Halfway through Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House,” you might wonder, “Why don’t the novels come with an index?” A “sister novel” – by Egan – to its Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad”, this book takes a similar form, with a considerable number of closely related characters passing through different configurations in interwoven stories unfolding in the recent past and not-so-distant future and told in a dizzying variety of ways.
Some characters from “Goon Squad” reappear here, but perhaps more importantly is the passing appearance of someone from Egan’s 2001 novel, “Look at Me.” To the point, because this startlingly prescient novel anticipated the conundrum of digital reality, with a model selling her reimagined self online to viewers in search of “authenticity” – and the question of authenticity is at the heart of “ The Candy House,” which further speculates on the digital line, at a time when people can “outsource” and record and share their experience and memories.
When we meet Bix Button, he’s already a “world-first-named tech demigod,” having started a social media company called Mandala, based on (some say stolen) “formulas to predict inclinations. human beings” of an anthropologist. exhibited in his book “Patterns of Affinity”. His next big idea is Owning Your Unconscious – this externalization of memory that can then be uploaded into the collective unconscious.
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As we progress through the book and back in time, we see the anthropologist’s daughters encounter the notion of sharing music via Napster. “Once the internet was inside your computer and crawling through your music, what else would it decide to watch?” one of them asks, incredulous. “Nobody would be stupid enough to do that.” Thus, the book’s world and families are divided between those who embrace technology, embodied by senior empiricist and metrics expert, Lincoln, who tells his own love story in the fun and touching form of analyzing data ; and those who avoid it, like the people of Mondrian, whose job is to help the “escapees” of the Collective Unconscious.
The question is how people frame their experience, whether it can be quantified or shared. As Charlie puts it, after extracting one of his father’s stories from the Collective Unconscious: “My problem is the same as anyone who gathers information: what to do with it? How to sort it, shape it and use it?
“The Candy House” responds in multiple ways: Lincoln’s and Charlie’s; the game of Dungeons & Dragons, with one player, whose character is a spy, later telling his true spy story in the form of “field instructions”; an extended exchange of messages that tells a story while cleverly revealing the story behind it.
Everyone has their own language, their own tropes and terms, which Egan somehow manages to use and broach at the same time, while maintaining the mystery that makes each person unique and worth knowing. .
As she puts it, near the deliciously moving conclusion of “The Candy House,” “Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; no story, this is just information.