Head in the cloud
Egan’s sprawling new novel navigates technology’s impact on contemporary life
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New Yorker Jennifer Egan’s sixth novel begins with a young white mother, Lizzie Bouton, breastfeeding her three-year-old son, Gregory. Her Black husband Bix mutters “We’ve got to wean this kid,” and Gregory objects, saying, “No, I don’t want to.”
This timelessly human scene is a beautifully ironic way to begin a novel that focuses mostly on how technology is taking over contemporary life. Bix Bouton is the genius founder of Mandala, source of the wildly successful Own Your Consciousness, with which one can refer back to all one’s previous thoughts.
After her more standard previous novel, 2017’s Manhattan Beach, Egan returns to the often playful, often complex format of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. Frequently funny and always surprising, The Candy House offers a wide variety of concepts, episodes and characters, as well as many different ways of presenting the narrative — first-person point of view, third-person, exchanges of emails, a series of tweets.
The time frame can change back and forth, from the 1960s to 2035 and anywhere in between. There are so many different characters at different stages of their lives that a “Who’s who” list, indicating who is related to whom, would be helpful to the reader.
Bix, who is so famous that he sometimes goes out in disguise, appears mainly in the early stages of the book, but his technological achievements influence many. Miles Hollander has used Mandala’s Collective Consciousness and explains that “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.” Miles also used Mandala’s “Hey, Whatever Happened to…” to track down a drug dealer.
Sub-plots abound: Alfred Hollander can’t stand the fakery of people — they play versions of characters they see on TV. Through crowdsourcing, Lincoln calculates his chances of securing M’s love. A doctor named Drew organizes his decision-making into a three-step protocol. Noreen becomes paranoid about the author-brother of her next door neighbour.
Egan makes the technical aspects of the novel completely accessible. At the same time, she offers dialogue that sounds refreshingly authentic. Here is 13-year-old Molly (Noreen’s daughter): “Before, when my family lived next door to the Salazars, Stella was like Molly, do you ever see Chris Salazar inside his house? and I was like No there are trees between our houses and she was like Well, do you know where his room is? And for some reason I was like No, but I did know from a cocktail party I went to Before, when we lived next door.”
Some of the characters, like Sasha and Alison, appeared in Goon Squad. In that novel, Egan had Alison give a slide presentation that filled 76 pages, speeding up one’s reading of the book not far from the end. In The Candy House, 52 pages of email exchanges have the same effect. Here’s part of one between actress Kitty and her assistant Ashleigh:
“Kitty to Ashleigh: Lmk [Let me know] when tantrum ends. Asking myself if I really need an assistant, esp. one who knows nothing about dressage?
“Kitty to Ashleigh: Hell-oo-ooo. Still tantruming?
“Kitty to Ashleigh: Asking myself: if we’re not speaking anymore, why am I paying you?
“Ashleigh to Kitty: Because no one else would put up with your sorry ass.
“Kitty to Ashleigh: I love you, too.”
Earlier in the book, there are 33 pages of Lulu’s tweets, many of which sound like aphorisms. Two examples:
“Turning your ear toward your host’s mouth will save you from having to smell his breath.”
“Ears must be kept clean at all times.”
There are far too many sub-plots to summarize, but The Candy House is both thought-provoking and entertaining throughout. Jennifer Egan just might be the most innovative novelist in the United States.
Dave Williamson is the Winnipeg author of 10 books, including six novels.