Jennifer Egan Doesn’t Think “The Candy House” is Dystopian
Youn 2015, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan was deep into revisions of her novel Manhattan Beach When the thought of a San Francisco girl who she was close to as a child began to flash through her mind, Egan realized that it was her childhood friend. Egan was flooded with images of bloody noses and tetherball, but the gaps were blurred. Her curiosity piqued, she pulled up Facebook and searched the woman’s name, only to find her profile flooded with condolences and remembrances. Two days prior, the woman was killed in an automobile accident.
“That had a huge impact on me,” Egan says, gazing out onto the East River from Brooklyn Bridge Park. “I found myself remembering her childhood as I experienced it, and wanting to see it more clearly. I know it’s all there in my mind—so why can I see some memories and not others?”
Egan desired a machine that could allow her to go back in time and revisit her own life as well as the lives of those she loved and lost. She invented it in her next fiction work. The connective tissue in the stories is this machine called Own Your Unconscious. Candy HouseThe new book by her is titled.
Candy House It is the book most people are looking forward to the most. This is not because Egan, who has sold thousands of copies on her national tour dates and received rave reviews for her novels, makes it one of Egan’s most anticipated books. This new work is a quasi-sequel to her most celebrated book: 2010’s A visit from the Goon Squad, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and appeared on several decade-end lists, including TIME’s. Goon SquadIt was noted for its unique kaleidoscopic structure that leapt between eras and literary styles. As it unraveled a series of stories that were loosely related, the author received praise. A Powerpoint presentation was used to tell one chapter; a celebrity profile gave another.
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Candy House Similar stories are told using 14 different time periods, including emails, teenager diaries and logs of spy missions. Many familiar characters are revisited, including Sasha, a kleptomaniac-turned-landscape artist, and Bennie, a washed-up rocker.
But there’s one significant change: where Goon Squad It was centered primarily on the music industry. Candy House The focus shifts from tech to the technology world and Bix Bouton the social media maven, which briefly made an appearance in Goon Squad as an You are here:ternet obsessive in the early ’90s. In Candy House, Bix invents Own Your Unconscious, which allows people to see into their pasts—but also forces them to upload their memories to a public cloud, effectively erasing privacy forever.
Egan’s memory machine serves two key purposes in the novel. The first is that it allows her deeper dives into the pasts, and futures, of characters readers have fallen in love with over ten years ago. It also allows her to confront one of the central developments of our time—the escalating integration of technology into our everyday lives—and to explore the consequences of what happens when social media and immersive tech are taken to their logical, invasive end.
“It’s so incredible to think of how wrong George Orwell got it: It’s not that anyone forces screens into every home,” Egan says. “It’s that we invite them.”
Egan’s work is fueled by a deep curiosity about other people—and that impulse is immediately evident. In Brooklyn on a sunny March afternoon, Egan questions me about my Manhattan childhood and attempts to get into the music world. An ex-journalist for New York. Times Magazine. She likes it when the subject of her magazine is someone else. She used the word “curious” seven times in our hour-long walk, stopping often to marvel at each tableau as we pass by: a ballerina posing for a portrait atop the dancing waterfront, a tiny woman patiently walking a dozen large dogs.
Egan says she often walks and bikes around the city—including this stretch of esplanade—for inspiration. Egan is a key figure in Goon Squad The East River is a great place to drown, as well as many others. Manhattan Beach It takes place right around the corner from the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “New York has been so generative and enriching to my writing process,” she says. “I love the anonymity and that I end up in close proximity to people from every walk of life.”
Goon Squad was born out of Egan’s belief that “everything is interesting”—that bit players in your life are the protagonists of their own equally compelling narratives. Because of the novel’s unspooling nature, Egan found herself wondering about those left lurking in the margins long after it was finished. “It felt like it was never really over for me,” she says. Parts of her dissertation were written by her. Candy House When on tour Goon SquadThese small anecdotes only lead to new questions.
But she didn’t want to simply retread her old ideas, lest she be accused of recycling Goon Squad’This was an enormous success. It was a challenge for her to find new narrative mechanisms and new characters, as well as a new thematic concept. She tried many ways to make it work, but ultimately settled on Bix and the rapidly evolving technological innovations that he represents as a solution to all three. “The evolution of telecommunications technology is the story I have witnessed in my lifetime, without question,” Egan says. “There’s this state of constant evolution, and the change is so enormous.”
Bouton bears traces of a true-life tech god: Egan briefly dated Steve Jobs as an undergrad at Pennsylvania University. Jobs was seven year old and had been running Apple for seven years. “Seeing how much people who invent things are really true believers: I think that some of that really comes from him, and maybe the awe with which a tech icon is treated,” Egan says of Jobs.
But moreso, Candy House is driven by Egan’s interest in the intersections between old modes of storytelling, like novels, and new digital ones, like social media and video game streaming. Egan’s children, who are 19 and 21, spend some of their free time watching gamers navigate first-person video games via Twitch, a phenomenon that both fascinates and rankles her. “Watching a gamer narrate their experience is so much like being inside another consciousness that it gets the closest, in a way, to what fiction does,” she says. “But it’s also totally performative—there’s a slight disingenuousness at the core of it, as we’re only hearing the thoughts they want us to know.”
The characters are in Candy House get genuine glimpses into each other’s psyches thanks to Own Your Unconscious, they also lose their autonomy: Bix’s company, Mandala, now tracks their every move and can even accurately predict their future behaviors. At the same time, the government places monitoring devices under its employees’ skin. In the novel’s hyper-connected world, a group of resistors known as Eluders emerges, scrubbing their digital imprints to live completely off the grid. Egan believes she’d be an Eluder, as she was a Baby Boomer and still drafts her first drafts manually.
But she doesn’t view the Own Your Unconscious technology as dystopian, because we’ve lived through similarly seismic technological changes before. “I read a lot of 19th-century fiction, and hear the same echoes of sadness and nostalgia when people are looking back at the time before the railroads: Because everything was suddenly so connected,” she says. In the beginning, she had planned to name it “The book.” It’s the Thing That Will Change Everything, a tongue-in-cheek statement about how, while big inventions provoke strong immediate reactions, “It’s so hard to really know what all of the changes will be.”
Recent developments have seen many writers come up with similar mechanisms to Own Your Unconscious. Black Mirror’s “The Entire History of You,” for example, and the new Apple TV+ series Ptolemy Grey’s Last DaysWalter Mosley adapts the text from his 2010 novel to create Own Your Unconscious. It’s unclear whether something like Own Your Unconscious will ever exist: Egan says she did no research into the techno-futurist aspects of the book, preferring to let her imagination run wild.
But the focus of the novel isn’t on the tech itself, anyway: it’s on how these characters—some of whom have been living in Egan’s mind for decades—would respond to such changes, providing evidence of our perseverance and shortsightedness alike in the face of change. Egan, along with other lo-fi storytellers, are doing an excellent job in fulfilling its many positive powers. They can help us understand our complicated histories, instill empathy and satisfy our insatiable curiosity. “I’m the person who walks down the street, peeking into lighted windows,” Egan confesses, “Thinking, ‘What kind of life goes on in there?’”
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