The Candy House: A not-so-futuristic future

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Candy House by Jennifer Egan

The Candy House by Jennifer Egan science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsWhat 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.

Published in April 2022. Named a Most Anticipated Book of the Year by TimeEntertainment WeeklyVogueGood HousekeepingOprah DailyGlamourUSA TODAYParadeBustleSan Francisco ChronicleThe Seattle TimesThe Boston GlobeTampa Bay TimesBuzzFeedVulture, and many more! From one of the most celebrated writers of our time, a literary figure with cult status, a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize- and NBCC Award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad—an electrifying, deeply moving novel about the quest for authenticity and meaning in a world where memories and identities are no longer private. The Candy House opens with the staggeringly brilliant Bix Bouton, whose company, Mandala, is so successful that he is “one of those tech demi-gods with whom we’re all on a first name basis.” Bix is 40, with four kids, restless, desperate for a new idea, when he stumbles into a conversation group, mostly Columbia professors, one of whom is experimenting with downloading or “externalizing” memory. It’s 2010. Within a decade, Bix’s new technology, “Own Your Unconscious”—that allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had, and to share every memory in exchange for access to the memories of others—has seduced multitudes. But not everyone. In spellbinding interlocking narratives, Egan spins out the consequences of Own Your Unconscious through the lives of multiple characters whose paths intersect over several decades. Intellectually dazzling, The Candy House is also extraordinarily moving, a testament to the tenacity and transcendence of human longing for real connection, love, family, privacy and redemption. In the world of Egan’s spectacular imagination, there are “counters” who track and exploit desires and there are “eluders,” those who understand the price of taking a bite of the Candy House. Egan introduces these characters in an astonishing array of narrative styles—from omniscient to first person plural to a duet of voices, an epistolary chapter and a chapter of tweets. If Goon Squad was organized like a concept album, The Candy House incorporates Electronic Dance Music’s more disjunctive approach. The parts are titled: Build, Break, Drop. With an emphasis on gaming, portals, and alternate worlds, its structure also suggests the experience of moving among dimensions in a role-playing game. The Candy House is a bold, brilliant imagining of a world that is moments away. Egan takes to stunning new heights her “deeply intuitive forays into the darker aspects of our technology-driven, image-saturated culture” (Vogue). The Candy House delivers an absolutely extraordinary combination of fierce, exhilarating intelligence and heart.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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