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Memory test: The Candy House, by Jennifer Egan, reviewed

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

23 April 2022

9:00 AM

The Candy House Jennifer Egan

Corsair, pp.334, 20

On page 231 of The Candy House, a sequel – no, a ‘sibling’ says Jennifer Egan – to the Pulitzer prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, we meet a character called Noreen. Wasn’t she in Goon Squad? Quick check and yes, there she is playing a bit-part peeping through a fence. Now she’s older, madder and still obsessed with the fence. It’s hard to decide if it’s an advantage to have read the previous novel, or if it just makes reading The Candy House like the sort of memory test that could mess with your head. This is unfortunate, since memory is key to its themes: the future of technology and the quest for authenticity.

A tech tycoon, Bix Bouton, has created ‘Mandala’, a revolutionary way of externalising your memory. ‘Own Your Unconscious’ allows you access to every memory you’ve ever had. And if you donate a chunk of memory to the Collective Unconscious you can tune in to everyone’s unconscious. It’s a horrible idea and the epigraph (Emily Dickinson: ‘The Brain – is wider than the Sky’) and the ending suggest Egan doesn’t much like it either. Forget social media, Facebook and Instagram – this is the end of the private life. Theoretically it’s also the end of dementia, crime solving, dying languages and missing persons.

The Candy House is not so much a novel as a collection of exceptionally clever, sometimes funny short stories, told from every possible viewpoint – past and present, first person, third, in the form of tweets, emails, an instruction manual. The last, ‘Lulu the Spy’, was first published in the New Yorker. Who’s Lulu? She first appears in Goon Squad as the little girl taken by her mother, the publicist Dolly, to meet a murderous dictator. Now she’s Citizen Agent 3825 and is possibly bionic. In ‘See Below’, Lulu, Dolly and the dictator share a lengthy email thread in which they plan a documentary about the earlier Goon Squad story ‘Selling the General’. Russian dolls come to mind. And literary incest.

Apart from the variety of viewpoints, the chronology of The Candy House is scrambled, its structure mysteriously incorporates electronic dance music (Build Break Drop Build) and the whole is a dizzying, disturbing mishmash of family saga, sci fi and literary high jinks. Nothing is explored in any depth. There are so many characters that it’s hard to remember, let alone care for, any of them. Wikipedia provides a cast list for Goon Squad. It would have been kind if the publishers had done the same for The Candy House. Poor Bix, the techno magnet who began all this, ends up with his memory stored in a blue Consciousness Cube.

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