Time is a moron, marauder and thief and vicious. But the 12 years that have passed since Jennifer Egan published her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A visit from the Goon Squad treated this book with kindness. Playful, ambitious and formally inventive, Goon Squad presents itself as a model of what the contemporary novel could be and often is not: a book which sets out to express something new, and constructs for itself an entirely new form in which to do so.
Now Egan has published what she calls “a sibling romance” for A visit from the Goon Squad title The candy house, which borrows its sprawling structure and many of its characters from its predecessor. But where to read Goon Squad want to watch a circus acrobat do a flip you’ve never seen before, The candy house has a more subtle joy. Reading this book is like watching Simone Biles perform a lathe she designed, polished and perfected to perfection. You already know she can do it, so now the fun is in looking at the details. Every little nuance works.
The structural innovation achieved by Egan with A visit from the Goon Squad and repeat here with The candy house is deceptively simple. It’s romance in a daisy chain: each chapter picks up the point of view of a supporting character from a previous chapter, taking us from the mind of an uptight record producer to his recovering drug addict daughter to his annoyingly sober sidekick. playing D&D. We hopscotch through time, encountering the same characters over and over again, refracted through the lenses of dozens of different vantage points. In 2010, Goon Squad dazzled readers with his famous PowerPoint chapter; in candy houseEgan’s big twist is accompanied by a chapter told as a field guide for spies.
Technically speaking, The candy house stands on its own, and if you read it without ever breaking the cover Goon Squad, everything will make sense. If you approach it that way, however, you’ll most likely find the climax, which sees several Goon Squad the characters briefly fall back into their old configurations, landing a bit flat. The candy house depends for its emotional momentum, not just on the fact that you have read Goon Squadbut on your memories of Goon Squad be crisp and clear – which makes sense, because even if Goon Squad it was time, candy house is about memories.
It’s also about technology, that “candy house” that encourages us to donate little pieces of ourselves to anonymous companies. And it’s about the novels themselves, what we get out of them, and – you feel for Egan here – how incredibly daunting they are to write.
The candy house starts with Bix, which we last encountered Goon Squad as a brilliant black graduate student in the early 90s, evangelizing his classmates about the coming wonders of the web. It’s now 2010 and Bix is running a social media empire. He has become a cultural icon, a Steve Jobs-like figure as famous for his stylistic predilections (zoot suit, leather hat) as for his technological work.
But Bix developed a fear. Like a novelist looking to sequel to the book that made him famous, Bix feared he couldn’t do anything as good as his social media network. He built his name on a devious academic theory about mapping the connections and relationships between human beings. How can he pull off the same trick twice?
Bix finds its way with another scientific concept. Learning that academics have developed a way to “externalize” animal consciousness, Bix is developing a device that allows users to upload the full content of their memories and share them in the cloud-based searchable format that s is called the Collective Consciousness.
The world-building possibilities here are exhilarating, but Egan beckons to them rather than getting into the weeds. In a few quick sentences, we learn that the collective conscience, a la Facebook, becomes useful both for reuniting with old friends and for enforcing the law. There’s a half-submerged subplot about ‘dodgers’ – people who keep their lives off the internet, who end up being seen as dangerous renegades – but most importantly, Egan is concerned with the human-scale consequences. searchable and downloadable memories.
A woman revisits a much-loved childhood journey through her father’s eyes, only to recoil from his dismissive reactions to her. A “counter” working for a data collection company disgustedly shies away from his professional obligation to look at other people’s memories. A citizen spy develops a paranoid belief that the government is examining her memories even when she has never uploaded them to the collective consciousness.
There is a certain professional desire at work here, a kind of territorial protection. We live in an age of unprecedented access to the minds of others, to the daily detritus of the thoughts of human beings. Does this access – asks Egan, through the metaphor of the collective consciousness – really allow us to understand each other better? Or are we better off with the novel, that old, old technology of empathy?
It probably won’t shock you that this novel is considered the winning option. But it’s hard to regret Egan’s decision to give himself a win. To like A visit from the Goon Squad in front of her, sweeping, kaleidoscopic candy house more than does its case.
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