By Dave Eggers
McSweeney’s. 577 pp. $28
– – –
Lauren Oyler and Patricia Lockwood expose the deceptive, self-aggrandizing absurdity of online life
Dave Eggers’ new novel, “The Every,” isn’t just an emphatic satire of monopoly power. The book’s sales plan is itself a performance piece, an act of resistance against what Eggers calls “an ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle.”
In short: You can’t buy a hardcover edition of “The Every” from Amazon. Ever. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
McSweeney’s, the publishing house that Eggers founded in 1998, released a statement about “The Every” saying, “As a quixotic blow against monopolies, the hardcover edition will be sold exclusively at independent bookstores nationwide and at store.mcsweeneys.net.” Amazon customers will have to wait till Nov. 16 just to get a paperback copy.
That little squeak of retail opposition may not bring the online merchant to its knees, but it’s the most interesting thing about “The Every.” In this unnecessary sequel to “The Circle,” Eggers goes around again, banging on about the corrosive effects of the internet, social media and especially Silicon Valley’s hegemony. It’s no better for being entirely right. And at 577 pages, “The Every” suffers from the web’s worst quality: unlimited space. It’s like a 27-hour TED Talk by some clever guy who thinks smoking is bad for your health.
This is the rare sequel you’ll enjoy more if you haven’t read the previous book — or listened to this month’s Senate hearings about Facebook or seen a zombie family sitting in a restaurant staring at their phones.
In the opening pages, Eggers tells us that the Circle has acquired Amazon to create “the richest company the world had ever known,” modestly called the Every. Located on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay, the Every is an ecommerce giant of infinite economic, political and social power, the final consummation of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google.
Our heroine, Delaney Wells, is a former park ranger who loathes how the Every has infiltrated and commodified every spot and interaction in the world. Convinced that the ecommerce behemoth named after a South American jungle destroyed her parents and their organic food business, Delaney plays the long game. She spends several years cultivating her social media persona, liking and retweeting and commenting and rating and posting inane selfies. It’s all a ruse to slither her way through multiple gatekeepers until she gets a coveted job at the corporate headquarters of the Every.
“Delaney planned to examine the machine, test for weaknesses, and blow the place up,” Eggers writes. “She would Snowden it, Manning it. She would feel it out and Felt it. She did not care if she did it in the civilized, covert, information-dump sort of way her predecessors practiced, or through a more formal assault. She intended to harm no one, never to graze a physical hair on a physical head, but somehow she would end the Every, finish its malignant reign on earth.”
That exciting premise of corporate sabotage immediately devolves into a thinly plotted series of mildly amusing set pieces. Posing as an eager idea person, Delaney rotates through various Every departments, which are staffed by ultra-sincere, socially conscious web surfers dressed in tight Lycra body suits like vegan superheroes. They are all distracted to the edge of madness by a cacophony of self-improvement apps, automated reminders and feedback requests.
Delaney’s diabolical scheme is to destroy the Every by urging its leaders to offer increasingly intrusive services that will spark a rebellion among horrified citizens. If you have a teenager at home addicted to TikTok, you know how effective this plan will be.
Early in her tenure, Delaney suggests a new program called GenuPal that constantly evaluates “facial expression, eye contact, and vocal intonations” to calculate the quality of each friendship on a scale from 1 to 100. She worries that “any reasonable person would have her arrested” for such a grotesque idea, but of course the Every executives love it.
Delaney also proposes “Did I?” to tell users if they’ve climaxed during sex and compare their results with those of friends and relatives; and FictFix to update old novels with more likable protagonists. “To see if there existed any ethical line the Every would not cross,” she advocates for an app to evaluate all interactions in real time to look for markers of depression. And what about the scourge of domestic violence and sexual abuse? Listening devices in every home — “Hey, Siri!” — should be programmed to detect screams, derogatory comments, even suspicious words. Alarms sent automatically to local law enforcement will dramatically reduce instances of abuse. What’s not to like?
In the hyper-vigilant world that Eggers imagines, to oppose any of these developments is to defend suicide, assault, rape and, worse, human subjectivity. The Every constantly reminds a frightened populace: “The observed world, the filmed world, the recorded world, was a safer world.”
For hundreds of pages, that’s “The Every”: Eggers presents one dystopian product after another, like an Orwellian version of QVC. But this emphasis on apps and services only exposes the novel’s static plot and increasingly hectoring thesis. Weirdly, “The Every” reserves its most pointed satire for people who are too concerned about global warming, but the bulk of its endless scroll regurgitates complaints about the web that Eggers made clear in “The Circle.” Again and again, we’re reminded of how freely we trade away our privacy for the promise of increased convenience, how willingly we accept dubious statistics in place of careful judgments, and how eagerly we cede control of our lives to computers. But anyone willing to log off Instagram long enough to read “The Every” already knows all this, which makes the novel feel more smug than illuminating.
To parody our willingness to waste so much time inside the algorithmic expression of Mark Zuckerberg’s psychosis requires an approach altogether more radical and unsettling. Fortunately, two novels like that were published earlier this year: Lauren Oyler’s “Fake Accounts” and Patricia Lockwood’s “No One Is Talking About This.” Even added together, these novels aren’t nearly as long as “The Every,” but they’re vastly more insightful about the tragicomedy of our web-infected lives.
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