In Jennifer Egan’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad, “time is a goon.” It is time that steals youthful promise and dashes hopes. Time that makes people unrecognizable to themselves. In it, time derails the life of kleptomaniac Sasha Blake; it disillusions her record producer boss, Bennie Salazar, and diminishes record executive Lou, once so vital to his teenage girlfriend Jocelyn. Music is good, we are told.
Authenticity is redemptive. But time causes us to stray from these ideals. By the end of the novel, we find ourselves in a world where babies have smartphones and the sun sets in the mid-afternoon because of “warming-related ‘adjustments’ to the Earth’s orbit.”
In her new “sibling” novel, The Candy House, time’s passage is a foregone conclusion. We meet many of the same characters: Sasha, who has channeled her impulse for petty theft into creating sculptures out of trash; Lou, who remains disgusting. But now the real problem is the Internet. It is the candy house in the novel’s title. It lures you in with promises of sweetness and then someone inside pushes you into an oven. Whatever spoils you’ve obtained from it come at great cost. You pay for infinite knowledge and entertainment with your data, your privacy, your dignity.
Bix Bouton, a friend of Sasha’s in The Goon Squad, is now the founder of tech giant Mandala. Bix has invented a process by which memories can be exported to the cloud. All it takes is 30 minutes with electrodes attached to your head. “By uploading all or part of your externalized memory to an online ‘collective,’” Egan writes in a chapter narrated by a minor character, “you gained proportionate access to the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone in the world, living or dead, who had done the same.” The company’s Mandala Cube has enabled many wonders, like reliving your dead father’s first time smoking pot, or using the incidental memories of others to help you find long-lost acquaintances. Another of Bix’s products, the MemoryShop™, allows you to “externalize the portion of your memory” containing a painful event and then “reinternalize it with that part erased.” A small faction of “eluders” have emerged who refuse to have their consciousness uploaded.
Mandala’s creations are perhaps outlandish, but they are only half satire. For Egan, they are also a way to explore the present quandaries of an Internet that doesn’t let anyone escape the past. Our online platforms connect us forever with our former selves, high school friends, college roommates, onetime coworkers. There is no forgetting one’s mistakes or fully disappearing. The eluders may work to derail Mandala’s algorithms, but the network of shared memories, like our current Internet, is too vast to undo. While Egan may find this network sinister, she also seems awed by its capacity for connection. All the people you once knew, all your past lives, can be made accessible once again if only you submit to the technology.
Like Goon Squad, The Candy House is nonlinear, a series of related but stylistically varied vignettes that move backward and forward in time. The vignettes hold equal weight, so there is no feeling of a present or a past. Both books have a relay structure, with each character taking over narration from the previous one. Mandala’s products pop up in these vignettes, peeking out from the story of an autistic “empiricist and metrics counter,” an addict struggling to stay clean, a father on his deathbed, and more.
The problem with this approach is that it leans heavily on the reader’s ability to remember the characters and events of the first book. Goon Squad had a cast of thousands, and maybe three of the whole bunch were memorable. Here too, the characters are many and the connections between them tenuous. Besides Sasha, Bennie, and Lou, we have a bunch of academics Bix meets in a university conversation group. There’s Bix’s son Gregory, whose most interesting characteristic is that he nursed for too long as a child. There’s Bix’s wife, Lizzie, who we are supposed to remember is a friend of Sasha’s from college. Speaking of Sasha, her cousin is present. And that guy’s father is, yes, also in Bix’s conversation group. There’s Bennie’s son Chris. Chris’s maybe-coworker who owns a motorcycle. I could go on.
As early as 1992, Bix knows that the Internet is going to change life on Earth forever. “Bix could feel the vibrations of an invisible web of connection,” Egan tells us, “forcing its way through the familiar world like cracks riddling a windshield.” This “invisible web” is or is not a good description of the Internet, but it is a good one for the novel. The Candy House’s narrative is a web of connections, and the threads between them are gossamer thin. Egan’s attention to each of her subjects’ motivations can seem glancing. The novel doesn’t probe in. The reader who neglects to revisit Goon Squad will find herself adrift in a sea of hazily remembered figures doing things that seem loaded with significance, but unable to recall the referents.
Is this a deliberate commentary on the overwhelming scale and busyness of the Internet? The sincerity of the tone indicates it probably isn’t. Egan’s prose is clean, though sentimental—young people call out to each other “through a cumulus of pot smoke like disoriented hikers in a foggy valley,” someone looks at the stars thinking, “all that math, glittering and shimmering back at us”—but confusion abounds at the level of form.
An epistolary story toward the end unites the whole gang in tedious branching e-mail chains to hatch a plan to introduce a woman to her biological father, a famous actor. She will pose as his assistant and then orchestrate a meeting between him and a journalist under the guise of an article about his speedboat collection. The meetup must also, for reasons unknown, involve a recording session of several retired musicians. It’s hard to see what this creaky machinery accomplishes other than assembling the characters from the far reaches of the book for a sort of roll call.
