Mae Holland has just arrived for her first day of work at the Circle: “the most influential company in the world.” The campus, located somewhere in California, is vast, including everything from athletic courts to fruit groves, and as Mae walks through it all on her way from the parking lot to the front hall she reflects on how she was able to get this new and exciting job.
Mae met Annie in college at Carleton; they roomed together for three semesters and formed a bond almost at the level of sisterhood. Mae specifically reflects on an incident in which she came down with the flu and Annie took her to the hospital and then painstakingly cared for her in the days afterward. Annie was two years older than Mae and had clearer ambitions. While Mae waffled between undergraduate majors, Annie graduated, got an MBA from Stanford, and was hired at the Circle. After only 4 years, she rose through the ranks to the “Gang of 40,” and pulled some strings to secure Mae one of the few and revered entry job placements at the corporation.
Mae is welcomed by Renata, who gives a tour of the building in lieu of Annie since she is busy in the Old West. Mae takes a moment to pause on the company’s practice of naming sections of the campus after historical eras in an effort to make the campus less impersonal. Renata shows Mae to The Renaissance, the building in which Mae will be working with the Customer Experience team. After walking by halls of tastefully personalized offices, Renata shows Mae to a tiny, burlap-walled cubicle replete with an outmoded computer. These awful working conditions prompt Mae to reminisce on her recent, unfulfilling post-grad years living and working a 9-5 job at a utility in her hometown. Just when her eyes are filling with tears, Annie speaks, revealing the entire thing has been a joke and joining Renata in showing Mae around.
After meeting various impassioned Circle employees, Annie and Mae split from Renata, and Annie takes Mae to a top secret room on campus, the Ochre Library. Before entering, they look together at a large, awkward painting of the Circle’s three founders, called the “Wise Men” - Ty Gospodinov, Eamon Bailey, and Tom Stenton. Ty was the originator of the Circle, originally the Unified Operating System, which at first simply combined all of one’s online interactions (social media, communication, business transactions, and more) into one online identity called a TruYou. This led to increased accountability (so-called “trolls” were no longer able to comment on content without using their personal account with their own names) and an incredible increase in the trackability of personal data, especially consumer data. However, as Ty seemed to people aloof and somewhat strange, he joined with Bailey and Stenton before taking on investors and seeing the company soar.
In the Ochre Library, Bailey has collected thousands of antique books along with sculptures and a stained glass ceiling. Annie goes to a specific bookcase and removes a volume that causes a bookshelf to move inward and reveal a secret room with a pole down through the floor, which Annie says she can only guess goes to his parking space. Annie then has to attend a meeting, so she hands off Mae to Josiah and Denise with instructions to not let her do any work on her first day. They show her around the remainder of the campus, pausing to discuss the campus dorms available and fully stocked for any Circler who wishes to stay the night on campus.
That night there is a lavish party on campus, which Annie assures Mae is very normal. Mae drinks fairly heavily, and on her way to look for more wine she ends up following an unknown man to a waterfall on the side of the Industrial Revolution. They begin to talk; he tells her his name is Francis and proceeds to flirt with and offend Mae in equal turn. The two banter back and forth until Annie comes over to split them up and get Mae on a shuttle home. Mae falls contentedly asleep in her humble apartment.
Mae returns to the Circle the next day and Renata shows her to her new, real office. Mae receives a new tablet and phone and is instructed to get rid of her old ones; all of her data is also backed up into the Cloud almost instantly. Next, Mae meets Dan, her boss, who stresses the community aspects involved with having a job at the Circle and that this, along with her role in the Circle as a Customer Experience representative, is what gives the company its humanity. Dan then calls over Jared, who does her Customer Experience training, teaching her to respond to customer messages and especially to track customer ratings of her service.
Mae learns quickly and works steadily throughout the week; by Friday she has an aggregate rating of 97, high for a newbie. At lunch with Annie on Friday she enters a discussion with two other Circlers about Francis and learns of his dark past - two of his sisters had been abducted from a foster care home after the death of his parents - that has led him to work in child security for the Circle. Later that afternoon, Annie and Mae attend a weekly full Circle meeting called Dream Friday. This week, Eamon Bailey presents a new technology called SeeChange that allows users to place tiny cameras anywhere they like and share the footage with others. Bailey demonstrates the effectiveness of this innovation for everyday tasks such as viewing nature or traffic conditions, but moves on to the importance of these devices in holding accountable all governments, especially in countries going through revolution or upheaval. He presents the slogan “All that happens must be known,” calling the time at hand a “Second Enlightenment.”
That weekend, Mae returns home and her parents gloat over her newfound success. Her father tires quickly, however, as he has recently been diagnosed with MS, and Mae’s elation is brought back down to earth by discussing at length her parents’ struggles with health insurance. On Sunday she leaves home in the early afternoon and heads for her favorite kayaking spot, where she rents from a woman named Marion. While out, she discovers a harbor seal, with whom she exchanges mutually fascinated stares. She kayaks to a far out shore and once sitting down on the beach she sobs over her father’s condition, eventually reveling in the feeling of crying and the beauty of the nature around her.
Eggers’ initiation of the narrative on Mae’s first day at work allows the reader to be fully immersed in the spectacular world of the Circle. However, it is not a world entirely hard to understand for any modern reader, as it utilizes elements of real-world companies, specifically Google and Apple, to create the image of a lush campus and human-focused ideals, not to mention the use of the term “Circle” which was popularized through Google’s social media application Google+. These purposeful parallels allow Eggers to build an effective and near-dystopian satire throughout the novel, beginning with Mae’s intoxication under the powerful effects of money, prestige, and attention. The reader can sense the beginnings of trouble from Mae’s shock at all of her data so quickly being merged with the Cloud of the Circle as well as her realization that her parents already cannot understand her specialized jargon.
Eggers sets up Mae's home life as direct opposition to her working conditions - her father's condition makes her feel vulnerable and out of control, her parents' lives are eaten up by the inefficient process of dealing with health insurance, and her parents lack an understanding of what she's doing at work as demonstrated by the fancy pen they give her as a gift. This foreshadows the distance that will grow between Mae and her parents as she becomes more enmeshed in and reliant on the fast-moving world of the Circle.
The first night's lavish party demonstrates the careless wealth of the Circle, as when Mae notes while looking for more wine that it looks as though the buffet has been raided by animals. Mae's silly drunkenness and childlike flirting with Francis parallels her intoxication with the campus and employees at the Circle throughout the day.
SeeChange presents the reader with the first example of a kind of technology shown throughout the book - supposedly benevolent but with the possibility of overreaching the boundaries of private life. This is driven home by the slogan Eamon Bailey uses, "ALL THAT HAPPENS MUST BE KNOWN." Though this is shown on the screen after an inspiring presentation about the efficacy of SeeChange for quashing violence in the upheaval of third-world revolution, the slogan has a ring of dystopian totalitarianism.
Mae’s kayaking trips, the first of which occurs in this section, become a theme throughout the novel and demonstrate her attachment to a less technology-saturated lifestyle. The look she exchanges with the seal presents a hyper-awareness of who is watching her in contrast to the all-seeing nature of SeeChange, and the fact that the seal arrives and departs with such rapidity contrasts with the persistent nature of information in the Cloud.