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Book Review: The Candy House

Scribner

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel, The Candy House, out now in paperback, starts off with a dizzying array of intriguing, disparate characters, and allusions to big-topic philosophical subjects, then segues fast into even more such characters, all looking for patterns of affinity in their lives--a sense of authenticity in a world dominated by all-seeing social media. The irony of reading this smart and loony sequel of sorts to Egan’s smart and loony 2010 Pulitzer prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad is that The Candy House, which seems even more existential, engages as serious social criticism. The more it defies chronological order and time (it goes back to pre-Internet days and extends to 2034), introducing new characters (or giving prominent roles to minor characters from Goon Squad), the more its genre-defying nature seems appropriate. This is a challenging book to follow but stay with it. It’s fascinating, hilarious, and provocative.

Egan is quite the stylist, capturing with ease and savvy the essence of pop music, drugs, country clubs, espionage, familial love, familial anguish, algebra, and more – And avoiding what one character mocks as “word casings,” diction or phrases, that are “like shells without bullets” – clichés, tired prose. A lone adjective can carry a loaded image, as in Chicago’s “rusted railways and exhausted yellow brick.” Absurdity rules: One character, alienated in what he sees as an inauthentic world, decides to enroll his dog Maple Tree in a local elementary school, (“she’s really smart. . . she just learns differently”), but just as you begin to savor this nugget Egan has him observe the two board of education ladies looking at him askance with their “curved fingernails [that] had been lavished with the nuanced paintwork normally reserved for museum-quality surfboards…” One section, a field manual for secret agents, is almost a stand-alone shtick in its poetically structured sequence of aphorisms.

Sections often open with an unidentified first-person narrator. Who is this? How is he or she related to characters we’ve met before? You may want to flip back to earlier sections, but you won’t need to read or re-read A Visit from the Goon Squad. The first character to appear here, Bix Bouton, a minor presence in Goon Squad, is referenced throughout The Candy House but plays no further front-and-center role after his initial appearance. He’s a brilliant tech mogul, wealthy, revered, Black, married with four kids, and haunted by the online world he created in 2016 which is at the thematic heart of this book. He invented the app Own Your Unconscious, which gives participants access to the memories of others and to their own but requires full disclosure of their own individual lives. Bix also owns a related business, Mandala, which preserves in sleek memory cubes all of these memories. The Internet as we now know gives but takes away. Information in return for a surrender of privacy.

Anyone can be a major character here - friends, family members, casual acquaintances, everyone somehow connecting to someone else and to Bix’s invention, pro or con. The diverse sections and different voices of The Candy House make it seem like a collection of interrelated stories, even though throughout Egan subtly, never didactically, infuses the whole with ambiguity about technology. It can do good, it can promote evil. “Never trust a candy house” is a repeated refrain. It’s seductive, but “nothing is free.” See “Hansel and Gretel.” Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing, without the story it’s all just information.” The line comes in the last section of the book, a joyous, lyrical revisiting of a child’s unexpected triumph in a baseball game, a golden memory selectively recovered – and massaged – thanks to technology and . . . to the overall choice by the writer, the storyteller, of this amazing book.

Jennifer Egan will speak with Library Journal’s Barbara Hoffert at the Brekley Theater in the Greenwich Library’s main branch on Wednesday, March 8, at 7 pm. For more information click
here.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.