“The Circle” and the Challenge of Characterization

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This weekend I finished “The Circle” by Dave Eggers, an interesting book in itself and even more interesting for the problems of novel-writing that it casts into relief. It does certain things so well, and others so badly, which is something you don’t see that often in fiction. A novel might be strongly plotted but painfully ill-written — think of Dan Brown — or beautifully written yet not adding up to a coherent whole, which is how I would describe “Swamplandia!” But if you think about the building blocks of a novel — plot, characterization, theme, mood, the sentence-by-sentence-by-paragraph workmanship of the writing —  they are not usually grotesquely different in achievement. A writer that has mastered some of these elements usually can sort of manage the others, even if some aspects are stronger and some weaker.

What’s so striking about “The Circle” is that it is a great idea, a very clever satire of a world that is very much like our own, just given a few additional twists: a company that is rather like Google or Facebook or Twitter or YouTube only more so, a world where people compulsively share information, like ours, only more so. The “campus”  and the people who work there are convincingly rendered, and the implications, both positive and negative, of a world where nearly everything can be shared — indeed, should and must be shared — are chillingly realistic.  On a sentence, paragraph, chapter level, the writing is competent and satisfying.

But on the level of characterization, it fails stunningly, and this makes me realize how plot and character are closely intertwined.

Although the basic plot — starting and ending point, things that happen along the way — is fine, I kept thinking of all the ways it could have been so much better, if only the writer had explored his characters in more depth and made better choices about how to bring the contradictions of the human condition into collision with the events of the plot.

Can I explain what I mean in more depth without giving away too much? I will try. The weakness at the heart of this story is the protagonist, Mae, an attractive 24-year-old who gets a lucky break when she is offered a job at the Circle, thanks to the influence of a charismatic, slightly older college friend, Annie, who is a high-ranking person at the company.  Mae is thrilled for the opportunity and sets about trying to fit in and succeed at her new job. So far, so good. The demands on her time and on her privacy keep escalating and being measured in new ways: she is urged to constantly connect electronically with her colleagues, to complete consumer surveys in her downtime through questions that come through the earpiece she wears, to wear a bracelet that monitors her body metrics like heart rate and steps per day. The book makes it clear that this is disturbing and creepy and is taking a toll on Mae. Her own behavior at times shows her need for privacy: she goes kayaking without documenting the experience online; she hooks up with a sexy stranger who is mysteriously unfindable at a company where everything can quickly be learned about everyone. Yet she never connects the dots of the contradiction between the company line and her own behavior. When it is pointed out, she merely apologizes and excoriates herself.

I kept waiting for the moment that never came, the moment where she sees herself in a new light, struggles with the contradiction she’s faced with, and chooses something. And is changed by the experience. That is the thing that never happens; Mae, and the other characters, remain merely embodiments of certain ideas of the writer. That they are brilliant ideas made me keep reading, with great interest as well as growing disappointment.

The blind, transparent shark from the Mariana Trench that eats everything — brilliant metaphor! And when we finally learn the identity of the mysterious man that Mae has been having the mind-blowingly great sex with, it’s a truly genius plot twist: at once astonishing and totally logical. How unfortunate, then, that this revelation comes so late in the story that it’s virtually an afterthought. How unfortunate that this contradiction between private and public, which could have been the fulcrum Mae’s entire existential struggle hinged on, becomes instead a wasted opportunity, one more expression of a conflict that she never really comes to grips with.

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