I try to alternate the books I read equally between English and German. This week I’ve been reading a book in German translation: “Der Circle” (The Circle), by Californian novelist Dave Eggers and translated from the English by Ulrike Wasel and Klaus Timmermann (Kiepenheuer & Witsch 2014). I wanted to read a book by a German author this week, but I tried that and it didn’t go to plan (there’ll be a post about that too, but I didn’t want to start this blog off with a rant).
There’s no spoilers in this review because I’m only about halfway through, so breathe a sigh of relief before you buy it used on Amazon.
If there were a star rating, I’d give it four and a half. It’s a real page-turner. I actually started this last year and left it because I didn’t want it to take up too much space in my hand luggage when I was moving to Germany. It’s quite a hefty tome of over 500 pages, but it was surprisingly easy to slip back into. It’s basically a Dystopian novel: think Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World or George Orwell’s 1984 but updated for the social media age. The protagonist, Mae Holland, gets a job in a huge, swanky conglomerate which has rapidly eaten up all of its social media competition. They live in a bubble of beautiful, shiny people and buildings, with every creature comfort and mod con, but this setting only serves to accentuate the claustrophobic and disconcerting atmosphere of the book.
There’s loads of “Denglisch” in the book, but I wouldn’t have translated it any differently. The tone and register satirises millennial jargon reminiscent of smashed avo on toast and Silicon Valley tech speak, and does it well. There’s so much emphasis on ‘Community‘, the ‘Customer Experience’ getting ‘Smiles’, updating your ‘Zing-Feed’, and it all feels faithfully superficial and hollow. English-German mashups which made me smile included ‘upgedated’ and ‘geliked’. The Internet Age is pushing the Americanisation of other languages and you get a palpable sense of this on every page.
The characterisations fall a little flat, but that’s not really what matters. Mae is kind of ambiguous for a reason, I think- you are often left wondering what she really believes, is she really committed to this Brave New World, or does she just want to keep her job to keep her father’s health insured? Francis turns out to be a bland, sinister hipster and I liked it. Mae is drawn in by the mysterious, slippery Kalden which keeps the plot moving. Egger’s descriptions are beautiful and often unexpected, such as when he describes the ‘calligraphy strokes’ of Kalden’s figure.
This book really helps to capture the anxieties of the social media age and serves as a relevant warning about the insidious power of having all of our data online, of constantly being reachable. There’s a palpable FOMO here: Mae turns up just to be seen somewhere, she becomes trapped in the cycle of Zings, likes and shares which at first feels rewarding but then becomes exhausting and depressing. She’s reprimanded by her bosses for missing an unknown colleague’s ‘Portugal Brunch’, and fails to see the absurdity of this: she falls over herself trying to make sure she never makes that same mistake again. Mae sometimes seems overly passive and submissive, but this serves as a reminder of how increasingly little choice we have in social media participation. You can’t start study, start a career, or establish friendships without it. We pray at the altar of Networking and Group Chats. Look at me starting this blog.
Asimov once made predictions about the world in 2014, and it feels somehow ironic yet appropriate that this book came out in the same year (both in English and German). It plays out in the immediate future, but one we are hurtling towards.