The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: Virtual dystopia

Cover image for The Candy House by Jennifer EganFive years ago, I reviewed Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, noting that it was seven years since her Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad had been published. I was a little disappointed in it, truth be told, but when I spotted The Candy House in the schedules, I put up my hand, attracted by the idea of a novel that promised to explore our ever-growing obsession with life online. Opening in 2010, The Candy House explores the fallout from a technology that captures our very consciousness through a series of narratives connected by characters all linked to Bix Boulton, creator of Own You Own Consciousness.

It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free. Why could nobody see this?  

Aged forty, Bix is faced with a blank horizon, unsure of the next stage for his hugely successful company, Mandala. While out on a rare nocturnal walk, he spots a flyer advertising a discussion group set to follow a lecture by Miranda Kline, author of Patterns of Affinity on which Bix based the algorithms underpinning Own Your Own Consciousness, something that Kline deeply resented. Attending the group incognito, Bix experiences an epiphany resulting in Collective Consciousness which allows subscribers access to the memories and experiences of others after they’ve uploaded their own. Connections formed at that meeting will criss-cross over the next quarter of a century as Collective Consciousness expands and a counter movement of individuals determined to elude an online identity becomes almost as large as Mandala. By the time Bix dies, a circle has almost been turned as his son glimpses a different version of the world rooted in authenticity.

I see now that the place I’ve been yearning for is my own imagination  

Impossible to write a synopsis that comes anywhere close to capturing the complexity of Egan’s ambitious novel with its differing narrative styles, some fragmented, that jump from character to character, pulling the threads of connection together, sometimes more obliquely than others. Although I wouldn’t call this a sequel, fans of A Visit from the Goon Squad might want to think about rereading it as part of that web of interconnectedness is the reappearance of several of its main protagonists and their children. It’s far from an easy novel and there was one section in particular that didn’t work for me, but it’s certainly an impressive one with a decent helping of dry humour to help it along, and its themes are on the button. Definitely a book that would repay rereading, although perhaps I should dust of my copy of Goon Squad before I think about that.

Little, Brown Book Group: London ‎ 9781472150912 352 pages Hardback (Read via NetGalley)

23 thoughts on “The Candy House by Jennifer Egan: Virtual dystopia”

  1. I’ve still not read Goon Squad! It sounds like it would be a good idea to do so before attempting this. Although this sounds more successful in some parts than others, it’s good to see someone attempting something ambitious and different.

  2. I really loved the Goon Squad and have this on on my Kindle. It does sound a bit challenging and I’ve read elsewhere that not all sections work, but I’m still intrigued as I find her to be such an interesting writer.

    1. I think if you enjoyed Goon Squad you’ll like this, too, Cathy. I’d agree about not all sections working but I admired her ambition and many of her observations are spot on.

  3. I’m the other way round to you. I enjoyed Manhattan Beach but have never been able to get into Goon Squad. Maybe I should give it another go sometime. And I’ll definitely give The Candy House a look too – it sounds intriguing.

    1. I think you could read it without reading Goon Squad. The narratives can be quite episodic and fragmented which I don’t mind but if you prefer a more linear form you might not enjoy it.

  4. Goon Squad is still on my TBR–it sounds like a very ambitious read and with my struggle to read/focus since Covid started I have ignored “ambitious’ reads. “A counter movement of individuals determined to elude an online identity” This sounds like the preppers!

    1. This might not be the best place to restart if you’ve been staying away from demanding novels for some time! At more than one stage I wanted to hug Ms Egan who seems absolutely aware that we may not have handed over cash to use the internet but we’ve paid many times over with our data.

      1. Amen to that. I remember, back when it started, getting the laws in place to force people to unsubscribe users for stuff. I don’t think we’d yet realized that the data was worse than selling catalog address lists. It can be a nightmare today.

  5. Fascinating idea – and sounds like it worked for the most part. I still haven’t read anything by her, and in fact hadn’t heard about anything after Goon Squad, but this sounds intriguing.

  6. Sounds very ambitious, but I’m glad to hear that you feel she’s pulled it off (albeit with one or two caveats). While I really enjoyed Goon Squad at the time of its release, I think my tastes have changed quite markedly since then, to the point where I might well bounce off this one now despite all its merits!

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