The Candy House, Jennifer Egan’s companion to her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), appears to be part of the trend for fiction premised on interventions – computational, pharmaceutical, viral – in human memory. It’s also something of an anomaly. In A Visit from the Goon Squad, the characters stand on the precipice of the digital age and long to return to the past; in The Candy House, now firmly in the brave new world, the characters – many of whom we met in the earlier book – find that they can return. All the familiar technologies are present: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, bitcoin. But there’s also a new service, Own Your Unconscious. This allows users to upload their memories onto a device called the Consciousness Cube, where they can rewatch past experiences as if they were streaming TV, fast-forwarding through the boring bits or muting the sound. They can edit these externalised memories with MemoryShop software, excising traumatic events before they ‘reinternalise’ the memories and replace the originals. They can also deposit them anonymously in a crowdsourced repository called the Collective Consciousness, where they can access other people’s memories.
The Consciousness Cube takes our anxieties about depositing our memories in web-connected devices and the cloud to their logical extreme. Egan has chosen to illustrate this rather literally, with what is effectively a direct brain to hard drive transfer. This is a reflection, perhaps, of the fact that computation has become the standard metaphor for the brain (and the brain the standard metaphor for computation), with the language of digital life – uploading and downloading, storing and processing – giving shape to our models of memory and cognition, and vice versa.
Unlike other recent novels orbiting the same themes, The Candy House doesn’t really conform to what we expect from speculative fiction. The drama usually turns on a bad bargain made by the protagonist – trading too little knowledge for too much, or trading one problem for unforeseen others. Egan’s second novel, Look at Me, fits into this category: Charlotte, an impetuous, self-obsessed model left unrecognisable after a car crash, sells the rights to her life story, and later her identity, to the founder of Ordinary People, a website that hosts individualised pages (called PersonalSpaces) with ‘Photographs … Childhood Memories. Dreams. Diary Entries’. Published in 2001, before Facebook or MySpace, Look at Me satirises the contemporary obsession with image, predicting – accurately – its development after the advent of Web 2.0. The Candy House, meanwhile, is set partly in the future, yet seems to be animated not by what might happen but by what already has. It’s an ambivalent but not unoptimistic portrayal: Egan doesn’t try to pick out the most terrifying implications and use them to drive the narrative, but instead weighs our fears about technology against our capacity to adapt to enormous change.
The novel opens in 2010 with Bix Bouton, one of the minor characters from A Visit from the Goon Squad. In that book, Bix is a PhD student in engineering whose girlfriend, Lizzie, won’t let him sleep in their apartment when her parents are in town. Bix is Black; Lizzie’s parents are white and Texan (her parents ‘would just know’). In The Candy House, Bix and Lizzie are married with four children. But he’s nostalgic for his graduate student days and the pot-fuelled conversations he used to overhear between Lizzie and her friends: ‘How is love different from lust? Does evil exist?’ He doesn’t miss the conversations themselves so much as the feeling he had while listening to them. ‘Lizzie and her friends barely knew what the internet was in 1992, but Bix could feel the vibrations of an invisible web of connection forcing its way through the familiar world like cracks riddling a windshield.’ This ‘vision’, as he calls it, became Mandala: a social media firm with an expansionist attitude to real estate (much of Manhattan’s West Side is renamed ‘MALANDA, for Mandala-land’), branding that connotes Silicon Valley spirituality, and product design notable for its use of a ‘distinctive glyph’. With his vision effectively realised, Bix has been waiting for something new to take its place, but he’s plagued by a ‘void that harried and appalled him’. It’s this yearning for the past that prompts him to join an academic discussion group, where the idea for Own Your Unconscious is born.
