In “The Candy House”, Jennifer Egan tackles technology
The candy house. By Jennifer Egan. Scribner; 323 pages; $28. Small, Brown; £20
JTHE TITLE from Jennifer Egan’s new novel references the seductive but dangerous witch’s house that attracts Hansel and Gretel. “Never trust a confectionery!” observes a character early in the book, as competition from the file-sharing platform Napster destroys his father’s music business. Such technology is “a Faustian bargain,” continues Melora Kline: “like letting a stranger search your house – or your brain!
Digging into the brain – and uploading it into a global collective consciousness – could be the next step in humanity’s surrender to technology, Ms Egan suggests in her clever and disturbing new book. Like “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2011, this “sister novel” is an interlocking puzzle of self-contained tales. “Goon Squad” touched on the subject of time; “The Candy House” is about what humans lose by offering their privacy to algorithms that exploit them for profit. Yet, for all the seriousness of its theme, it is hugely entertaining. As dazzling in inventiveness and formal ambition as its predecessor, it glides as pleasantly as… well, candy.
The novel is a kaleidoscope of nearly two dozen characters and perspectives (readers may find they need a list to follow). Yet Mrs. Egan weaves a subtle web that ties them all together – a chain that completes itself, like many of the best fiction, in the mind of the reader. The developing landscape is uncomfortably similar to the current digital realm. Bix Button, a “tech demigod based on his first name with the world,” invented a program called “Own Your Unknown” that allows users to “externalize” their memories and feelings into software. He bases this innovation in part on the work of an anthropologist investigating the networks of trust in an isolated Brazilian tribe.
In this fully mediated future, there are “meters” who quantify individuals’ online activity, and “chosen ones” who choose to separate themselves from digital life, leaving behind bogus identities. Before long, Bouton’s company offered users the ability to access other people’s memories in exchange for downloading their own; meanwhile, a non-profit organization has sprung up to help refuseniks escape. Flipping between stories told in tweets, emails, math formulas and her own liquid prose, Ms Egan ponders the cost of swapping authentic identities for something that sounds brighter and more exciting. .
For all its mastery of the languages of gambling, addiction and technology, “The Candy House” is a social novel, a kind of “Middlemarch” for the 21st century with a perfectly swirling form. The characters’ stories are not well summed up; there are reversals and redemptions and, above all, a claim that imagination can still trump technology. In the final scene, Bouton’s son, Gregory, a fiction writer, realizes that he is surrounded “by a galaxy of human lives rushing towards his curiosity.” He can feel the collective, he marvels, “without any machinery at all.” ■