Joy Is Analog: On Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House”

April 12, 2022   •   By Grace Linden

The Candy House

Jennifer Egan

JUST OVER A DECADE AGO, Jennifer Egan published A Visit from the Goon Squad (2011), a rocket launch of a novel that won the Pulitzer Prize. Fanned out like the cards of a fortune-teller, the interlocking stories told of youth and music, of time, courage, and fate. Now Egan has written a sequel, The Candy House, a heartbreaking, dazzling story of what happens when these same forces confront the might of the digital age.

The Candy House is vertiginous: as in Goon Squad, each chapter is narrated by a different character. Stories nest inside stories, and threads that seem to have been cut short are taken up much later, woven anew. All the characters have their own voices, and their own flaws. Egan swoops through time and place, taking us from the Mediterranean to a Little League game, revisiting the same events from different angles. Certainly, some will want to reread Goon Squad before reading The Candy House, but that’s not necessary. This is far from being a mere sequel; it’s a kaleidoscopic new offering whose beauty resides in its elliptical returns. People circle in and out, some more prominently than others, playing minor and then major roles; there are set pieces and reprises and misunderstandings.

The novel begins with Bix Bouton, the founder of Mandala, a mammoth tech company similar to Facebook. It is October in New York City, and Bix is in search of the next big thing. He is healthy, wealthy, inquisitive, married. His wife is beautiful. They have great sex. Gregory, his youngest, is only a toddler. (We meet Gregory again hundreds of pages later, this time as an adult.) Within a decade, Bix’s invention, Own Your Unconscious, will allow anyone to access not only every memory he or she has ever had but those of everyone else as well (or everyone who chooses to participate, that is). After Bix, there’s Alfred, then his older brother Miles. Miles flies to meet Sasha (the kleptomaniac from Goon Squad), who makes monumental installations out of found trash. Sasha’s son Lincoln tells us how he loves M., and then we meet Melora, her half-sisters Charlene and Roxy, and Chris, son of Bennie Salazar, friend of Sasha and former bassist for The Flaming Dildos, a band discovered by Lou, a music producer and Melora’s dad, who now runs a Dungeons & Dragons game at a methadone clinic Roxy attends. Before he got into D&D, Chris was discovering pot in the hazy days of summer, a heartthrob to 12-year-old Molly, who is just trying to navigate the perils of a preteen social life when she meets Lulu, a future spy and future daughter-in-law of Kitty Jackson, another Goon Squad holdover. There’s also Molly’s older sister, Hannah; a Greek chorus in the form of a lengthy email exchange; Ames, brother to Miles and Alfred; and the return of Gregory, now 28. It’s enough to make anyone want to create a Carrie Mathison–style suspect map.

On top of these spinning plates, Egan occasionally plays with the form of the writing itself. One chapter is composed as an extensive list of missives, another as an email exchange. These stylistic flourishes don’t feel entirely necessary. Egan is better when she is straightforward. If such language can be undemanding, it can also be a revelation. The Consciousness Cube, the machine through which memories are downloaded, is “warm as a newly laid egg.” The night is “electric with twilight.” In Central Park, “a lavender lunar radiance” fills the sky. Against a backdrop of growing technological control, the world, with all its elemental forces, is still magical. Egan reminds us how real the world can feel compared to the screens we stare at all day.

In the realm of Own Your Unconscious, memory is surveyed and appraised, a process so anxiety-inducing, so predatory, that surely only the most damaged or discombobulated could think it wise. And this doesn’t even begin to address what Big Data would gain from this sinister harvesting. Charlene sees the “glints” of what her father Lou and his pals remembered: “First Communion on a rainy morning; scooping black goldfish from a pond; a ringing in his ears; the sensation of landing a backflip.”

Nothing is particularly important, nothing monumental. I can summon the smell of a campfire in the Sierras; my toddler self in red sweatpants; the first time I drove on the freeway. Most of these memories are mere flickers that I would barely trust myself to repeat. Why would I want to share the things that are so inconsequential and yet so meaningful?

It is nearly impossible to read The Candy House without wondering what it would be like to download one’s own memories and store them in a box under the bed. The Consciousness Cube would allow me access to other people’s points of view, but would seeing their memories really change mine? Own Your Unconscious doesn’t teach grace or forgiveness; it doesn’t offer catharsis. While it may provide a “means of traveling backwards,” nothing gets to be quietly left behind.

In this sense, the form of The Candy House reflects the reality Egan conjures. This is a fractured landscape with no clear truth, where time folds into itself and technology wreaks if not havoc then a certain anesthetizing force. Unsurprisingly, joy resides in the most analog of experiences, the dirt and dust of the world, and yet it is in these moments that Egan can be her most heavy-handed. Describing a baseball game played in 1991, she writes, “No one in this crowd has ever seen a portable phone, which gives to this moment the quality of a pause. All these parents gathered in the fading light, and not a single face underlit by a bluish glow! They’re all here, in one place, their attention burning toward home plate.”

As someone who uses her phone mostly as a phone, it isn’t that I disagree with Egan but rather that such lines are unnecessary. Within the subtle and thoughtful panorama of The Candy House, these and similar observations tell too much. To the reader, all of this has already been proven painfully true.

The titular candy house is a reminder that everything comes with a cost and must always be paid for in some form or other, whether with money, time, sanity, or health: “Only children expect otherwise even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house!” Who rebels and who succumbs — and why — is at the heart of Egan’s novel. The author generously exposes her characters’ flaws and foibles, their fears and fantasies. Few escape the candy house, and those that do must pay an exorbitant price.

¤

Grace Linden is a writer and art historian based in London.