By Rebecca Dillon
The Candy House
Jennifer Egan, Simon & Schuster, 2022
The Internet gets more airtime in The Candy House, Jennifer Egan’s recent release, than it did in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Having returned for the second act, Bennie Salazar laments that he and his generation are ‘striving for cultural relevance in a world that seems to happen in a nonexistent “place” that we can’t even find unless our kids (or grandkids!) show it to us’. In Egan’s fictional universe, the Internet feels like a physical ‘place’ gatekept by a younger generation, as if it were a house party ejecting aging gate-crashers. But unlike the youngsters’ exclusive fête, Egan’s new novel reads like an open house where all are welcome – or, even more tantalizingly, like a ‘candy house’ tempting readers across its front lawn. Entering this house, the reader will note the novel’s quirky décor – from eclectic pop references to geometric art – and hear the whole house ring with overlapping voices and syntactic styles, all synthesized under the same narrative roof.
Each of Candy House’s 14 chapters is written from a new character’s point of view; the novel, on the whole, covers a timespan from the 1960s to the 2030s. Though a reader does not need to have read Goon Squad, it is satisfying to discover the breadcrumbs Egan has left for those familiar with the events of her previous novel. Glancing references to characters from the first book feel like celebrity sightings. Egan constructs a complex and compelling network of characters, a tapestry of concealed connections which gradually become visible as each story unfolds. Despite the mantra of Egan’s metaverse – ‘No reunions’ – collisions are inevitable: familiar characters cross paths in episodes of coincidence and high hilarity, like a farce of comic double-takes. The satisfaction of reading Candy House appeases the same corner of the mind that’s drawn to logic games; gradually mapping out the topography of the novel is like sliding puzzle pieces into place. But Candy House resists a complete picture, as if several pieces are missing from the box. There are no linear relationships between its characters, for instance, which seems to demand that one draw diagrams to map and make sense of their tangled connections and fill in the gaps.
‘The days of losing touch are almost gone,’ Bix Bouton proclaimed in Goon Squad, while still a fresh graduate in the 1990s with utopian ideals for the coming technological revolution. In 2022, when our phones have become our primary means of connection with each other and the world around us, Bix’s optimism reads like an uncanny prophecy. Decades later, Candy House opens in 2010 as Bix devises new strategies to relaunch his successful tech career. Epiphany hits when he attempts to recall a moment in his life with more clarity than his fuzzy memory can satisfy. Enter: Own Your Unconscious, a technology that extracts the user’s consciousness and packages it into a cube, so one can access and replay memories at will.
Speculative fiction writers have played with these ideas before – Ted Chiang’s 2013 short story ‘The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling’ also describes a program able to record and recall memory. Over time, Chiang’s program alters the human brain, ‘replacing our malleable organic memories with perfect digital archives’ and altering our cognitive processes permanently. Unlike Chiang, Egan in Candy House seems less interested in any unsettling physiological adaptations which might be incurred by new memory tech; in this sense, her abstract treatment of the device is somewhat unsatisfying. After Goon Squad’s literary innovation, one might have expected more originality from Egan’s foray into science fiction. In other ways, however, the sequel’s limitations prove that Egan is tuned into the contemporary cultural pulse, for the book is more interested in the social (rather than the biological) ramifications of consciousness-owning technology.
When Bix introduces his invention, Egan raises a set of ethical questions about the dark potential of technology. ‘Are we opening a Pandora’s box?’ one character wonders. It appears so, for once consciousness becomes accessible, it is commodified. In Egan’s cosmos, companies tracking online activity gain access to the individual minds uploaded to the Collective Consciousness, a sister program of Own Your Unconscious. To many of Egan’s characters – and readers, for that matter – this seems like a terrifying abuse of privacy, as illustrated by the chapter concerned with a daughter’s troubling experience viewing her emotionally distant father’s memories – a breach of boundaries which I imagine few would emerge from emotionally unscathed.
Like Egan’s previous book, Candy House has a polyphonic architecture; it takes up the formal innovations expected of any work succeeding Goon Squad, which featured chapters composed of text messages and PowerPoint slides. Egan’s 2022 novel moves through various unconventional forms: a PhD thesis, a 13-year-old’s diary entry, a series of algebraic formulas interwoven into third-person narrative, a set of spy mission logs and an email chain. Each enacts an engaging stylistic pivot, although it would have been exciting to see more formal models exploring how tech has changed today’s quotidian modes of communication. The email chain chapter is Egan’s strongest. It reveals Candy House’s complex grid of character connections through a series of pointed exchanges between a range of characters, which unveil the hidden strings that orchestrate their eventual encounters and, ultimately, relaunch their declining careers. Bennie’s son Chris, for example, describes several people who act as ‘threads’ connecting him to his father’s old life. The novel is filled with these nebulous character relations: if represented in Venn diagram form, its dozen circles would rove like Roombas in and out of each others’ paths.
