The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: a disquieting novel about the dark side of the digital age

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Novelists, like the rest of us, have long been engaged in hand-wringing about social media. At the end The Circle, Dave Egger’s frothy 2013 dystopia featuring a thinly-veiled Facebook stand in, an employer of the company stands over a woman in a coma and ponders how long it will take to develop the technology to read her thoughts. “The world deserves nothing less and would not wait,” Egger writes, the most ominous note he could muster about our technological future.

Ten years later, and algorithms are already reading our minds pretty effectively – anyone who has emerged blinking from TikTok’s ‘for you page’ will attest to that – and writers have largely moved on from casting big tech as a pantomime villain to fretting over what is turning us into, from John Boyne’s incandescent The Echo Chamber (2021) to younger writers, like Lauren Oyler (Fake Accounts) and Patricia Lockwood (Nobody is Talking About This), who have channelled their more ambivalent concerns about Twitter, Instagram et al at a more stylistic level.

Novelist Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From The Goon Squad (Pieter M. Van Hattem)
Novelist Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize for A Visit From The Goon Squad (Pieter M. Van Hattem)

Entering the fray, at least in part, comes Jennifer Egan, whose novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2011 and contained a fair dollop of technology anxiety itself – chiefly around the impact the internet was having on the music industry. If that seems a rather quaint concern today, the science fiction elements of her new novel The Candy House are, like Eggers, somewhat more full throttled. In it, another Facebook-like company – this one called Mandala – has developed something called the Collection Consciousness, a cloud network into which people voluntarily upload their entire memories, which other people can experience via a virtual reality headset.

Egan explores this more at an individual than societal level. One of The Candy House’s most affecting chapters follows Roxy, a recovering addict who revisits a rare happy memory from her childhood – a trip to London with her largely estranged father – from his perspective. As she applies sensors to her scalp and enters ‘a swarm of memories like dust roused by vigorous cleaning’, Roxy suffers the heartbreak of learning that, for him, the holiday was less of a cherished memory that something of a chore. A memory that once helped protect her from the painful truth of their relationship becomes yet another reinforcement of it. “We tell ourselves stories in order to live”, the well-worn Joan Didion quote goes; here, Egan considers the perils of further surrendering our ability to make our own myths to the internet.

The Candy House is a patchwork of narratives that explore discomfort with the lightning speed and dehumanising impact of technology (Little, Brown)
The Candy House is a patchwork of narratives that explore discomfort with the lightning speed and dehumanising impact of technology (Little, Brown)

The Candy House is being described by its publishers as a ‘sibling novel’ to A Visit from the Goon Squad. An unusual euphemism – it’s a sequel, essentially, picking up the thread of several of the novel’s characters – but one designed to promise readers a shared DNA (Egan’s only other novel since, Manhattan Beach, was a well-received departure into historical fiction).

One reason Goon Squad is remembered as one of the best novels of its decade, and arguably the century so far, is its virtuoso experiments with form; chapters sift through tense, tone and styles but somehow hang together as a beautiful mosaic. One famous chapter, told purely in Power Point slides, was so successful it seemed to single-handedly alleviate fears about how novel writing could survive the digital age.

The Candy House makes similar attempts to innovate. There’s a spy story told from the perspective of a military brain implant that reads a bit like a Jack Reader pastiche, and more prosaically, a 52-page chapter told entirely in emails. Both drag a little and feel superfluous; it’s as though Egan, in her determination to recapture the freewheeling spirit of Goon Squad, is doing something different for different’s sake.

But elsewhere the old magic is successfully recaptured, and for long stretches, The Candy House is just as compelling as its predecessor. Another standout chapter, called ‘The Mystery of Our Mother’, charts a tumultuous marriage through the eyes of two young sisters, revisiting a familiar Egan world of rock and roll excess. There are memorable characters such as Alfred, a Holden Caulfield-type who develops a tic of screaming at strangers in public when he senses they are being inauthentic, and some brilliantly executed scenes, including one in which a man’s life reaches crisis point while on a hot air balloon ride over the desert.

How these characters and events all relate back to the cast of Goon Squad is too complicated to explain here, but it’s fair to say the patchwork of narratives in The Candy House doesn’t knit together with quite the same brilliance. In the first book, Egan’s characters were united by the melancholy that arises when our expectations of life are betrayed the realities of middle age. Time – the goon of the title – was an enemy Egan grappled with uncanny insight. If the candy house here refers to the powerful allure of the internet and social media, then Egan is less sure-footed about the dangers of where it may be leading us. But she is hardly alone in that, and The Candy House mounts as strong a case as any novel from the past decade for using fiction as a way to try and figure it all out.

The Candy House is out on 28 April (£20, Little, Brown)

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