Books

Jennifer Egan’s House of Wonders

Her radiant new novel explores what role the imagination can still play in a world overwhelmed by technology.

A candy house
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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There’s not a lot of filler in Jennifer Egan’s radiant new novel, The Candy House, a sequel of sorts to her 2010 Pulitzer-winning bestseller, A Visit From the Goon Squad. But one sentence in the new novel’s penultimate chapter does strike me as unnecessary. Recalling a character who’s struggling to complete a novel, an authorial voice-over drops in to explain that only fiction “lets us roam with absolute freedom through the human collective.” Paeans from a novelist to the unique powers of fiction do register as a bit self-serving, but the reason Egan doesn’t need to tell us this is because she’s spent the previous 13 chapters gloriously proving it.

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Like Goon Squad, The Candy House comes together in pieces. Each chapter is told from a different perspective selected from a group of interconnected characters, many of whom also appear in Goon Squad (although you don’t need to remember them well to follow this one). The novel is broken up in time, the earliest chapter being set (sort of) in 1965 and the latest in the 2030s. That “sort of” refers to the abiding presence in the novel of a new technology that enables people to export all their memories and upload them to an online repository, where (if their owner so chooses) others can view them too, along with the accompanying thoughts and feelings. The person who narrates the 1965 chapter, which describes how four young bankers leapt into the counterculture at a pot farm in the redwoods, is the daughter of one of the men. She’s witnessing a moment of liberation in her father’s life but also the beginning of the end of her parents’ suburban marriage.

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The Collective Consciousness is the product of a company named Mandala, founded by Bix Bouton, the protagonist of the first chapter—a charismatic entrepreneur whose “genius lay in refining, compressing, and mass-producing, as a luscious, irresistible product, technology that already existed in crude form.” He’s a bit Mark Zuckerberg, a bit Steve Jobs, except Bix is Black, first drawn into the world of the internet by the belief that, when disembodied, “Black people would be delivered from the hatred that hemmed and stymied them in the physical world.” Bix’s first big idea—lifted from an obscure anthropology monograph containing algorithms that calculated how trust and influence formed in a Brazilian tribe—was a social media platform that made him rich and famous. Own Your Unconscious, his second breakthrough, was also lifted from an academic’s research and allows people to deposit a copy of their memory to a sexy bit of tech shaped like a luminous cube. The uploading and sharing part, called the Collective Consciousness, was more of an afterthought, but as is often the way with new tech, it soon became the main attraction.

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If A Visit from the Goon Squad is about time and music, The Candy House is about experience and art, although the novel’s four sections (“Build,” “Break,” “Drop,” “Build”) refer back to the musical structures of Goon Squad. Egan isn’t especially interested in spinning out all the potential ramifications of the Collective Consciousness, which are considerable and bit distracting. One chapter mentions that “thousands of abusers have been convicted based on the evidence of their victims’ externalized memories, viewed as film in courtrooms,” leaving the wider impact on criminal justice, among other institutions, a tantalizing mystery. Instead, The Candy House contemplates what role the imagination could still play even when other people’s lives—and the forgotten periods in our own—have become easily and totally available.

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Jennifer Egan.
Jennifer Egan. Pieter M. Van Hattem
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One character, the junkie daughter of a music producer, uses the device to relive a dearly remembered trip to London she made with her dad at age 16, only to learn that he occasionally regretted bringing her along. “How could revisiting that time in its unfiltered state improve upon the story her memory has made?” she realizes. Not only is the notion of finding out exactly what other people think of you pretty terrifying, but the raw memories pose a threat to the stories we make of them afterward, stories that construct our lives.

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This is an inversion of that much-used Joan Didion quote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” which Didion meant as a pitiless observation of how we cloak the ephemera of experience in an illusion of meaning. Egan thinks otherwise, maintaining that “knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.” Forming it into a narrative is living (even if, as with Didion, the story you tell about yourself is that you’re a neurasthenic cynic above such consolations). Egan’s case in point is this novel, a collection of chapters about people figuring out who they are.

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As in Goon Squad, Egan rifles through an assortment of fictional styles and motifs to tell these people’s stories. There’s a former boy wonder desperate for his next brainstorm, a teenage girl agonizing over her social status, a recovering drug addict whose attempted suicide provides another man with the chance to heal an old wound. One bravura chapter, reminiscent of the famous PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad, is told in directives conveyed to an undercover agent through an implant in her brain. Best of all is a chapter consisting entirely of emails and texts exchanged by over a dozen characters. It begins with one woman seeking a private conversation with an aging movie star and spreads to nearly a dozen participants, each trading favors to get what he or she wants, a web of transactions that ultimately results in the joyous reunion of the Conduits, a rock band that appears in Goon Squad, and a documentary film.

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All of this feels more at ease than Goon Squad, a novel I’d never thought of as betraying any strain until I read The Candy House. There was no pressing reason for the PowerPoint chapter in Goon Squad to be written in PowerPoint besides proving that Egan could do it, but the email/text chapter, titled “See Below,” could only be written in this form. The chapter is an illustration of how human connection works, facilitated by technology, yet not so different from the Brazilian tribe studied by anthropologist Miranda Kline, who is dismayed to see her monograph monetized by Bix into a surveillance platform disguised as a community. Witnessing all these differently motivated agendas gradually coalesce into a creative force is an exhilarating delight.

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Technology, specifically the alluring Collective Consciousness, is the candy house of the novel’s title. That also includes art-stealing file-sharing platforms, denounced by Miranda Kline’s twin daughters, who take over their father’s music production company:

Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free.

Never trust a candy house is also the advice of Miranda, who becomes an “eluder,” part of a movement of individuals who install a robotic proxy in their existing digital identity and then vanish into the offline world. One of their leaders, Chris Salazar, is the son of Bennie Salazar, a central character from Goon Squad. Chris calls his organization Mondrian, presumably in tribute to his grandmother, who kept an authentic Mondrian painting in a modest tract home so impossible to secure that no company would insure it. Her solution is to camouflage it by filling the house with Mondrian merch: “candleholders, vases, umbrellas, tea trays, glasses, place mats, towels, throw pillows, framed posters, coffee-table books, and a needlepoint footstool.” No one, she explains, with a legit Mondrian would “ever acquire such crap.”

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Sometimes the best place to conceal the real is amid the fake, which could be the motto of fiction: the lie that tells a truth. Chris starts out working for company seeking to turn what it calls “stockblocks,” narrative components from movies (“Funny Best Friend Gets Serious to Talk Sense Into Protagonist”; “Crowd Rises to Its Feet in Unexpected Tribute”), into mathematical formulae, although to what end he can’t tell. Later we find him running Mondrian behind a nonprofit front that organizes Dungeons & Dragons games for recovering addicts. As a dungeon master, instead of dismantling stories, he makes them, collaboratively with others. In The Candy House, D&D represents one of several alternatives to the candy house of technology and information. Being made of imagination, it offers a portal to another universe, much like each of the chapters in Egan’s novel. Egan opens windows on entrancing new worlds, in which what happened depends on who’s telling the story. A candy house, on the other hand, is just a trap. You think you’re going to eat it, but it ends up eating you.