Jennifer Egan never stops moving. She slips constantly between viewpoints and characters and tenses. Individual chapters are treated as opportunities for experiment and fun – perhaps delivered in the form of a series of emails or in text speak or as a PowerPoint display or, at one point in The Candy House, her new novel, as a series of gnomic, single-sentence instructions to a young female spy as she carries out her mission.
Egan’s books move through time and back again, her characters making use of existing technology and smart tech of the near future. She is like a hyperactive optometrist, constantly testing the reader “how about this?… and now this?… and what about this?” She is the White Album of novelists.
In the hands of a lesser writer it could all feel a bit much, a bit wearying and disorientating, irritatingly show pony. But there is nothing showy about Egan. She never loses her balance as a writer, or her grip of the whole, and the innovations never crowd the reader. Everything is in the service of plot and character. Her restlessness delights rather than dismays.
The Candy House is her sixth novel and is a companion of sorts to her biggest hit, the Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. Like its predecessor it is neither wholly dystopian or utopian, but follows its characters’ attempts to make sense of modern life and the perceived loss of intimacy, purpose and meaning. They are able to make use of a “Mandala box”, in which users upload their unconscious, and are in turn given access to the lifelong unconscious of others. We’ve all wondered “whatever happened to so-and-so?”, and now there’s a technology that lets you find out.
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It’s a curious truth that in an era when we’ve never been more connected, or communicated more frantically with one another, we are somehow lonelier than ever and more likely to struggle with our mental health. We know that the hours spent ranting and doom-scrolling on Twitter are ultimately meaningless, mere displacement activity which has trapped us in some sort of exploitative capitalist web. But we don’t seem to know what to do about it, or indeed what we would do without it. As Egan writes, “Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”
The Candy House posits the questions: do memory and nostalgia hold solutions to what ails us? Can they reconnect us to one another in meaningful fashion? Egan doesn’t have the answers, but she, and we, have a grand time on the journey.