The Candy House by Jennifer Egan review – information overload | Jennifer Egan

JEnnifer Egan made a name for himself with the 2011 Pulitzer Prize A visit from the Goon Squad, a zigzag, multi-generational saga centered around multi-platinum record producer Bennie Salazar. The quirky title referenced the ravages of time; Bennie, once part of the 1970s outfit the Flaming Dildos, finds himself at the quietly futuristic ending of the book aimed primarily at “pointers”, tablet-wielding preschoolers whose likes are the main revenue driver in an industry altered beyond recognition.

The candy house, Egan’s sequel, also hops around a wide cast, this time from the 1990s to the 2030s, and once again has its eyes on the internet (the title refers to the allure of free online services that slyly spin us into the product, the echo of “the White House” presumably meant to suggest where the real power now lies). To like Goon Squadit turns reality up a notch: this is an America in which – in a large-scale data grab – 21-year-olds are asked to upload their memories to guard against brain damage.

Fertile ground, to be sure, but Egan has ideas to burn, and in this novel she does just that: her painstakingly constructed backdrop hardly impacts the drama of the book, poorly served by characters reduced to a line. Remember 13-year-old Lincoln, whose obsessive cataloging of “great rock ‘n’ roll breaks” was recorded by his younger sister in a series of PowerPoint slides, Goon Squadis the most catchy narrative stunt? Lincoln, now in his twenties, gets his own chapter, but his hyper-attention (previously a grip between the lines focus on family life) is now just a distinctive tic, as he yearns for a colleague who “wears headbands 24% of the time, scrunchies 28% of the time and her hair loose 48% of the time”.

Lincoln works in data mining (of course) and his story recounts a background action involving privacy activists known as “the elusive”, who implant the brains of tech employees with ” weevils”, electronic mind control bugs that Egan goes on to explain for up to 20 pages. of the end – a mark of the book’s few gadgets that ultimately contribute. There’s a dearth of human moments that made Goon Squad fizzle; Bennie feeling like a fish out of water at his upstate country club, for example, or his assistant, Sasha, hiding her kleptomania. Here, the action is seen as though through gauze: see the 2032 chapter on a “citizen agent” programmed by an obscure government agency, told in 30 two-column pages of bullet-shaped dictates from his masters.

One senses the laborious scaffolding of the novel when the narrator of a mid-1960s interlude asks, “How do I know all this?” I was only six years old… How dare I invent beyond the abysses of genre, age and cultural context? She accesses the “collective consciousness” of a rapacious tech giant, it turns out — Google with buttons on, basically — and you suspect Egan is just telling us that so she can write this“Obtaining this information is probably more presumptuous than inventing it would have been. Choose your poison – if imagination isn’t allowed, then we’ll all have to resort to gray seizures” (a clever form of memory capture).

That thought is more than enough on its own to fuel the kind of topical novel that Egan seems to want to write. But after a long set-up, it is tossed aside, and the feeling grows that the novel’s explanatory weight demands too much. By far the most enjoyable chapter takes place in the form of a belated exchange of emails between various Goon Squad stalwarts to rekindle their reputations by building on the fortune of an elderly actor seeking his own comeback. Finally, the book breathes: not only do we have the intoxicating sight of the 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.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the book (and its purpose, if you’re generous) is that Silicon Valley will never be rock’n’roll. Be that as it may, the enigmas of privacy and authenticity of the digital age have been best tackled in novels such as The circle and Clara and the sun. As to whether you know how to read The candy house without first reading A visit from the Goon Squadwell…if you haven’t, you’ll probably be baffled, but perhaps far less disappointed than the readers who have.

The candy house by Jennifer Egan is published by Corsair (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Lucas E. Kelly