In Dave Eggers’s sequel to ‘The Circle,’ a corporation grows bigger and more powerful, and everyone just falls in line
A light pompousness and a wan nobility inform Dave Eggers’ writing, a knowingness, a self-consciousness. In the California-based author’s earliest years–fronting Might, a satirical magazine and McSweeney’s, a somewhat serious journal–these qualities were strengths. In memoir, in fiction, and in service of a peculiar brand of cultural semi-intellectualism? Less so. There is often a sense, reading Eggers, that he’s looking down at his audiences, and he doesn’t help this impression with his loopy linguistic curlicues and a tendency to frame the world in fairy-tale terms. This is a long way of saying that he is cleverly insufferable, insufferably clever, and the perfect bard to build out the brave nu-1984 world of 2013’s The Circle and 2021’s The Every.
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Set a few years in the future, The Circle introduced the titular conglomerated monopoly–think Google, Facebook, and several other online behemoths rolled into one–through the eyes of one Mae Holland, a small-town born 20something striver desperate to please. A casually chilling blizzard of multiplying workplace screens, chipper wraparound surveillance disguised as individual “transparency”, incessant ranking, and mandated participation, the book found the awe-struck Mae dizzily and inadvertently crowd-surfing her way towards the dark heart of a cult-like corporation in the ongoing process of consuming a largely indifferent society whole. What The Circle does to its customers and young, pliable employees is a metaphor for the effect that social media has on us out in the real world, turning us brittle, reactive, unreflective, and incurious.
A decade or so later in The Every, the Circle has subsumed an Amazon analogue, grown hungrier and more brazen, rebranded itself. Mae has ascended to the CEO’s chair, displacing the first novel’s Three Wise Men but lacking an overall corporate vision or direction. Thirtysomething ex-forest ranger Delaney Wells is our new (ostensible) protagonist, a would-be saboteur determined to infiltrate The Every and destroy it from the inside. In league with slacker programmer pal Wes Makazian, her espionage gambit seems simple enough: feed the company bad ideas until it chokes on one and the outside world revolts, at long last. What could possibly go wrong?
Eggers has a great deal of fun in this tableau, tweaking the settings, shifting the levels; he reliably leavens the pre-apocalyptic darkness of this reality with dark, bitter humor. The laid-back dress code of the 2010s gives way, in the 2020s, to a late 20th century science-fiction standard: Star Trek The Next Generation-esqueLycra bodysuits worn by Everyones terrified to touch one another or insinuate anything even vaguely sexual or insulting.
A cavalcade of metrics now determine who stays and goes; artificial intelligence is so pervasive that Dr. Villalobos, the campus physician who Mae encounters upon arriving at the company, has been replaced by a simulated version of herself. A Pavlovian app corrects language–another metrical leash. Literacy is waning: Delaney “went to the feed of a college acquaintance, once a comedian, who had just announced he was making a short film about the spread of online disinformation. In the announcement, he misspelled disinformation, the FCC, and his own name.”
Mae’s clueless glee in The Circle turned her into a more trusting version of 1984’s Winston Smith, even as the pressurized crush of mores, tasks, and expectations made her an irrational automaton at risk of “a tear … opening up inside her, a blackness overtaking her.” Having come of age within and resenting this whirlwind, Delaney–rotating through departments and thus offering readers a panoramic perspective–is better-conditioned, but she and most characters are, increasingly, animals caught in a complicated, tightening trap. Every awful idea she and Wes concoct becomes wildly popular; the Every rushes into production the friendship evaluation app they mock up for her employment interview and later repurposes it as an interrogation tool.
A desperate helplessness predominates. Auditory transparency may be Eggers’ primary theme here, but his larger point is eternal and irrefutable: people can accept and adjust to anything. Eventually, the unthinkable becomes normal, even welcome–and a notion as admirable as combating runaway climate change can swiftly be weaponized. Early on, a data breach “of the complete email histories of over four billion people” that occurred between the novels is related in the omniscient narrator’s neutral, matter-of-fact tone, instructive for The Every and its likely sequel: “And after six months of handwringing, recrimination, a few thousand murders and perhaps a half-million suicides, the world forgot about the Release, and what it said about our means of communication and who stored and controlled it, and simply accommodated it, kneeling before new masters.”