Inside Someone Else’s Head: A Conversation with Jennifer Egan

April 12, 2022   •   By Rachel Barenbaum

IN HER LATEST novel, The Candy House, Jennifer Egan returns to some of the characters of her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, using them to help her explore what the internet has become and what technology might enable in the future. The book begins with Bix, an uber-successful social media magnate, saying, “I have this craving […] Just to talk.” He’s made his fortune by facilitating virtual interactions, but he longs for physical contact and interaction.

We only see Bix for a few pages, but his self-doubt haunts Egan’s entire novel: have we pushed technology too far? Bix climbs up from this low point and builds a company called Own Your Unconscious. The company downloads consciousness to a cube that can be accessed at will. If users share with an online collective, they gain access to “the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone, living or dead, who had done the same.” They can see a situation from multiple perspectives, accessing the memories of every person connected to an event — an effect Egan recreates brilliantly in her writing. Each section takes us to a small piece of a character’s life that intersects with another character. In this way the novel is a shared experience that again and again brings us back to the question: how much is too much?

Author photo by Pieter M. van Hattem.

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RACHEL BARENBAUM: Jennifer, this book is an incredible look into our obsession with technology. I’d love to start off by asking you about the theme of loneliness. Your characters are hyper-connected both to one another and to the online world. They literally plug into the collective consciousness of the people around them and yet they are alone. Did you aim to highlight this contradiction in The Candy House?

JENNIFER EGAN: I hadn’t thought of that specifically, that there is a loneliness in being uber-connected, but there is. And I think that paradox is at the heart of any kind of technological connection. You and I are connected right now, but we’re not in the same place. Our connection gives and takes away in the same moment.

As humans we crave connection, but the most defining aspect of the human experience is that we are fundamentally alone. I mean this in the sense that we cannot be known from the inside by anyone. We try. That’s what we see all over social media, but there’s a desperation to that. It’s performative and it can be very narcissistic, but I feel like there’s also something genuine there: I’m going to narrate my experience playing a video game. You’re going to know exactly what’s happening inside my head. But the truth is we don’t. We can’t.

The essential solitariness of humans is clouded more and more by technological connection.

As for loneliness, I don’t know what that is exactly. Isn’t that odd to say? I don’t feel loneliness in exactly the way that I think you mean. Solitude is something that I live, that I need to do my work. I’m a pretty solitary person. Loneliness isn’t solitude. I’d say loneliness includes a kind of longing that is only one facet of solitude.

Solitude interests me enormously because it’s our natural state as humans. I think we struggle against it all the time. We also struggle with self-presentation. As we leave that state of solitude and present ourselves to the world, we use all sorts of deceptions. We often don’t want to reveal things about ourselves. We have secrets, and as much as I am interested in solitude, I am interested in secrets — and shame. For example, addiction comes up again and again in my work because addiction requires constant deception. I’m fascinated by that.

In the book, you write: “Memory externalization has been whispered about in psychology departments since the early 2000s, with faculty speculating about its potential to revolutionize trauma therapy. What really happened? Wouldn’t it help to know what you’ve repressed?” This passage helps us see that all of Bix’s work started with good intentions, that the push for new and better technology starts with the hope to help — even when in the end it might cause harm. What do you make of the early justifications for the technology?

If there were no justifications, I would never have written about such a device. It wouldn’t make any sense. People don’t invent devices thinking, “This is going to be terrible so let’s do it.”

But we do sometimes invent them because we think it would be fun — not moral or helpful.

That’s true, but my experience with the world of tech is that people tend to believe in the things they do. I know it’s easy to ascribe cynicism. It’s very easy to universalize our own point of view, to say everyone must think something is bad, including the people who made it, because we think so. But I think it’s more complicated than that. People tend to think they’re doing good.

Maybe that’s a justification so that they can feel good about what they’re doing, but I’m much more interested in how good-faith efforts end up becoming vexed than I am in conspiracies or nefarious schemes, which are much more two-dimensional.

To follow up on the point that technology can have bad or unanticipated consequences, one of your characters notes: “A gain is a loss when it comes to technology.” Do you think that’s right?

Well, that’s always true. Think about the car. The combustion engine has turned out to be the nemesis of humanity.

You’re talking about global warming?

Absolutely. It’s a disaster, but it took us decades to know that.

It often takes a very long time to know the real price of an invention. There are unforeseen consequences, and we certainly see that with the combustion engine.

Humans love to solve problems. Sometimes I think we’re greedy for good things in the moment. It’s hard to think long-term when something is being offered to you in the moment. For example, the internet offered access right from the start to lots of information — and news. You would have had to pay for that news before, but suddenly it was all free. A lot of people didn’t know for a really long time what the attention economy was. It was such a new idea, the idea that we were actually paying, not with money, per se, but with other things that could be monetized, things like our attention and facts about ourselves. Some people are thinking about this in the moment, but a lot of people aren’t because we’re just thinking, “Oh, that’s really cool. I want that now. Let’s go.”

So, it’s true gains are also losses here. But there are certain things that are not losses, like antibiotics. There is very little downside to antibiotics. Or if we could externalize our consciousness the way women can freeze their eggs and use that consciousness as a kind of insurance against dementia, that would be a no-brainer for someone like me who has Alzheimer’s in her family.