The Candy House then shifts its focus, picking up the non-chronological, network-like structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad: each chapter is effectively a short story devoted to a different character, and each character is connected, through work or social life or family, to someone in the previous chapter; the stories themselves are set anywhere between the 1960s and the 2030s. It also shares the earlier novel’s promiscuous use of narrative voices and genres. Some of these experiments are more successful than others. Here’s Molly in 2011. She appeared in an earlier chapter set in 2025 as a twenty-something ‘meek and tentative pleaser’ who, with her childhood friend Chris Salazar, leads Dungeons & Dragons games at drug recovery centres in San Francisco. But this chapter deals with operatic adolescent friendships:
Just now at the Snack Shack I was waiting with Stella and Iona for grilled cheese sandwiches and Chris Salazar and Colin Bingham walked by and Stella and Iona SMILED AT EACH OTHER SECRETLY and when I tried to share that smile they both looked away TRYING NOT TO LAUGH which means Stella is HAVING PRIVATE FACEBOOK CHATS WITHOUT ME about Chris Salazar who she has liked forever.
The lack of punctuation and the use of capital letters project an unsteady voice that is sometimes wearying to read: a decent imitation of a monologue by a 13-year-old girl.
Here’s an extract from a chapter presented as a dissertation on authenticity in the digital age: ‘Over latkes and hot apple tea at Veselka, Alfred explained his screaming project. Kristen’s enormous pale blue eyes blinked at him like the wide-open beaks of baby birds as she listened. She was 24, still in the adventure phase of her move to New York City to work for a graphic design firm. Alfred was almost 29.’ The description of the meal, the eyes like the ‘beaks of baby birds’, don’t resemble conventional scholarship. But Egan tries to get round this by having the essay’s author describe it as ‘hybrid and unorthodox’. (Her books are full of academics: they’re a means of smuggling in reflexive commentary.) There’s also a chapter written as a direct-message relay between a cluster of characters – an internet epistolary – as well as a spy thriller written in tweets. We know they’re tweets because they were posted one at a time on the New Yorker’s Twitter feed in 2012, then published together in the magazine. But the language carries none of the informality, the abbreviations, subterfuge or casual sanctimony that we associate with Twitter, and you can read the story, as I did, without recognising its origin to no detriment.
Egan has said that she invented the Consciousness Cube so that her narrator could credibly know everything about everyone. (She used this kind of invasive omniscience in A Visit from the Goon Squad, without a similar device or rationale.) But the technology only once becomes central to the narration. A chapter called ‘What the Forest Remembers’ begins in June 1965 with four San Francisco bankers wandering through a redwood forest. A third-person voice tells us they are husbands and fathers; that all of them like to drink; that when they ‘throw back their heads to search the sunlight for the trees’ pointed tips, they grow dizzy’. The men have just smoked marijuana for the first time, sold by some ‘bohemians’ with a taste for Simon & Garfunkel. ‘How can I possibly know all this?’ the narrator interjects. It’s Charlie, the daughter of one of the men. She can describe these events, of course, because of the Collective Consciousness.
The roaming omniscience isn’t a distraction. After all, it happens all the time on screen. Egan has spoken of A Visit from the Goon Squad’s debt to The Sopranos – to the way the series moved between private life and public life, between affirming banalities and making subtle distinctions. ‘Tony Soprano is a total thug in a way that’s almost clichéd,’ she told the Washington Post in 2010, ‘and yet we’re catapulted into his inner life and can see that he’s very individual and distinct.’ There are characters in The Candy House who would make easy villains: Bix, the founder of Mandala, is the obvious analogue to Tony Soprano. Does anyone care about the plight of Elon Musk? Jeff Bezos? Mark Zuckerberg? Egan dated Steve Jobs for a year as an undergraduate, so she might care more than most. There’s also Lincoln, a ‘counter’ – Egan’s name for the data collectors who quantify the memories in the Collective Consciousness, ‘lending, leasing and selling it to other entities who use it in ways enormously profitable to themselves’. He trusts in the goodness of what he does, and in its inevitability. But Bix and Lincoln are both sympathetic: Bix an earnest father, his early internet utopianism driven by his ‘comically naive’ belief that it would deliver Black people ‘from the hatred that hemmed and stymied them in the physical world’; Lincoln a man on the autism spectrum who maps predictive formulas for the likelihood that a conversation will be awkward. (In A Visit from the Goon Squad’s PowerPoint presentation chapter, Lincoln is the 13-year-old obsessed with ‘great pauses’ in rock songs.)
