Jennifer Egan’s new book, “The Candy House,” which she’s called a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is a dizzying and dazzling work that should end up on many Best of the Year lists. Even more structurally experimental than its predecessor, the novel unfolds from a slew of perspectives and in a wide range of styles as it ruminates on the allure and perils of technology and social media, bids for intimacy and threats to privacy, the fragility of identity, and the yearning for authenticity in a world of pretenders and simulacra.
“The Candy House” begins in 2010 from the perspective of Bix Bouton, who was an NYU classmate of “Goon Squad” character Sasha. Once “the only Black Ph.D. student in NYU’s engineering lab,” Bix has become an immensely wealthy tech guru who’s developed a social media company called Mandala. Disconnected from his wife and children, fearful that he may never have another brilliant idea, Bix is feeling nostalgic for the early ‘90s when the Internet was new and he was in the “thrall of his Vision, which burned with hypnotic clarity.” Then, he “could feel the vibrations of an invisible web of connection forcing its way through the familiar world like cracks in a windshield.”
Now disillusioned and disaffected, Bix has become so famous that he has to go incognito — posing as a graduate student — in order to attend a Columbia University discussion group about a lecture by anthropologist Miranda Kline, whose book, “Patterns of Affinity,” had been crucial to him as he developed Mandala. There he hears people lament that “Kline is better known for having had her work co-opted by social media companies than for the work itself,” meets a sociology graduate student named Rebecca Amari, and starts to ponder a new invention.
The book’s next section is narrated by Amari, who is studying Alfred Hollander, the son of the discussion group’s host, and his “intolerance of fakery” as part of her research for her dissertation, “Authenticity as problematized by digital experience.” Alfred’s brother, Miles, is one of the narrators of the third section, along with his cousin, Drew, who is married to Sasha, a conceptual artist. And so on and so on. Each section is linked to the previous one through a character’s relative or friend.
Galvanized by references to “externalizing” memory in the discussion group, haunted by the tragic death of a friend, Bix develops the sci-fi-sounding app “Own Your Unconscious,” which enables people to “externalize” their “consciousness to a Mandala cube.” Its “ancillary feature,” Collective Consciousness, involves “uploading all or part of your externalized memory to an online ‘collective,’ which gives you “proportionate access to the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone, living or dead, who had done the same.”
Many of the novel’s characters flock to this technological marvel, in search of lost time, perspective on their own lives, understanding of or forgiveness for their elusive, mysterious, flawed parents. But others — “eluding separatists bent upon hoarding their memories and keeping their secrets” — fiercely resist technology’s encroachments, seek “genuine human responses,” and pursue authenticity in extreme, risky, or socially unacceptable ways. Some of these resistors use “proxies” to stand in for them as they disappear, escape, or drop out. Some organize a countermovement called Mondrian. Bix’s own son, Gregory, is one of the most passionate “eluders,” in part because he thinks that “Own Your Unconscious posed an existential threat to fiction.”
Addiction and mental illness, infidelity and divorce, role playing games and role playing in “real life,” what can be quantified and what exceeds categorization — these topics and themes resonate through all the sections but are refracted through different prisms. There are third-person sections, first-person narratives, and one section told entirely in message form (a stylistic choice reminiscent of the Power Point chapter from “Goon Squad”). There is present tense narration and past tense narration, child narrators and older people looking back on their youthful adventures or follies. Some sections are set in the pre-Internet times, others in the 2030s; we jump back and forth in time throughout.
If this sounds confusing, it is; “The Candy House” requires exquisite attentiveness and extensive effort from its readers. But the work and the investment pay off richly, as each strain and thread and character reverberates in a kind of amplifying echo-wave with all the others, and the overarching tapestry emerges as ever more intricate and brilliantly conceived. Enacting the book’s dominant metaphor, Egan is presenting a version of Collective Consciousness: the blending and extension of selfhood across shared experience and identity. One of the book’s most fascinating implications, less patent but pervasive, is how this alternative model of perception does and doesn’t undermine traditional notions of literary consciousness. Is Egan, in de-structuring her novel in this kaleidoscopic, hyper-modern mode, rendering, as Gregory might lament, her own fiction untenable? What could such a question even mean when the fiction called “The Candy House is so plainly” — and so well — constructed?
The novel’s title is a reference to the witch’s house that Hansel and Gretel encounter as they wander in the woods. As we follow the pebbles and crumbs Egan so cannily lays out, readers may feel at times as disoriented or wonderstruck as children making their way through a dark forest, at others electrifyingly clear-sighted, ecstatically certain of the novel’s wisdom, capacious philosophical range, truth and beauty. Charged with “a potency of ideas simmering,” “The Candy House” is a marvel of a novel that testifies to the surpassing power of fiction to “roam with absolute freedom through the human collective.”
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 352 pages, $28
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”