On the subject of downloading consciousness, Own Your Unconscious literally downloads a person’s memories — their brains — to a cube. Philosophers have been working through the brains in a vat argument for centuries. And of course The Matrix is a movie depicting just that possibility, a movie that has itself seeped into our pop culture collective consciousness. Did this book start as a brains in a vat commentary?

The idea isn’t new. Lots of other people have thought of brains in a vat. I’m no Philip K. Dick, a whiz at inventing new things. And I didn’t want to directly repeat anyone.

The invention in the book serves as a through-line that holds the stories together. I tried to explore it from every side. There’s that moment when Roxy views her father’s consciousness, in which he considers the fact that he wishes he didn’t invite her on a trip they were about to take. It’s so crushing for Roxy to see that that she immediately stops. It raises the questions: Do we really want to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head? Isn’t that just a little too intimate?

Goon Squad was explicitly a book about time — the impact of time passing and its relationship to technology. In Candy House, I’m interested in doing the same thing with the notion of space, and the way that having so much of our lives take place virtually (remember I was thinking about this pre-pandemic) has changed our relationship to physical space. And there’s the question: Where is consciousness? Can we put it in a box? How, when it’s infinite?

We are creatures that can be described by data. Our behavior can be predicted by data and yet we’re all individuals and in the end, we’re deeply mysterious to each other. All of those paradoxes felt exciting to me, and I wanted to just get into the middle of them and see what I could do.

Were you formulating Candy House as you wrote Goon Squad?

There were things I was curious about in Goon Squad that I couldn’t make work in that book. I already had a sense that the world of Goon Squad was bigger than what I had been able to achieve. It was the best I could do with the abilities that I had at the time, but there were things that I wanted to do and couldn’t. One of those things was write a chapter in the form of epic poetry. Some remnant of that idea is present in Lulu’s chapter in Candy House, which was originally written in tweets. And there were things I knew about the characters that the reader didn’t know yet.

One example is that Bix appears very briefly in one chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad. In that brief appearance, he’s the guy who’s online and no one else knows what the hell he’s doing. He predicts the consequences of social media. He says something like, “Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find, and they’ll find us.” In that moment of writing, I knew he would invent social media.

Whenever I know something big like that that the reader doesn’t know, that’s a sign to me that there’s more to be explored. So, I started writing. I started the Lulu chapter right away.

I never would have guessed that was one of the earliest chapters.

It was. I wrote “Lulu the Spy, 2032” while I was on my book tour. Goon Squad just never really stopped for me. In fact, one of the failed chapters in Goon Squad was one I wrote centered on Ted Hollander and meeting his kids, seeing their mother and the relationship she had with their friend. There was lots of material I couldn’t make work in that book.

This gives you a sense of how much trial and error is involved in my writing process. I blunder and I bumble and try to find enough good material to put a book together. It’s really a mess until I can find something in there that’s interesting, and work toward that.

I was working on all this at the same time as Manhattan Beach, but at a certain point I had to stop because Manhattan Beach required all of my time. There was just so much research involved in that book. I returned to Candy House in 2016. From that point on, it was the major project that I was working on, but it was a long and winding process. I think I’ve made it clear that there was a lot of stuff in Goon Squad that didn’t work out. There was even more in Candy House that didn’t work out!

So, is another book coming?

I really, really am not sure. There is one thing that I tried to make work in Candy House — but had to cut. It’s a structural idea that I’m not letting go. I have to give it another try. So I guess I’m still in it!

Well, I’m ready to read it whenever you write it. Before we go, what advice can you give to new writers?

First, make sure that you’re trying to write in the realm that you like to read. A lot of times, I find that people say they want to write, but most of their reference points have to do with television. If you are serving a literary god, then write and read literary stuff. You have to decide where your allegiance really is, and it tends to be in the realm that you like to consume.

Second, read and read and read. When I wrote a Gothic thriller, I read only Gothic work for two years.

Third, try to make writing habitual. I think that if we’ve learned one thing in the last two years, it’s that we are very trainable creatures. If you’re out of the habit of writing, it feels really hard to do. And if you’re in the habit of writing it feels weird not to do it. The goal is to write regularly enough that it feels weird not to do it, so that you generate material. It’s very much like exercise in that way, and so what I find is that, in order to write regularly, I have to allow myself to write badly.

I think writer’s block is very much about the fear of writing badly and not writing is about the fear of writing badly. The standard I hold myself to (and it’s not always fun) is filling five to seven pages per day. Allowing myself to write badly is a way of guaranteeing that lack of quality won’t stop me from filling those pages.

Fourth, I really like having a community of trusted collaborators who can help me figure out very early whether material is alive and whether I’m making any egregious mistakes.

There is tremendous solitude around writing, and I like that. Most people who write seriously tend to be pretty solitary people. But that does not mean that I can work in isolation and know if what I’m doing is good. I need a community to help me understand what’s working and what isn’t, and I really encourage people to try to find that.

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Rachel Barenbaum is the author of A Bend in the Stars and Atomic Anna.