Each chapter takes a fleeting dive into these intersections. Egan flexes the creative muscles she polished in Goon Squad with a fresh array of narrative tones and perspectives, this time with a twist. ‘Lulu the Spy’, a chapter Egan first published in 2012, brings a peripheral character in Goon Squad into the spotlight. Lulu’s consciousness reads like a set of field instructions as she carries out her task as a Citizen Agent for her country. Her mission logs, written in the second person, feel like an unsettling cross between Blair Witch, Cloverfield and RoboCop. An alienating ‘you’ dominates Lulu’s narrative as she experiences violence and sexual assault, conjuring her disturbing, dissociative frame of mind. Two chapters and many years later, we witness Lulu’s continued struggle to distinguish herself from this chilling second person perspective (originally deployed so her mission logs would remain clear for her employers, once her memories were extracted using Bix’s Own Your Unconscious technology). Lulu’s identity dissolves: her childhood dream of joining Doctors Without Borders thereby becoming a spot of tragic irony as the reader watches her sense of self grow borderless.
Despite its more sober moments, Candy House brims with playful passages. The slippery realm of identity, from online facades to Dungeons & Dragons characters, lends the novel a quirky tone. It is reminiscent of David Bowie’s cheeky Ziggy Stardust persona, or Hunky Dory’s chameleonic attitude to identity in its composite album of musical pastiches. Candy House likewise has a unique texture that encourages the reader to think dynamically about the creative realms of art, storytelling, the mind and music.
In fact, Candy House’s structure is a musical tribute, redolent of the ‘concept album’ form of Goon Squad. Egan divides Candy House into volumes named after the units of a song: ‘Build,’ ‘Break,’ ‘Drop’ and ‘Build’ again. ‘I’m very interested in the relationship between musical narrative and literary narrative,’ Egan told David Remnick in a recent interview for The New Yorker Radio Hour. This interest shows in the tension-and-release anatomy of the novel: it rises through ‘Build’ and ‘Break’, creating a musical bridge that generates traction towards the fall; the crescendo strikes in the ‘Drop’, in which the major characters reunite; the denouement comes in the second ‘Build’. If Candy House were in fact a song, it would likely sound like ‘No Distraction’ by Beck, who, in Q Magazine, explained the observations he had made about relational spaces inspiring the song:
We haven’t figured out how to have access to everybody and everything all the time and how it affects us psychically and neurologically. Or at least I haven’t. My analogy to friends has been that I feel as if somebody has removed the front door of my house, permanently.
A house lends itself well to these notions of the mind as a ‘space’ to be overloaded with guests or raided by new tech, which alters our neural pathways like a pushy interior designer.
‘People were letting the Internet go inside their computers and play their music,’ Egan’s character Melora says of her first encounter with Napster in 1999. ‘The idea made us squeamish; it was like letting a stranger rummage through your house—or your brain!’ The public sphere’s invasion of the private becomes a kind of home invasion. Lincoln, an employee of a company collecting data on uploaded consciousnesses, aptly compares entering a stranger’s mind to entering an ‘unfamiliar home’. The book often reads like a warning from an older generation about the sacrifices technology demands, portending, in particular, that the ethical problems posed by emerging programs like Musk’s Neuralink – which already seem rather dystopian – will only grow. There’s no use trying to close Pandora’s box once it has been opened. Egan extrapolates our culture’s addiction to streaming to a point where to refuse to publicly broadcast one’s consciousness reads as dishonest, and, somehow, to do anything else is to present a false public image. How fast would you take the red pill to escape this horrifying Matrix? Through the conduit of fiction, Egan imagines how new technology might demand the sacrifice of individual privacy and draws parallels to the compromises we have already made.
Though the idea of the mind as a ‘home’ in Egan’s novel renders it vulnerable to break-ins, the brain is still one power which technology can never fully grasp. For one of her epigraphs, Egan appeals to the grande dame of psyche exploration herself, Emily Dickinson, to spotlight the expansive power of the brain:
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The mind is an infinite, unbounded realm of possibility. Lincoln explains that consciousness is ‘like the cosmos multiplied by the number of people alive in the world … because each of our minds is a cosmos of its own: unknowable, even to ourselves’. The paradox of the mind as both a house and a cosmos, a walled enclosure and an infinite space, illustrates the impossible task of defining the slippery parameters of consciousness. It is an incalculable puzzle, alluring both to Egan’s characters and to her readers. Egan trains each chapter of Candy House like a microscope on the molecular motions of human feeling, set against the backdrop of our memories’ webbed galaxies. These seismic shifts distinguish the novel.
Like a low-tech version of Own Your Unconscious, Goon Squad houses a clear memory of the moment that inspired Bix’s initial invention – something he cannot fully recall in the present tense of Candy House. When we hold Goon Squad, we hold stories that have been reduced to fuzzy memories in the minds of those who reappear in Candy House. One cannot help but wonder: are books, indeed, Own Your Unconscious by another name? That is, do writers seek to satisfy the same recollective urges as Bix, on the page as opposed to online? Stories are certainly superior to Own Your Unconscious’s digital info-dumps. As Egan observes, a plethora of data does not a narrative make, just as an overload of noises is far from a song. We need stories to interrupt life’s unending sequence; we will continue to need them, even as we develop innovations inspiring new modes of cognition. It is this that Egan’s novel lends us: an exercise in tracking human connections, a literary map of interwoven lives, across the dimensions of time and space. Readers trace the path along which the story leads, stooping to gobble up each allusion to its precursor, forever eager to partake in the candy-house-nostalgia that a sequel naturally yields.
REBECCA DILLON is a postgraduate at St Hugh’s College. She reads for an MSt in English Language & Literature, and occasionally reads for pleasure too.
Artwork by Izzy Fergusson