this novel, the heroes who pierce the veil (Kalden, for example, and Mae’s ex-boyfriend Mercer) are male. The female characters are largely victims of a system that they don’t understand.
Mae’s best friend Annie, by the way, is the only other significant female character in the book. Annie secures a coveted position at the Circle for Mae and – just as Mae’s star rises – Annie’s implodes. Like Mae, Annie proves ultimately to be a pawn in the hands of the more powerful male characters. She realizes, too late, that she does not want to know everything; having volunteered for a Circle program that will excavate every person’s past, she learns truths about her ancestors and parents that undermine her sense of self. While Mercer tries to escape the Circle and Kalden to sabotage it, Annie simply collapses, suffering a complete mental breakdown.
The fact that a male novelist has written a novel in which the female characters lack any real agency is a problem, but it is not as disturbing as the fact that the female character at the center of the novel lacks critical awareness, or, put more simply, intellect. By the end of the novel, my awareness is so beyond Mae’s that I found the last pages painful to read. Why, I couldn’t help but wonder, is Mae such an idiot? In her final encounter with Kalden, he exhorts Mae to close her eyes: “I want you to connect these dots and see if you see what I see.” But Mae cannot see, even when she closes her eyes (presumably to block out any distractions from her poor, weak female brain) – and the plot depends completely on her blindness. She betrays Kalden to the other Wise Men, essentially guaranteeing the Circle’s completion (i.e. world domination).
It’s hard to write from the perspective of the opposite sex, or someone differently sexed. I get that. But we are responsible for our creations and for the failures of our imagination, intended or not, aware or unaware. But hey, it’s 2015. So as I read The Circle, I find myself snorting at certain scenes. (“How do you feel about dressy shoes?” the omnipresent Circle survey prompts Mae. “Smile,” Mae says. This may be as close as we ever get to a glimpse of Mae’s interior life.) I laughed at the final scene between Kalden and Mae because I had long ago fallen out of sympathy with this character. But my falling out with Mae was also, unfortunately, my falling out with the author, who, on the basis of this book anyway, does not appear to imagine that women as well as men might be capable of interiority, insight, or resistance. Which is to say that when I put the book down, I wasn’t really laughing at all.