The idea, of course, is that we’re blithely complicit in ceding our judgment to algorithms and meaningless numbers, pleased “to shrink and to obey in exchange for free stuff.” Throughout the novel, Delaney receives letters from her dissident college professor, who’s convinced that tech dominance represents the demise of Homo sapiens. “We don’t trust ourselves or each other to make a single choice, a diagnosis, to assign a grade,” she tells Delaney. “This is the changing of the species from a free animal to a kept pet.” Her theories seem to announce Eggers’s argument so transparently that the 577-page novel has the feel of a sandwich board with “THE END IS NIGH” scrawled on it. It’s our obsession with certainty and our growing inability to think for ourselves, Eggers suggests, that will transform us from untrammeled, idiosyncratic humans to entities in “a watched world without risk or surprise or nuance or solitude.”
And yet for a defense of nuance and unpredictability, “The Every” exhibits a startling lack of both. Delaney herself is barely sketched, characterized mostly by lone moral outrage and an overdetermined back story: a childhood stolen by phone addiction; a love of the wilderness tainted when location-tracking smartphones are required in national parks; her parents, former owners of an organic grocery store, forced out of business and now “whipped,” green-aproned employees of “FolkFoods.” She utters sentences like “Humanity will finally turn away from the endless violations of decency, privacy, monopoly, the consolidation of wealth and power and control.” Very little is left to interpretation. “The work was plainly immoral and Delaney was sick every minute she did it,” Eggers informs us, as Delaney transcribes recordings of private conversations from the Every’s smart speakers. I wished, often, to be allowed to come to my own conclusions, exercise my own subjectivity — that same endangered faculty the novel mourns.
Ultimately, Delaney’s schemes end the way you’d expect from a book sounding the death knell of our species. For a long novel, the story is strikingly static, its message so unchanging that a plot never really develops. Instead, the events that occur in the book’s latter half — including an unexpected bombing that sends Delaney to the hospital — are oddly disjointed and unexplained. (One suspects a third installment is in the works.)
But Eggers includes a revealing author’s note right up front: “All errors pertaining to technology, chronology or judgment are intentional and exist to serve you better.” This book is meant to be extreme and off-putting, to scare us straight, sunk as we are in tech complacency. It doesn’t care about tech’s own complexities, its uses and drawbacks, in a world that remains stubbornly unpredictable. There’s no room on an eschatological sandwich board for subtlety. A funny thing about novels though: Often, the more convinced they are, the more they fail to convince.