Cancel Field Trips, Cancel Forest Rangers: The Every by Dave Eggers (2021)

By Sebastian Tants-Boestad

Dave Eggers’s best­selling tech dystopia, The Cir­cle (2013), has final­ly received a sequel. While The Cir­cle described the rise of a fic­ti­tious tech and social media com­pa­ny and its protagonist’s steady descent into the mael­strom of sur­veil­lance cul­ture, The Every now picks up a cou­ple of years lat­er, after the Cir­cle has acquired a big online retail­er “named after a South Amer­i­can jun­gle.” The result­ing mega cor­po­ra­tion, called the Every, is pret­ty much the monop­o­list in all things dig­i­tal tech – from apps to online shop­ping to cut­ting edge hard­ware. Of course, it’s every bit as scary and unlike­able as one would imag­ine it to be. 

Read­ers of The Cir­cle will feel quite at home in the world of The Every. Eggers makes sure to pep­per his sto­ry with nods and hints at its pre­de­ces­sor, and sev­er­al cen­tral char­ac­ters (Mae, Bai­ley, Fran­cis) make a come­back. How­ev­er, The Every is in impor­tant ways a depar­ture from the ear­li­er nov­el. Shot through with dark humor, Eggers’s voice here takes on a satir­i­cal aloof­ness that at times even brings to mind his caus­tic Trump satire, The Cap­tain and the Glo­ry (2019).  

Con­se­quent­ly, one of the novel’s pre­dom­i­nant forms of cri­tique is ridicule. Eggers’s device to tease out the absur­di­ties of the ‘Every­ones’ and their col­lec­tive wis­dom is sim­ple, but effec­tive: once more, he brings in a new­bie (a young woman named Delaney) through whose eyes we observe and learn about life at the com­pa­ny. The essen­tial twist that pro­vokes some of the absur­dest plot devel­op­ments is that Delaney, unlike Mae before her, sneaks her way into the heart of the Every with a spe­cif­ic goal in mind: to take down the entire enter­prise. Her plan is to pitch one out­ra­geous busi­ness idea after anoth­er until, final­ly, the pub­lic would see the com­pa­ny as the qua­si-total­i­tar­i­an behe­moth that it real­ly is. It’s not dif­fi­cult to guess what hap­pens: the Every imple­ments each and every one of Delaney’s ideas, and of course the cus­tomers love, rather than abhor, them. 

The company’s thrust is to cre­ate an always-online, algo­rith­mi­cal­ly orga­nized, and per­fect­ly mon­i­tored social envi­ron­ment, and Delaney’s well-meant inter­ven­tions unin­ten­tion­al­ly help this mis­sion along. What makes The Every real­ly stand out among the crowd of tech-crit­i­cal fic­tion, how­ev­er, is that it moves beyond the issue of cor­po­rate sur­veil­lance right into the realm of present-day pol­i­tics. Tak­ing on the high­ly top­i­cal sub­ject of free speech and free­dom of con­science in the face of can­cel cul­ture, the sto­ry thinks beyond the ques­tion of the ‘medi­um’ of con­trol and imag­ines the spe­cif­ic ‘doc­trine’ that a dig­i­tal panop­ti­con in the 21st cen­tu­ry might per­pet­u­ate. 

In one of the novel’s key scenes, Delaney orga­nizes a day trip for her cowork­ers to watch some ele­phant seals on a beach. From the moment the invi­ta­tions are out to after the actu­al trip, the whole episode is one fan­tas­ti­cal­ly com­i­cal, dense­ly script­ed illus­tra­tion of the loss of inno­cence that accom­pa­nies rad­i­cal pro­gres­sivism, pushed to extremes. Nei­ther the cho­sen means of trans­porta­tion nor the menu choic­es, nor even the music played dur­ing the ride sur­vives the scruti­ny of an audi­ence always attempt­ing to find ways in which this thing or anoth­er is “com­plic­it in evil com­mit­ted or implied.” The day trip reach­es its cli­max in a flur­ry of neg­a­tive online com­ments, writ­ten on the bus ride back: 

The com­plaints, both signed and anony­mous, … were uni­ver­sal­ly apoc­a­lyp­tic. … Inap­pro­pri­ate at best, one said, think­ing her­self the most rea­son­able. A top-to-bot­tom atroc­i­ty, said the next. There was soon a thread about how per­haps Welcome2Mes in gen­er­al should be dis­con­tin­ued. And field trips. And for­est rangers. And park­ing lots. Some­thing about park­ing lots got the Every­ones to a high­er plane of anguish, and the weep­ing began. The crimes of the world being too many and too cru­el, and park­ing lots being some­how entwined with the worst of these crimes, the bus erupt­ed in wail­ing and con­sol­ing-with­out-touch­ing. 

The Every con­tin­u­al­ly con­fronts us with what seems, eeri­ly, an only slight­ly exag­ger­at­ed ver­sion of our own soci­ety. Trig­ger-hap­py, fin­ger-wag­ging, and unde­ni­ably moral­ly supe­ri­or, the ‘Every­ones’ may at times even feel uncom­fort­ably close to home for many read­ers. In this respect, Eggers’s lat­est nov­el is no mere update of the tech cri­tique offered by its pre­de­ces­sor. The Every dares to tack­le a whole set of new and quite con­tro­ver­sial top­ics of our age that have lit­tle to do with the tech­no­log­i­cal wrap­ping that they come in. Read­ing in part like a satir­i­cal essay (rather than a dystopi­an thriller), it seems an impor­tant nov­el for our time, and a deli­cious­ly enjoy­able one at that. 

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Sebas­t­ian Tants-Boes­tad is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hei­del­berg. In his the­sis, he exam­ines the con­fig­u­ra­tions of trust in the prose writ­ings of Her­man Melville. When he is not read­ing or writ­ing, Sebas­t­ian can often be found out­doors, tak­ing long walks and enjoy­ing nature.