Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House
The Candy House
(Simon & Schuster, 2022)
It could be argued that Jennifer Egan, in 2010, took it upon herself to find a cure for what Zadie Smith once called “our ailing literary culture.” In her New York Review of Books essay, Smith contrasted Joseph O’Neill’s literary bestseller Netherland (“It seems perfectly done—in a sense that’s the problem.”) with Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, a meta meditation on fantasy and reality. Remainder and Netherland represented—to use Smith’s title—“Two Paths for the Novel.”
It could be argued that Jennifer Egan proceeded to venture down these long, winding paths in her next two books. First came the spiraling pyrotechnics of A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), in which Egan spans the decades, and deploys a wide array of narrative techniques, to examine the social and psychic toll exacted by the relentless march of technological innovation. Goon Squad nabbed a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among many other accolades. Next, though, came Egan’s achingly tender, downright conventional, father-daughter saga Manhattan Beach (2017). Each of these novels is brilliant in its distinct way, first and foremost, for the degree to which they showcase Egan’s versatility and virtuosity. So, what can readers expect from Egan’s latest?
She calls her newest, The Candy House, a “sibling novel” to Goon Squad—partly, one suspects, because “sequel” or “prequel” would imply an order not to be found in Egan’s zig-zagging narratives.
Yet, The Candy House also, literally, follows various siblings, and half-siblings—as well as husbands and wives, cousins and college friends—from Goon Squad. The novel opens with the now “famous,” but sleepless, Bix Bouton, strolling the sidewalks of New York. We first met Bix in Goon Squad, as “the only Black PhD student in NYU’s engineering lab.” Now a father of four, Bix is wildly successful, but also feeling “trouble … too pervasive, too amorphous to explain,” having invented a “memory externalization device” which allows users to bring their pasts back to life. After all, as Egan writes: “Who could resist the chance to revisit our memories?”
For starters, a band of neo-Luddites, known in The Candy House as “eluders.” They seek to blunt the influence of “counters,” and others who are smart, ambitious and soulless enough to mine academic research about “trust and influence among members of a Brazilian tribe,” in search of data to be “coopted by social media companies.”
Egan’s great accomplishment in The Candy House—as in Goon Squad—is her steadfast commitment to flesh and blood characters, who bruise and bleed, even amidst all of the social commentary and satire.
In Goon Squad, we got the famous slideshow, and long passages about silence in pop songs. But we also watched two friends go for a swim in the East River, before only one came out. In The Candy House, we glimpse a doomed “very pale and tender” half sibling, “through a car window… his misery and surprise… like a little boy’s.” We witness the complications of contemporary flirtation, when personalities are reduced to ideologies, and vice versa. And “lust is logical,” and everything else is mere “narrative,” to be manipulated.
Egan might even have her own anxious, scribbling tribe in mind when a character comments that Bix’s invention “posed an existential threat to fiction.” In a rare but thought-provoking moment of convergence for devotees of literature, as well as the Zuckerbergian Metaverse, we are presented with this blasphemy: “Not every story needs to be told.”
Egan is admirably nimble delivering all of this. The Candy House easily could have wandered into 1,000-page territory, yet weighs in at just over 300, and never feels dense or turgid.
Egan’s ambitions, though, are tempered by an admirable humility, an understanding that ours is not the first generation to confront these complicated questions. The “brain is wider than the sky,” Egan quotes Emily Dickinson, right in front of her book, noting that “the one the other will contain.” The sky. The web. The information superhighway. The stubborn power of the brain often eludes literary novelists, as well as tech moguls. HAL, the pushy AI in 2001: A Space Odyssey, got ornery with hapless Dave way back in 1968, in a movie based on the stories of Arthur C. Clarke written two decades before that. And at the dawn of talkies, as movie audiences could not help but feel they were watching life itself unfold, Buster Keaton upped the ante and climbed right into the screen, in the 1924 classic Sherlock Jr. Two years before that, James Joyce conjured much of life from 800 or so printed pages.
Fittingly, in The Candy House, Bix still has a well-thumbed copy of Ulysses, which “he’d read in graduate school with the explicit aim of acquiring literary depth.”
If our “literary culture” has been addled by algorithms and screens, passionate readers may want to look beyond a mere two paths for the novel. Another recent tech-topian book observes: “Gaining access to all of that information turned out to be something of a mixed blessing.” This is neither an avant grade meta-narrative nor middlebrow drama, but an unapologetic adventure—Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.
Comic books, gaming, sci-fi, fantasy. Some of the most provocative stories of recent years proudly bear the influence of genre and pop fare. In Egan’s (if you will) Goon-ivserse, it is music that serves as this lingua franca, and organizing inspiration—emotionally, and technologically. At a key late ‘90s moment, one Egan character has this revelation: “In five years, not a single person is going to pay for music.”
The ramifications of such developments are intimate yet also immense. And they can also be found in Ulysses and Ready Player One. As well as “Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas (and) Hansel and Gretel,” to use Egan’s words.
All such stories explore the blurry line between order and chaos, yet also, Egan suggests, offer up a certain overarching wisdom. Including this: “Never trust a candy house.” Contemporary novelists—Tom McCarthy among them, at least for this reader—sometimes make too much of the dancer rather than the dance, the wizard behind the curtain, the God burning the bush. Egan masterfully balances these narrative impulses, while never forgetting that her characters can swim joyously, as well as drown. And that readers can get swept up in powerful, emotional currents, and conflicts, and quandaries. “To hell with God,” one Candy House character declares. “I’m worried about the Internet.”
Fair enough. After all, at least one of them is always watching.