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There's something terribly askew in Eggers' fictional high-tech giant

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2013 (1731 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Technology companies (information technology, particularly) are perceived as hip, young and idealistic.

Even though Mark Zuckerberg didn't come off so well in the 2010 biopic The Social Network, who wouldn't want to work at Facebook? Or Google? Or Apple?

In his thought-provoking, but sometimes dragging novel, The Circle, American writer and publisher (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; McSweeney's) Dave Eggers starts with just that question.

His protagonist, Mae Holland, was a bright young college graduate wasting away at a dead-end job, watching her stock steadily drop. When a friend got her in at the Circle, the biggest and most cutting-edge company in the world, she was ecstatic, and who wouldn't be?

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Thank you for supporting the journalism that our community needs!

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 18/10/2013 (1731 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Technology companies (information technology, particularly) are perceived as hip, young and idealistic.

Even though Mark Zuckerberg didn't come off so well in the 2010 biopic The Social Network, who wouldn't want to work at Facebook? Or Google? Or Apple?

In his thought-provoking, but sometimes dragging novel, The Circle, American writer and publisher (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; McSweeney's) Dave Eggers starts with just that question.

His protagonist, Mae Holland, was a bright young college graduate wasting away at a dead-end job, watching her stock steadily drop. When a friend got her in at the Circle, the biggest and most cutting-edge company in the world, she was ecstatic, and who wouldn't be?

The first part of the book consists of Mae serving as proxy for the reader as she tours the building, learns about the company's amazing projects and immerses herself in the general atmosphere of the campus.

Eggers sets the story an unspecified few years in the future, when his fictional company has cornered the market on social networking, every conceivable web tool, and even hardware development.

In fact this whole section reads something like the gee-whiz, wide-eyed tours of the future the Saturday Evening Post might have printed in the 1950s, describing a conflict-free work culture and dozens of really cool projects in great detail.

The novel is not as family friendly as that implies — the thousands of employees are largely in their 20s and there is certainly some adult content — but this opening idyll could still be mistaken as an overlong set-up for a cheap thriller or cheesy horror novel.

It's neither. But nor is it a Gen-Y update to Douglas Coupland's Microserfs, a novel set in Silicon Valley during the early '90s tech boom. Coupland's books are simultaneously mundane and romanticized, but he never made much of a moral argument either for or against the companies he portrayed.

And Eggers has something to say, if obliquely. Very slowly, the reader begins to see hints that, just perhaps, there may be something a little off at the Circle, mere microns askew.

The feeling is so vague and ephemeral, our hero Mae struggles to put her finger on it (sometimes to the frustration of the reader), but it's there as an occasional niggle at the back of her mind.

Perhaps it has to do with the Three Wise Men, the near-mythical founding figures of the company. There's Bailey, the public face and leader, who feels like everyone's favourite uncle.

Stenton is a brilliant but ruthless business expert with an uncanny ability to cut through red tape and make problems go away. Then there's Ty, the elusive genius who created the software company that ate up Google and Facebook and then retreated from it, Bobby Fischer-like.

Or maybe it's the secret project that everybody knows about but no one understands. Everyone is working towards "closing the Circle." What does that mean? A weird guy on campus whose department she can't seem to find keeps sending her cryptic messages, implying that this is something to be feared, not desired.

Or maybe it's less about how the Circle is changing the world but the way the world is reacting in turn. Everybody seems happy about an ever more integrated world — except when they're not.

A dystopia, by some definitions, is a society whose citizens falsely believe to be utopian. It's a brave new world, after all, when public and private become one.

And Aldous Huxley's social satire is exactly what the author is calling back to: the slow build-up and subdued climax; the psychological nature of the conflict; the aimless protagonist.

Not everyone will enjoy this novel, but those who read it will be left thinking about its ideas for weeks. Eggers has presented an unsettling vision of what could be the new normal to see if they recoil in horror, or make another status update.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and teacher.

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