Tech utopia: Steve Jobs in 1984 © Michael L Abramson/Getty Images

The Candy House: A playful novel about tech changing the world

Jennifer Egan's new novel charts how a tech visionary’s invention upends the world
May 12, 2022
The Candy House
Jennifer Egan
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As an undergraduate, the American writer Jennifer Egan dated a young Steve Jobs, who apparently installed an early Macintosh computer in her bedroom. Interviewed recently about her exhilarating, deeply pleasurable new novel, The Candy House, which tackles the end of privacy in the digital age, Egan commented that “it’s always very useful for me to remember that these devices often have a very utopian vision… by the time the technology reaches the consumer, it’s easy to impute a kind of malice or cynicism to the inventors.” 

There may—or may not—be an element of Jobs in Bix Bouton, a minor character from Egan’s 2011 novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, who reappears as a tech visionary at the start of The Candy House. In Goon Squad, Bix studied engineering in New York’s East Village in the 1990s, pre-urban renewal. In The Candy House, he is CEO of internet behemoth Mandala and one of the most famous people on the planet. Bix walks the streets of his old neighbourhood at night, in disguise, desperate to discover his next “utopian vision.” Although he appears only fleetingly in the novel, Bix—and his subsequent invention—turn out to be the book’s major catalyst.

Bix’s creation, “Own Your Unconscious,” accords individuals the ability to manifest their consciousnesses onto a device called the Cube. As an “ancillary feature,” there is also the “Collective Consciousness,” in which “all or part of your externalised memory” can be uploaded online. Subscribers can gain admittance to “the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone in the world, living or dead, who had done the same.” The Candy House explores the powerful effect this enticing and entirely believable contrivance has on both adopters and refuseniks—known as “eluders,” one of whom is Bix’s son, Gregory. 

The novel is a loose sequel—although it can also be read as a standalone work—to Goon Squad, the book that catapulted Egan out of being a well-reviewed but unclassifiable author into superstar novelist status. Goon Squad’s 13 ingeniously dovetailing stories are frenetic, episodic and all connected in apparently disparate yet essential ways, emphasising an acute awareness of the passing of the years, with music a shared endeavour and a prominent focus. The whole thing leapt back and forth in time and place like an elegant dance sequence, and won Egan a Pulitzer Prize.

Most of the figures in Goon Squad return in The Candy House, as do its different timeframes and locations: mid-1960s and late 1970s San Francisco; upstate New York and the Chicago lakes in the 1990s; Manhattan in the early 2000s. Temporally, The Candy House moves around within these periods as well as onwards into the present (it touches on the pandemic) and up to the 2030s. Those who dominated the earlier work, such as hedonistic music producer Lou Kline and his once-protégé, jaded punk rocker Bennie Salazar, appear like special guest stars; but by and large these characters are succeeded by the stories of their children.

What is authentic in an online world where you can be anyone and which offers so many alternatives?

Egan’s principal theme is validity. What is authentic in an online world where you can be anyone and which offers so many alternatives? Alfred, a mordant, anti-social son of art history professor Ted Hollander practises his “authenticity” by screaming—loudly and for prolonged periods—in public. As Alfred explains: “I put up with negative attention for something else that matters more… genuine human responses rather than the made-up crap we serve each other all day long. I’ve sacrificed everything for that. I think it’s worth it.”

The novel’s title evokes the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel and its dangerous gingerbread cottage. Drugs and addicts loom large; lives crash, burn to cinders and are often miraculously resurrected or just as randomly destroyed. Alfred’s older brother Miles, a can-do-no-wrong-since-childhood Chicago lawyer, shockingly unravels in the space of three dramatic pages: a chapter or so later, with daredevil plotting, he somehow puts himself together again.

The book pulsates with intense engagement, empathy and humour, as well as a bittersweet nostalgia. Roxy, a recovering addict, attempts to work out her issues with her late father, the much—married Lou Kline, when, in her fifties and about to relapse, she is catapulted via the Collective Consciousness back to a trip to London she took as a teenager with him in 1984—a moment of radiance that marked the beginning of her fall. 

More menacingly, in terms of how far technology can inhabit and undermine humanity, a tense passage relayed in the manner of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” tale presents Lulu, daughter of hapless Dolly from Goon Squad and now a “Citizen Agent” or spy. Lulu has a sinister “weevil” implanted in her brain, an instruction device that enables her to carry out a perilous mission from which she may not return. Egan is no stranger to such bold flourishes—Goon Squad contained a 70-page chapter written in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. The Candy House, similarly, uses email exchanges and tweets alongside more formal narrative techniques to consolidate Egan’s adventurous conceptualisations. Comparisons can be found with other recent fiction examining the online phenomenon of identity and the anxiety and discombobulation caused by social media—such as Olivia Sudjic’s Sympathy, Patricia Lockwood’s No One is Talking About This and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts.

Towards the end of The Candy House, Bix’s son, a would-be novelist who has rejected his father’s money as well as his technological innovations, asserts that: “technology, wealth, fame—to Gregory these were features of a world where the things that mattered to him, namely books and writing, counted for nothing… nothing could change Gregory’s belief that Own Your Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction.” Egan’s triumph is a reminder that there is a persuasive, potent collective that already exists without computerised manipulation, its power generated through the shared action of telling stories.