The Candy House by Jennifer Egan
What is most frightening about the imagined conscious-sharing technology in The Candy House (2022) is that it’s not so far off from our own reality. ‘Own Your Unconscious’ is a futuristic cube that allows users to access and share every memory they’ve ever had, alongside the thoughts and feelings that go with them. Parents can access the minds of their children, lovers, their partners’ – siblings, students, colleagues – you name it. And because it’s possible to upload your memories for public access, it’s also possible to locate people through others’ memories. That person you met at a bar for one night in your twenties? Through the collective memory of ‘Own Your Unconscious,’ you can trace them. This is the heady premise on which Jennifer Egan‘s companion novel to the Pulitzer prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010) is based.
But whilst sharing access to every memory you’ve ever had might initially seem implausibly futuristic, is it so far from the world we inhabit today? Social media means that people’s thoughts are broadcast as they have them; photos are shared moments after they’re taken. Egan’s premise is an exaggeration, yes, but it’s not so alien from the shifting technological landscape we’re currently in.
The book opens with a familiar face: Bix Boulton (you’ll recognise him from A Visit from the Goon Squad) is now an eye-wateringly successful tech billionaire on the hunt for a new idea. One night, he joins a group of academics in the hope he’ll find inspiration and, lo and behold, it comes. But what also comes is the start of an interconnected web of intricate stories, all linking to one another and all, seemingly, with Bix and his conscious-sharing cube at their centre.
Despite the popularity and ubiquity of ‘Own Your Unconscious,’ not everyone is sold on the new technology. People known as Eluders reject Bix’s invention and try to live off-grid, whilst other characters, though not eschewing the technology completely, are certainly sceptical (Bix’s own son being one of them). Through these outliers, Egan explores the effect of rapidly developing technology on current society as well as the individual.
The structure of the book is similar to that of A Visit From the Good Squad: multiple interlinked narratives with overlapping characters that also function, in their own way, as short stories. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of the characters appearing and reappearing throughout the book, and the plot lines can feel a little overly complex. There are complicated shifting allegiances within tech companies where insiders are helping the Eluders, which can be hard to follow and, in these cases, the reveal doesn’t always pay off: instead of an aha moment, readers are left trying to figure out what just happened.
There are also times when it becomes difficult to suspend your disbelief. Strangely, the most improbable moment in the whole novel had nothing to do with the outlandish technology: it was when a character decided to get on the back of a near stranger’s motorbike and go on a wild goose chase across the city.
These quibbles aside, there is no doubt that Egan has triumphed. The experimental prose characteristic of Goon Squad (readers will remember one chapter told entirely in the form of a Power Point presentation) is back: one chapter is in email format, another in sentence-long directives as if from headquarters (it follows a pseudo, modern-day secret agent). Whilst some critics might dismiss this as gimicky, the format is a real joy. It adds texture and depth to the characters, and the story itself is nothing short of moving. Narrative trappings and blockbuster premise aside, the heart of this novel is human experience and the bonds forged over lifetimes. Some of the regrets characters experience are heartbreaking, some of their transformations life-affirming.
You don’t have to have read A Visit from the Good Squad to enjoy The Candy House – nor do you necessarily have to read them in order of publication – but it will enrich your reading experience. Egan is a master storyteller and an exquisite writer. For an uncanny insight into what could be the near future, this is one not to miss.