Another confusing chapter is told in tweet-length “field instructions.” “Lulu the Spy, 2032” was called innovative when it ran as “Black Box,” a stand-alone short story in The New Yorker in 2012, which the magazine posted, one dispatch at a time, on its Twitter account. But is it now? Perhaps even more convoluted is that the chapter doesn’t fit naturally into the rest of the story. In Goon Squad, the eponymous Lulu is the daughter of a famous publicist who takes a job rehabbing a murderous dictator’s reputation, and she then becomes Bennie Salazar’s assistant. In “Lulu the Spy, 2032,” she is suddenly a special agent for an unspecified organization tasked with infiltrating the lair of a generic “powerful man” whose crimes we never learn, but whose badness is signified by firearms, a cigarette boat, and a menacing stack of documents. Lulu communicates mostly in the terse directives that were part of her training and that, of course, are miraculously delivered in 140 characters or less.
The form is non-diegetic: It exists as a frame for the story, and the characters demonstrate no awareness of Twitter. This experiment might have been timely 10 years ago when Twitter was a new-ish platform and the question of whether it held some potential for long-form literary storytelling was not yet resolved (resolution: It does not). But what is it saying in the context of a novel in 2022? What is it saying now that the 140-character limit is obsolete? Why would a spy in 2032 be formatting missives this way?
One can turn these questions over and over in one’s head. I did, but then I gave up. It’s not clear what the experiment is trying to do. It’s a feint toward the problems of technology and their human costs without displaying full understanding of them. Posting on Twitter is not making people robotic or less communicative. The opposite is true. If anything, the platform, at its worst, breeds logorrhea, overfamiliarity, an unwholesome desperation to participate and be liked.
The Candy House brings Egan’s count of novels concerned with technology up to four. The first of these, 2001’s Look at Me, follows a model, Charlotte Swenson, whose face has been broken in a car accident. After several attempts to reignite her career, she gets involved with a startup that broadcasts the lives of ordinary and extraordinary people to its users around the clock. The book meanders, but the satire is sharp and sometimes funny, and the intent is clear: The Internet is bad.
The Keep, published in 2007, centers on Howard, a bond trader who purchases a crumbling castle in Eastern Europe, envisioning a tech-free paradise where the imagination can roam. But Howard’s paradise is hell for his cousin Danny, who finds the isolation disconcerting. This narrative is nested within the story of an incarcerated man taking a creative writing class. Through the layering of these narratives, Egan asks whether technology makes us more, or less, free: The Internet, now, is maybe bad.
A Visit From the Goon Squad has filesharing in its crosshairs, plus that famous Gen-X bête noir—selling out. It asks readers, before they download, to please think of the record executives. It is a better book than The Candy House, a 76-page chapter formatted as a Power Point presentation notwithstanding, and it contains actual moments of brilliance: a chapter told as a magazine piece sending up a writer who inserts himself into a celebrity profile to compensate for the lack of a story, and an abrupt point-of-view shift, from dissociated second person to a very immediate first, at the end of a chapter called “Out of Body.” These work because they center on human psychology. They let the reader know the characters. The rest of the book is full of didacticism: People shouldn’t download music, mass media dehumanizes famous actors, smartphones aren’t for young children. Again, the Internet is bad.
Which brings us back to The Candy House. The flashes of humanity are absent here, yet the work asks its readers to be moved by its baffling web of characters. It asks its readers to be wowed by the inventiveness, the virtuosity, of these connections. But we are not all connected in the way that The Candy House proposes—not, at least, in the hyperliteral “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” sense in which everyone is someone’s coworker’s childhood friend, where the kid you met at the country club one time ends up being the son of your boss whose mentor was, incidentally, present on a safari attended by your future husband’s father, a Samburu warrior (actual plot point).
Instead, the novel misses what does connect us. Birth, death, love, regret, suffering, family, courage, sex, humor, sickness, sensory pleasure, embarrassment, longing, and on and on. The Internet often helps us recognize those connections; in this way it’s neither good nor bad. But these kinds of mundane human connections are barely presented in The Candy House, and when they are, it is with not much depth.
As I read, I kept returning to the book’s title and central metaphor and how it implies choice. As if you could just walk past the candy house, if you were strong enough, and not go in. Egan makes this choice most explicit in a monologue by a daughter of a record executive who is fed up with people illegally downloading music.
We contemplated a nationwide billboard campaign to remind people of that eternal law, Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free. Why could nobody see this?
Everyone can see it. People are aware of the costs of the Internet. In this country alone there was recently a years-long debacle involving misinformation and a brush with authoritarianism. The consequences will continue to ripple out for decades. But declining to use the Internet, like the eluders in this book, is not a practical solution. For one thing, we’d lose the very relationships that Egan holds up as profound. The many interlocking connections of this book are undermined by its author’s apparent disapproval of their means. So, which is it, the reader will wonder: Should we cherish our virtual bonds or burn the whole system down? Maybe Egan is suggesting both.