Jennifer Egan made her name with 2011’s Pulitzer-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, a zig-zagging multigenerational saga centred on a multiplatinum record producer, Bennie Salazar. The quirky title referred to time’s ravages; Bennie, once part of 1970s outfit the Flaming Dildos, finds himself by the book’s discreetly futuristic end catering chiefly to “pointers”, tablet-wielding preschoolers whose tastes are the main driver of income in an industry altered beyond recognition.
The Candy House, Egan’s follow-up, likewise hops around a large cast, this time from the 1990s to the 2030s, and once more has its eyes on the internet (the title refers to the seduction of free-to-use online services that sneakily turn us into the product, the echo of “the White House” presumably intended as a suggestion of where true power now lies). Like Goon Squad, it turns reality up a notch: this is an America in which – in a big-tech data grab – 21-year-olds are urged to upload their memories to guard against brain injury.
Fertile ground, to be sure, but Egan has ideas to burn, and in this novel that’s what she does: her painstakingly constructed backdrop has barely any impact on the book’s drama, ill served by characters reduced to a trait. Remember 13-year-old Lincoln, whose obsessive cataloguing of “great rock’n’roll pauses” was recorded by his younger sister in a series of PowerPoint slides, Goon Squad’s most eye-catching narrative stunt? Lincoln, now in his mid-20s, gets his own chapter, but his hyper-attentiveness (previously the focus of a between-the-lines take on family life) is now just a distinguishing tic, as he longs for a colleague who “wears hair bands 24 percent of the time, scrunchies 28 percent of the time, and her hair loose 48 percent of the time”.
Lincoln works in data mining (of course) and his storyline tees up some background action involving privacy activists known as “eluders”, who implant the brains of tech employees with “weevils”, electronic mind-control bugs that Egan keeps explaining until 20 pages from the end – a mark of how little the book’s gizmos ultimately contribute. There’s a shortage of the human moments that made Goon Squad fizz; Bennie feeling like a fish out of water at his upstate country club, for instance, or his assistant, Sasha, hiding her kleptomania. Here, action is seen as if through gauze: witness the 2032-set chapter about a “citizen agent” programmed by a shadowy government agency, told as 30 two-column pages of bulletpoint-like diktats from her handlers.
You sense the novel’s laborious scaffolding when the narrator of a mid-1960s interlude asks: “How can I possibly know all this? I was only six… How dare I invent across chasms of gender, age, and cultural context?” She’s accessing a rapacious tech giant’s “Collective Consciousness”, it turns out – Google with knobs on, basically – and you suspect Egan only tells us that so she can write this: “Getting hold of that information is arguably more presumptuous than inventing it would have been. Pick your poison – if imagining isn’t allowed, then we’ll all have to resort to gray grabs” (a whizzy form of memory capture).
That thought is more than enough on its own to feed the kind of topically chewy novel Egan seems to want to write. But after a long-winded set-up, it’s tossed aside, and the sense grows that the novel’s expository heft demands too much. By far the most enjoyable chapter unfolds as a late exchange of emails between various Goon Squad stalwarts out to revive their reputations by piggybacking on the fortunes of an elderly actor seeking a comeback of his own. At last, the book breathes: not only do we get the heady backstairs view of celebrity that was part of Goon Squad’s allure, but – more vitally – we relax into a rare moment of real-time interaction between characters otherwise mired in private recapitulation.
Maybe the book’s biggest problem (and its point, if you’re generous) is that Silicon Valley will never be rock’n’roll. Either way, conundrums of digital-era privacy and authenticity have been better addressed in novels such as The Circle and Klara and the Sun. As for the question of whether you can read The Candy House without first reading A Visit from the Goon Squad, well… if you haven’t, you’ll probably be left baffled, but perhaps a good deal less disappointed than readers who have.