Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad was praised for its experimental prowess in connecting complex plotlines across time and space, reflecting the chaotic and fractured nature of contemporary life. The author has described The Candy House as its sibling novel, a type of sequel where some of the minor characters are revisited and thrust centre stage.
We last encountered Bix as kleptomaniac Sasha’s nerdy friend who was permanently welded to his computer and who predicted a huge future for computer messaging from his early-90s vantage. Fast forward to 2010 and he is the Zuckerberg-like head of a social media company called Mandela.
Increasingly worried that his best ideas are behind him, he poses as a graduate and attends a meeting of academics. One of these, Kasia, has developed a scientific method that allows animal consciousness and perceptions to be uploaded and viewed through a headset.
Bix has his eureka moment and uses this science to create a wildly successful product called Own Your Unconscious. It allows people to externalise their memories, with an option to share them with the collective consciousness via a device called the Mandela cube. This innovation naturally has its detractors and a rival enterprise called Mondrian is set up by Christopher Salazar, son of Goon Squad’s music industry mogul Bennie. This company operates a web of proxies and bafflers to help people elude their online identities and live off-grid, free from the collective’s invasive eyes.
Egan is well-placed to write about technological advances. As a member of Generation X, she came of age before the internet had become an intrinsic part of our lives. Indeed, she dated Steve Jobs as a student and she told the New Yorker in 2017 that “whether in the end he did us harm or good is an open question”.
Her concern with the corrosive effects of technology has proved eerily prescient, even as she uses its tools to make a satirical point. A chapter in Goon Squad, told in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, was edgy. A short story titled Black Box, composed entirely by tweets, was ‘serialised’ on the New Yorker’s Twitter account in 2012.
Egan’s concerns about privacy and our quest for authenticity here are explored through the character of Alfred Hollander, son of Ted, the art history professor from Goon Squad.
His intolerance of “phoneys” starts with a violent reaction to the fakery of newsreaders and culminates with an intolerance of everyone in his orbit whom he feels pretend to be what they already were. In an effort to elicit “genuine human responses”, he takes to screaming and howling in public transport just to glimpse the “unselfconscious wonderment” and “childlike state of reception this evoked from his fellow passengers”.
With his girlfriend Kirsten, he decides to look for an old school friend called Jack who had been the kind of guy that people just loved, “who bought out the best in everyone”. They find him in an ordinary suburb in Chicago now “slightly older, slightly heavier, slightly balder” a divorced and devoted father of twins. Over a drink in the back garden, Jack fills them in on his life story and admits that, were it not for his children, he would love to live near tree-lined Lake Michigan with its poetic sunsets “so even at night, you’re looking up from inside that darker ring at a lighter sky”.
It is in this very ordinary scene, in old-school camaraderie on a mid-western autumn night, that Alfred finds authenticity and wants to “sit there forever”.
This novel is a triumphant exploration of analogue versus digital, surveillance versus freedom, literature versus technology. Egan’s virtuosity in style and form allows her to reflect life online, her characters changing with the fluidity of a status update.
Here, the ‘candy house’ of technology that lures us in with its sumptuous wares and free entertainment is one as fraught with danger as the one nibbled with abandon by Hansel and Gretel.
Fiction: The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
Corsair, 352 pages, trade paperback €19.60; e-book £9.99