Sue de Groot reviews Jennifer Egan's 'The Candy House'
The Candy House ★★★★★
Jennifer Egan’s new novel skips joyfully back and forth between characters, plots and timelines at a hair-raising pace. It’s a bit like doing late-night research on the internet, when you spot something of peripheral interest on one site and go to that page, which offers something else you want to look at, and so on, until you have wandered so far from your starting point that you can’t recall what it was you were looking for in the first place.
Egan contrives to keep all the ends together, although when I get to a second reading (it’s that good) I’m going to keep notes of family trees and dates to try and work out how she did it (it’s that clever).
In an interview at the Mississippi book festival earlier this month, Egan said: “I was in my 30s before I ever got online. It’s really refreshing to imagine in the pre-internet period. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the internet. It does a million things for us, and it was a big help to me imaginatively in The Candy House, but the fact that all roads lead there just closes off a lot of dramatic possibilities.”
Technology is at the heart of this book, but although it can be classed as “speculative fiction”, it feels entirely real. One of the characters, Miranda Kline, is an anthropologist famous for mapping: “'the genome of human inclinations’ and creating algorithms for predicting behaviour”. Egan writes: “She’d become famous for giving social media companies the means to monetise their business back when that was new, although she took no pride in it.”
That sounds perfectly feasible in today’s world, but in another plot line, those dubbed “eluders” are trying to disappear from the virtual world in which their every action and reaction is “counted”. The counters spend much time trying to hunt down fake identities in cyberspace. Unlike our bots and trolls, these have been created and left behind by those who wish to live their lives unseen by anyone else.
As one of Egan’s programmers points out, however, this is a futile exercise, because as the group of eluders grows, so does the potential for aggregating and selling their information, because breakaway systems inevitably become mainstream systems.
“... And so the eluders will find themselves, once again, accounted for — in other words, right back where they started. They will vacate their identities and form a new secret network, thus seceding into yet another parallel invisible nation where, they believe, they will at last be free. And the same thing will happen. And the same thing will happen. And the same thing will happen.”
While that might sound a bit depressing, the plot twists around this theme make The Candy House far more thrilling than you might expect.
In a time not far from our own, a cube has been created into which one can download and review all one’s memories and conscious experiences. Marketed as “Own Your Unconscious”, this becomes hugely profitable, and it is almost inevitable that at a later time the “Collective” comes into being, a vast storage network that holds all memories permitted by their holders to be uploaded into common space.
This is not only for voyeurs. The PR for the initiative claims: “tens of thousands of crimes solved; child pornography all but eradicated; Alzheimer's and dementia sharply reduced by reinfusions of saved healthy consciousness; dying languages preserved and revived; a legion of missing persons found; and a global rise in empathy that accompanied a drastic decline in purist orthodoxies — which, people now knew, having roamed the odd, twisting corridors of one another’s minds, had always been hypocritical”.
There is another thread that will sound all too familiar to today’s artists fighting for copyright in a world where almost everything is free to download.
Two daughters trying to save their father’s eroded musical career: “contemplated a nationwide billboard campaign to remind people of that eternal law, Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free. Why could nobody see this?”
Later, the tables turn again and pre-technology tools are used in an attempt to reignite another artist’s faded star. His imaginative producer says: “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.”
Still on nostalgia, Egan takes us back to pre-internet times with some touching vignettes, including this scene at a junior baseball game in 1991: “No one in this crowd has ever seen a portable phone, which gives to this moment the quality of a pause. All these parents gathered in the fading light, and not a single face underlit by a bluish glow! They’re all here, in one place, their attention burning towards home plate.”
And through it all, mostly unobserved, is the idea of fiction as what ties everything together. The novelist character has a revelation in a snowstorm, where he feels connected to all souls past and future: “He was feeling the Collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.”
In the Mississippi discussion, Egan said: “Fiction is the only narrative art form that takes us authentically inside the minds and points of view of other people. If you are staring at a picture, you are, by definition, having the opposite experience. You are on the outside, anything the human in that picture tells you is performative. So I would argue that fiction still does something no other narrative art form can do.”
According to another character in The Candy House: “knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information”.
This merry swirl of a novel is enormously entertaining but also slightly chilling, given that we are possibly not all that far away from being subject to something like the Collective. To quote Egan again: “My assumption was that such a machine could not exist because we don’t understand the brain well enough, but people have been telling me since The Candy House came out that I’m actually wrong and that we are closer to that than I think. That is truly horrifying.”