Reviewed by Clare Brook
In her latest novel, The Candy House, Jennifer Egan explores ways in which the internet and social media has, and might, change us and our experience of life, both individually and socially.
The Candy House provides readers with many perspectives from the point of view of a large cast of characters, zipping back and forth between the 1990s to 2030s. The chapters act as a series of linked narratives, although each has its own point of reference that refers to yet another idea that Egan wishes to explore. Her prose energises the mind, taking the reader on an exploration of social media, gaming and alternate worlds presenting a believable near future.
In the first chapter readers meet Bix. Bix has become an extremely rich internet entrepreneur via commercialising academic research but now forty he is at a dead end, not one creative idea to carrying his empire to greater heights. Once again, he acquires new research that has managed to externalize memory, which he develops as his new internet venture Own Your Unconscious. This allows access to every memory a person has ever had which they can keep private or upload to the Internet in exchange for the memories of others. This is a fascinating concept that among others Egan develops throughout the novel. Whereas the darker side of this is illustrated well, Egan, lists the positive, … tens of thousands of crimes solved; child pornography all but eradicated; Alzheimer’s and dementia sharply reduced by reinfusions of saved healthy consciousness; dying languages preserved and revived … perhaps to be even-handed or to show why such heinous technology could be thought an advantage. If readers might be thinking positively about this technology, the ‘weevil’ implant, a logical next step, will act as a futuristic alarm. Egan tells readers knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing. We need context, narrative, otherwise it’s just information blowing in the wind without understanding.
All the characters are, in the main, linked to one another; some have close ties, others a more distant connection. At first, I thought it necessary to be aware of who’s who, keeping a diagram of connections, but each one is interesting enough without past reference acting as vehicles to carry ideas forward. I did have a few favourites. Topping the list is Alfred Hollander. Alfred is the son of Ted Hollander. Readers meet Ted in the first 20 odd pages from which point he acts as a back drop to conversations as an absent father and husband, popping up in the last chapter in an idyllic family scene that speaks of a pre-internet time. Alfred plays a most amusing role. Even as a small boy he had a finely tuned barometer that detected the fake: …by age nine, Alfred’s intolerance of fakery had jumped the life/art barrier and entered his everyday world. … Why did people have to pretend to be what they already were? Like Shakespeare’s idea of the world being a stage and everyman a player, although Egan suggests that our media prescribes the parts and we follow suit. Most amusing Alfred breaks through socially normative behaviour by wearing a paper bag over his head, or screaming in public places just to observe real unfettered response from the people around him. At eleven, Alfred began wearing a brown paper bag with eyeholes over his head during holidays with extended family … tweezing forkfuls of turkey or pecan pie through a rectangular mouth slot.
Thought provoking is the idea of human behaviour being entwined and influenced by algorithms designed to analyse these behaviours in an insidious circular system. To quote Churchill: We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us. Egan is pointing out that we are ‘shaping’ a dangerous architecture in which we must all live.
This is a novel that deserves a second reading, it gives a unique take on our technology-driven image culture.
By Jennifer Egan
ISBN: 9781472150936 [pb]
ISBN: 9781472150912 [hb]