Book Review: ‘The Candy House,’ by Jennifer Egan – The New York Times

Fiction
Jennifer Egan’s ambitious new novel — a sequel, of sorts, to 2010’s “A Visit From the Goon Squad” — riffs on memory, authenticity and the allure of new technology.
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THE CANDY HOUSE, by Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s 2010 “A Visit From the Goon Squad” was, depending whom you asked, a novel, or a collection, or a story cycle. But you could also call it a concept album. Following a tangle of characters in and adjacent to the music business across decades, it switched voices and techniques in a kaleidoscopic extended-family portrait.
“The Candy House,” which passes the microphone to a number of peripheral “Goon Squad” characters, is similar in its anti-chronological structure and chameleonic virtuosity. But given its subject matter, it might be better to describe it as a social network, the literary version of the collaborative novel written by your friends and friends of friends on Facebook or Instagram, each link opening on a new protagonist. It is a spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes.
Tech may not be the new rock ’n’ roll, but it serves an analogous function in “The Candy House.” It’s the world-shifting phenomenon that defines an era and connects strangers. It is also, though it wears the fine cloth of idealism, big business.
The killer app that defines the alternative reality of “The Candy House” is dreamed up in 2010 by Bix Bouton, briefly introduced as an early-90s internet obsessive in “Goon Squad,” now a social-media mogul. His next big idea, built on an experimental technology that can digitally capture animal consciousness, allows people to upload a life’s worth of memories — even long-forgotten ones — share them in a collective archive and access others’, as if traveling in a cranial time machine.
The name of the product, Own Your Unconscious, suggests a lofty, even spiritual aspiration, as does the name of Bix’s company, Mandala. We’ve seen how that kind of vision plays out — surely the more we know about one another, the better we’ll understand one another? Right? — and so has its creator. Bix, who is Black, imagined the internet in the ’90s as a “new metaphysical sphere” where “Black people would be delivered from the hatred that hemmed and stymied them in the physical world.” The idea, he concedes, “looked comically naïve from a 2010 perspective.” Nonetheless, we try, try again.
Contemporary fiction often treats this sort of “Black Mirror” premise (specifically, it has shades of the episode “The Entire History of You”) skeptically; the technology is an oppressor, or, to the novelist, a competitor. See, for instance, Dave Eggers’s “The Circle,” which focused on the passive-aggressive totalitarianism of the imperative to “share.” There’s an element of that here, with hints of a resistance to the collective unconscious, including “eluders,” people who go to extremes to escape the mass mind, even vanishing altogether. (One of them is Miranda Kline, the ex-wife of a record executive who figured heavily in “Goon Squad,” who developed the social science principles that inspire Bix, to her chagrin.)
But Egan is after more than a cautionary tale; she is interested in describing social technology as a lived environment. She doesn’t construct a master story arc around Own Your Unconscious and its spinoffs; instead, they’re just a fact of this world, part of the stuff that goes on in the background. It’s not the A-plot, it’s the soundtrack.
Egan’s real subject here is memory, not the gizmos that enable it. One character relives her father’s memory of staggering stoned through a redwood forest in the 1960s, when she was 6 years old and longing for his return. (It is not the last time a “Candy House” character uses Own Your Unconscious to chase the memory of a lousy, distant father.)
Another is introduced as an outsider teen visiting a suburban country club; the next chapter finds her employing her adolescent gifts for infiltrating the lives of strangers on an actual spy mission in 2032, her body outfitted with subcutaneous electronics that make her into a kind of human smartphone. The latter chapter is written entirely in second person, in the voice of a field manual’s instructions, which turn wistful as the agent uploads sensitive data through a port in her foot: “You will feel a surge as the data floods your body. The surge may contain memory, heat, cold, longing, pain or even joy.”
Egan is a one-woman R&D department of language. (One of her characters coins the term “word-casings,” for words that have been overused until they become like “a shell without a bullet.” Egan fires live rounds only.) One chapter, “i, the Protagonist,” follows a former English major hired to render story scenarios algebraically for an entertainment start-up, a manner of thinking that bleeds into his life. When a cabdriver strands him after a disagreement, Egan renders it thus:
But a schism had occurred between a and i.
a i
a ←→ i
i
LOL. Our friend i, by the way, is Chris Salazar, son of Bennie Salazar, the punk rocker turned music executive who rises and falls in “Goon Squad.” Although “The Candy House” is full of such connections and reappearances, you don’t really need to have read “Goon Squad” to follow it. But there’s no need to deny yourself the pleasure, and the thematic connections may be even more important than the plot tissue.
Just as Egan’s music-world characters were obsessed with authenticity, in terms of art and selling out, her “Candy House” characters seek the genuine self in an era when people are constantly called on to perform themselves digitally. One writes a dissertation on “authenticity in the digital era.” Another goes a more direct route, developing a habit of shrieking in public places to catch the briefest glimpse of unpremeditated human responses.
This compulsion puts a crimp on his social relations, but who isn’t driven a little nuts by digital life? Over and over, Egan’s characters crack up, seemingly beyond repair, but manage to find redemption. “The Candy House” takes its title from a repeated metaphor for temptation: the lures of amusement and nostalgia that Hansel-and-Gretel us into a spun-sugar edifice upon which we are invited to gorge and in which we — our desires, our memories — are also on the menu.
If “The Candy House” is less cohesive than “Goon Squad,” it may be because its subject is harder to get one’s arms around. The story doesn’t describe an arc so much as a network diagram; it doesn’t end, it stops. The biggest criticism I can make of “The Candy House” is that it kicks us out just when it seems to be getting started.
But that is also the strongest praise I can give it. Egan knows that she can never offer a complete picture of the global consciousness, only an evocative impression. The challenge of a novel whose subject is, in one sense, everything is knowing what to leave out, a dilemma that “The Candy House” meta-acknowledges repeatedly. “Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”
One response to the overload of this changed world is to write fiction, which, like Own Your Unconscious, also exists to tap memory and make connections across lives and deaths. Bix, notably, hangs on to a weathered copy of “Ulysses,” James Joyce’s hundred-year-old attempt to weave a world wide web between two covers. “The Candy House” is much more accessible, but it is likewise an ambitious effort to bring an infinite network down to human scale. To which I say, in the language of our real-life collective consciousness: liked and subscribed.
THE CANDY HOUSE, by Jennifer Egan | 337 pp. | Scribner | $28
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