Despite their failings, the characters are well intentioned: the corporate lawyer who leans a little too hard on pharmaceuticals; the housewife obsessed with the line between her neighbour’s yard and her own; the rich kid who never made good on her potential and is now, at 57, a regular at a methadone clinic. They’re types, but Egan gives them unexpected motives and desires. When Noreen, the housewife, meets her neighbour at a cocktail party she consoles him: he’s been hiding upstairs, worried about running into an ex. We learn later that this is the start of an enduring friendship. Their stories are redemptive: their mistakes, if we hear about them, are mostly in the past. The tone of the book is bright, upbeat.
The Candy House doesn’t spend much time representing an externalised consciousness or the experience of what it’s like to encounter one. But there are occasional glimmers. The ‘intimate flux’ of Lou Kline’s thoughts on the morning of his trip to London with his daughter Roxy – Charlie’s half-sister; Kline was one of the men in the forest – is a comic assemblage of mundanities, distant sensory impressions, emotions and drives. We encounter his stream of consciousness from an older Roxy’s perspective.
Jocelyn, his strung-out girlfriend, spread-eagled in bed; a loop of electric guitar chords; an itch on his balls; a lawnmower buzz from somewhere; a yen for an avocado-and-Jack sandwich; a wish that he could go to London without Roxy; a seizure of regret at having invited her to come with him – all subsumed by a spasm of rage when he spotted Bowser taking a shit by the pool.
Roxy sits watching her father, ‘numb and horrified, thinking she might vomit, or die’. She had always thought he’d taken her to London to show her off; now she found out he’d taken her as an educational experience. But we never find out whether this knowledge takes root in her psyche, whether it affects her fears and desires. She uploads the contents of her own mind to a Consciousness Cube. She ‘experiences a swarm of memories’, including one of the final day of that London trip: a happy dinner at a fancy French restaurant and a walk in the park. She decides not to revisit her past in its unfiltered state: how could it ever ‘improve on the story her memory has made’.
Elsewhere, Egan describes some of the more helpful effects of the Consciousness Cube: crimes solved, missing persons found, dying languages preserved, a reduction in Alzheimer’s and dementia. But not everyone is convinced. A group of people known as the ‘eluders’ insist on ‘the deeply private nature of human experience’ and ‘rail against the invasiveness of data gathering and manipulation’. They disappear from online life by hiring a ‘proxy’ – either a ‘live professional’ (‘usually fiction writers’) or a ‘hermit crab program’ (presumably software). Egan doesn’t really explain how this works, but it seems that proxies might drop memes into the family text thread, order Uber Eats, and shitpost on your behalf – with varying degrees of success. Attempts to mimic an eluder’s sense of humour often give proxies away. One character likens the eluders to ‘trapped animals gnawing off their own legs’, but Egan doesn’t say much about what motivates them to leave their identities behind. The grievance seems to be generational: it’s ‘the boomers’ who view ‘Mandala’s “memorevolution” with existential horror’. But what the eluders gain by hiring a proxy remains a little mysterious. So long as they live on in the memories of others, they’ll continue to exist in the Collective Consciousness.
In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan explored the threat the digital world might pose to culture and aesthetics, mostly in terms of the music industry. Digitisation ‘sucked the life out of everything that got smeared through its microscopic mesh’, says Bennie Salazar, a record executive. ‘An aesthetic holocaust!’ In The Candy House, these fears are projected onto literature. Bix’s son Gregory, an MFA graduate, is concerned that Own Your Unconscious poses an ‘existential threat to fiction’. If people’s private lives and inner thoughts were available to watch as content, would novels become obsolete? Egan doesn’t seem worried: ‘Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.’