I squared "The Circle" last night. (Don't read further if you don't want to know yet how the plot works out.)
The main character, Mae Holland, does indeed reassert herself as the protagonist.
Mae's weakness of character and lack of integrity, now made impregnable by an impressionable audience of millions and a god-like control over a global surveillance network, turn her into a very formidable protagonist indeed.
With her power she hunts down and literally drives an old boyfriend, in his pickup, off a bridge, the deadly crash and explosion streamed live from cameras fixed to drones crowdsourced at Mae's command.
She also betrays Ty, the hoodied, Mark Zuckerberg-like figure who founded The Circle intending to bring civility to the interwebs, but who inexplicably keeps himself aloof from direct interaction with the public or even company employees - other than Mae - even after he realizes that the company is now an instrument of tyranny.
Ty remains an icon with company employees. At company events, old videos of Ty speaking, shot years ago, are reassembled and projected onto a wall. Invariably, he apologizes for being too busy on an important project (always unspecified) to attend the company event in person. But from time to time he is indeed present in the halls, passing himself off as an employee named Kalden who doesn't have much to do other than attend meetings; he skulks around, sans hoodie, sans glasses, self-consciously altering the way he carries himself so his Ty identity isn't recognized. Most of the time, he confines himself to secret vaults deep underneath the company campus.
Ty is incidentally Mae's lover. Inexplicably, until the very end of the book, Mae buys Ty's Kalden cover. Even though he is the one person on the globe she cannot effectively research on The Circle's systems, even though he secretly escorts Mae to the most proprietary parts of the campus, she can't connect the dots. Eggers' reader makes the connection right away. I suppose the point is that someone like Mae cannot process any information that is not mediated by a server.
(The spooky connotations of that common name for a computer, "server," are thrown into relief by this book.)
The politics of the book are summarized in a single speech from Ty, who at the end of the book, and for a second time, implores Mae to publicly turn against The Circle. (Ty intimates that he has incriminating, inside information that will support a change in public attitude about the company - but it's never clear why he doesn't simply conduct the campaign on his own.)
And the politics are this: information communism mixed with capitalism yields poison. Privacy may or may not be theft, but if all information is to be monetized, you do have to be concerned with who keeps the keys to the cloud.
But Ty is talking to exactly the wrong person. Mae is a true believer and she turns Ty in to the Eric Schmidt-like figure (personified in two characters, the better to identify the uneasy tension in techno-utopianism that Ty spells out).
In a brief dénouement, Mae sits by the bedside of her hospitalized friend and former mentor, Annie. Annie previously collapsed from information overload and remains in a coma. A hospital monitor shows Annie's brain is active.
While Mae is not a sympathetic character at any point in the book, Eggers does at least build narrative turns that help explain how she might have been brainwashed so thoroughly. For instance, an episode in which Mae innocently sets out for a nighttime kayak ride is turned by the powers at the company as a means to shame and humiliate her. The episode sets up her "redemption" as the face of the company and all that it represents.
But at the end of the book, by the unconscious Annie's side, Mae becomes a pure grotesque. Watching the monitor tracking Annie's brain activity, Mae finds she wants to know what is going on in Annie's head. Worse yet, she finds it intolerable that Annie should keep her dreams from her. She resolves to task The Circle with the project of outing Annie's unconscious mind.
My previous posts about this new novel by Dave Eggers are 100 pages into "The Circle" and Center of the circle. For a post about Jaron Lanier's critique of techno-utopianism, see Mark Byrnes on Jaron Lanier's "Who Owns the Future?"