A candy house is just what it sounds like—a house made of candy to entice the young. They thought the candy was free, but it has a price. In Jennifer Egan’s sprawling new novel, “The Candy House,” a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” that metaphorical house is a piece of technology called “Own Your Own Subconscious.” “By uploading all or part of your externalized memory to an online ‘collective’ you gained proportionate access to the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone in the world, living or dead, who had done the same.” In this post-privacy world, only a few maintain their right not to share every thought and experience they ever had. This new technology is, in effect, the opposite of what we have in today’s social media, where users (us!) try to put the most glamorous version of our lives online for public consumption.
Reading “A Visit From the Goon Squad” shouldn’t be a prerequisite for Egan’s latest offering, but it wouldn’t hurt. This reviewer wishes she had indulged in a quick re-read, just to keep the many characters straight. Undoubtedly, readers will have favorites that they remember from that decade-old book—for me, it was the lovable child, Lincoln, of the famous, unexpectedly emotional “power-point chapter,” and of course, La Doll, the publicist who tried to improve the image of a genocidal general. Many characters return, and, in some cases, their children. Egan continues to delight in her inventive use of narrative form. Characters might occupy whole chapters and perhaps never be seen again, however much you might like to know the rest of their story. She cleverly threads everyone together, either by blood or marriage or the long fingers of Lou’s career, or by sparking an idea or filling an empty hole of yearning. So many of her characters are searching for a place of belonging, often using the Consciousness Cube as a means to locate a distant memory where they felt truly loved. Nostalgia runs deep for this group, as it does for us all. Bennie Salazar, a music executive, goes so far to say “Tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is merely the portal, the candy house, if you will, through which we hope to lure in a new generation and bewitch them.” Bennie is happy to take advantage of the human desire to recapture the past by relaunching a band that broke up decades ago, but he also helps us pause and consider the ramifications of nostalgia. What do we lose when we lean into its warm embrace?
Authenticity has a high value in this ever-so-slightly futuristic world. “Social media was dead, everyone agreed; self-representations were inherently narcissistic or propagandic or both and grossly inauthentic.” Alfred Hollander’s method of finding authenticity is to scream in crowds (trains, elevators) for the pleasure of watching those nearby react without the carefully designed masks they usually carry. Without filters, in other words. Alfred, like a Holden Caulfield for our age, has been crusading against phonies since he was a child. “By age nine, Alfred’s intolerance of fakery had jumped the life/art barrier and entered the everyday world. He’d looked behind the curtain and seen the ways people played themselves, or—more insidiously—versions of themselves they’d cribbed from TV: Harried Mom. Sheepish Dad. Stern Teacher. Encouraging Coach.” Alfred releases one of his primal screams on a bus in Chicago (local readers will not be surprised that this action is quickly squelched by the unperturbed driver). As Egan unravels the importance of authenticity with a technology that feels all too feasible, what really stands out are the integral connections these people long to create. This fiercely intellectual book is full of heart, love and redemption. (Kelly Roark)
“The Candy House”
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 352 pages