Egan, Jennifer. The Candy House. Scribners New York 2022. F;9/22.
This book by one of my favourite authors is a semi-sequel to her very successful 2010 A Visit From the Goon Squad. I went back and read Goon Squad again and then this book a second time to try to keep track of the dozens of characters in three generations, many appearing in both books. I’m with some critics who found Candy House less dramatically coherent than the earlier big success. It’s very good but for me more ragged and it relies on some science-fiction suspension of disbelief I had a bit of trouble with.
There are three or four families (these examples could contain plot spoilers). The Salazar dad Bennie is a rock musician who becomes a music promoter, mentored by Lou Kline who is the quintessential music entrepreneur bad boy, married three times including to a high-school girl. Bennie’s son Chris is pictured as a teenager and later as a minority opponent of the main psychology-technology monster called Own Your Consciousness. This is the brainchild of Bix Boulton, a black electronics engineer whose genius allows people to “download” their entire memory, and then share it (or not) with a kind of universal consciousness. Bix wandering incognito in Manhattan looking for his next idea finds his way to a sort of old-fashioned T-group informal seminar in the apartment of the older Hollander family.
Ted Hollander and his wife are arts academics with three boys whose lives are typical of many other second-generation characters: they come into conflict and difficulties and then are redeemed in one way or another. Miles the eldest is an over-achieving lawyer who crashes into stress and drugs but finally through reuniting with his cousin Sasha (who has overcome her kleptomania and despair to become a successful mega-installation sculptor married to Drew, a heart surgeon) is elected to local government and leads a happy successful life.
Ames is the middle Hollander child who we see at bat in Little League where his only hit of the season is a grand slam homer that wins a game. He becomes a sniper and hit man in the military and then CIA, but finally sees the error of that and settles down as a quiet citizen. Young Alfred is obsessed with authenticity to the point where he screams in public just to see genuine emotional reactions around him.
One of Lou Kline’s daughters by his second marriage is an anthropologist who leaves her two children (one of whom inherits Lou’s music business) to study tribes in Brazil and publishes a treatise on “affinity” which contains formulas for predicting how people will love and trust one another. This body of ideas is (somehow) part of the inspiration for Boulton’s universal consciousness. He eventually appears to regret that invention and one of his sons Greg (who opposes his dad’s creation) is a blocked fiction-writer who finally overcomes his stasis and presumably writes a fine work of fiction.
I’m leaving out many of the main characters and plotlines to move on to some of my impressions of this book. The Frankenstein-like specter of electronically shared consciousness reminded me of a couple of less interesting dystopic novels: The Circle by Dave Eggers and The Mandibles by Lionel Shriver. Egan somehow avoids the hack pitfalls that the other two stumble into although what the next iteration of the internet is going to look like didn’t seem to me conceivably to involve Egan’s presumed physicalism. I’m guessing we are a long way from electronic human experience. Some of the characters work on screenplays and fictions converting them into algebra which seemed frankly silly to me.
Our author does hold fiction as outside the ravages of philosophical materialism, and Greg Boulton’s book would be a shining hope in that regard.
Now of course Jennifer Egan can really write. I find some of her tropes just dazzling. A description is “curiously inert for the listener, like hearing someone recount a dream.” His relentless brother “fixed upon Alfred the laparoscopic gaze of a surgeon teasing muscle from bone as prelude to excising a tumor”. Fake mechanical characters inhabiting the universal consciousness do things that aren’t “deception so much as delay, like leaving a body-shaped pillow in bed before a prison break.” Lulu, one of the main characters, is instructed as she is working as a spy that her “goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona. You’ll be surprised by what lies underneath: a rich, deep crawl space of possibility.”
But building up to her climactic literary epiphany that Greg experiences which restarts his creative writing, the figurative language feels more like a Christmas card crusted with glitter:
Gregory noticed that every twig and branch held a delicate stack of snow. Snow swarmed like honeybees in the golden glow of the old-fashioned streetlamps; it slathered tree trunks and sparkled like crushed diamonds at his feet. He heard a whispering noise and saw two people glide from among the trees on cross-country skis. A lavender lunar radiance filled the park. It was a world from childhood: castles and forests and magic lamps and princes scaling walls of brambles.
I really enjoyed pulling together the families of characters with their convincing humanity and credible turns of fortune and courage. I think this novel is a lot more ambitious than Manhattan Beach which Egan wrote after Goon Squad. It was impressive too but the serial characters, preoccupation with modern music, technology, philosophy, authenticity, and meaning of words wasn’t there.
With this one Jennifer Egan set for herself and us a newer version of the fabulous feast she prepared over ten years ago. The recipe is similar but the ingredients have changed like the culture, and I can’t seem to be quite convinced that she hasn’t bitten off more than she (or maybe anyone) could chew. 8.5/9.3.