When Katherine Losse heard about Dave Eggers's new novel, The Circle, she felt ripped off. Losse hadn't read The Circle, but the description of the book—a young woman starts working at a huge social network—sounded awfully close to her memoir The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network, about her experience as one of the few women to work at a new startup called The Facebook. Losse wrote a blog post accusing Eggers of plagiarism: "From all appearances, it is the same book, and I wrote it first (and I imagine mine is more authentic and better written, because I actually lived in this world and am also a good writer)." Eggers claims not to have read The Boy Kings. Losse later deleted the post, but not before the text of it churned around on the usual literary blogs.
Now that The Circle has been released, the truth is clear. Anyone who reads both books knows they bear no more relation than a chunk of basalt does to a hummingbird. Losse is at best a competent writer. The language of The Boy Kings does nothing more than lurch along the page. Her best observations are on the subject of Facebook's brogrammer culture. In 2006, for Mark Zuckerberg's birthday, male employees were asked to wear Zuckerberg's trademark Adidas sandals to work, while women were asked to wear T-shirts with his face printed on them. "The gender coding was clear," Losse writes. "Women were to declare allegiance to Mark, and men were to become Mark, or at least to dress like him."
But aside from a few interesting anecdotes, The Boy Kings is vapid. One of Losse's recurring insights is that Facebook is like the Eagles song "Hotel California." If that strikes you as deep, you may have found your next favorite book. The story goes nowhere; Losse decides to write a book about Facebook, so she quits Facebook. The end.
Outside of the fact that the protagonist, Mae Holland, is a woman starting work in customer support for a tech company, The Circle bears no resemblance to The Boy Kings. Unlike Losse, who was at Facebook from nearly the start, Holland is a cog in a galaxy-sized machine. The Circle is an internet goliath that seems to have eaten nearly every other online service you can think of, from PayPal to Twitter to YouTube. The corporate culture combines the zaniness of Google's extravagant sense of play with Facebook's intense, almost religious fervor for transparency. The employees barely want for anything; the company provides free clothes and shelter and food. All it asks of them in return is their continuous and unwavering devotion.
After an especially welcoming first day on the job as a customer service rep, the Circle starts to heap more and more responsibilities on Holland. At first, she's answering customer questions—the company expects near-perfect scores from their employees on customer satisfaction surveys. Then she learns she has to maintain social networking graces, too. She's expected to accept online invitations to parties, network with strangers who send her messages, mark products and services with a smile or a frown, send frequent Twitter-like "Zings," and comment on coworkers' blogs. She's chastised for spending a weekend away from work when there were so many fun events taking place on the sprawling Circle campus, "all of which are of course totally optional."
Eggers clearly did his homework; the chameleonic affinity he displays for the enthused corporate drivel of tech companies is almost up to David Foster Wallace's standards. When you parse all the inane dot-com language about Zings and InnerCircles and OuterCircles, you realize that Holland's job is to see everything, share everything about her own life, and to be a relentlessly positive and eternally contributing member of the digital society.
Eggers has never been so funny, and rarely has his outlook felt so bleak. There are several good running jokes rippling through The Circle, and Eggers understands that a believable satire has to slowly pile on the absurdities or risk toppling. It's a delicate balance, and it's not clear until the book's final two pages that Eggers has managed to sustain it all the way through.
This is not to say that The Circle is the best work of Eggers's career. His previous novel, A Hologram for the King, addressed many of the same themes—the relationship between alienation and technology, the damning distance created by modern language—in a more economical fashion. The plot of The Circle builds to a revelation that feels unearned and even unnecessary. But if you work on the internet for a living, or if you're just looking for a convincing argument against the attention-starved monstrosity that our online life has become, The Circle is the most full-throated defender of the dignity intrinsic to privacy that I've ever read. For instance, Losse might have maintained more dignity had she kept her complaints private.