When Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From the Goon Squad was published in 2010, it was a sensation, sweeping up a basketful of awards and winning praise for its experimental structure, sparking prose and intriguing visions of the future.
Egan has described her new novel, The Candy House, as a “sibling novel” to Goon Squad — terms like sequel and prequel don’t quite work for two books that bend time and characters like these do.
You don’t have to read Goon Squad first, although why wouldn’t you — it’s a delight. But The Candy House does pick up many of the earlier book’s characters and expand their stories into the present, past and future.
It also deploys the same structural experimentation as Goon Squad. Each chapter focuses on a different character and tells a complete story, but those chapters are interlinked, often in surprising ways.
When I read Goon Squad, I marveled that those compact chapters each conveyed as much as many full-length novels do, and that their characters were so vivid I wanted to know more about them. The Candy House grants that wish.
The first chapter of The Candy House brings back Bix Bouton, who was a grad student in 1992 in Goon Squad. Even then he felt drawn to the nascent internet: “Bix could feel the vibrations of an invisible web of connection forcing its way through the familiar world like cracks riddling a windshield. Life as they knew it would soon shatter and be swept away, at which point everyone would rise together into a new metaphysical sphere.”
OK, so he got that last bit wrong, but Bix is a tech visionary. In The Candy House he is a billionaire, the inventor of Own Your Unconscious, a platform that allows people to easily download all their memories into a digital storage cube — and to anonymously upload those memories to the cloud in exchange for access to everyone else’s. It’s a world-changer, and Bix is a powerful celebrity, sort of like Mark Zuckerberg except he’s Black and lives in New York and people think he’s cool instead of evil.
Bix’s story links us to Miranda Kline, an anthropologist whose work among Amazon (the river, not the retailer) villagers resulted in an influential book called Patterns of Affinity, which inspired Bix to create Own Your Unconscious, which Miranda vehemently opposes. She’s become part of a growing group called eluders, an “invisible army of data defiers.” Many of them hire people called proxies (often underemployed fiction writers) to keep their social media accounts alive so their friends and family don’t realize they’ve bailed from the grid.
Miranda has eluded so well that her two adult daughters aren’t sure whether she’s alive. Those daughters are the result of Miranda’s marriage to music producer Lou Kline, a central figure in Goon Squad. Charismatic and chaotic, he’s left behind a trail of ex-wives and of children longing for his love.
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Miranda’s daughters, speaking in first person plural, narrate an achingly lovely chapter about their childhood. As young adults, they grow close to Lou and are there the day an assistant shows him how Napster works. “I’m watching a tidal wave, he said. The complete annihilation of my business.”
When the music business implodes, Lou has a stroke, then another, and the daughters, Lana and Melora, become his caretakers. They also take over his business; Melora transforms it, and Lana becomes an eluder.
When Melora takes over Lou’s business, she works with his longtime protege, Bennie Salazar, who links to the story of his son, Chris Salazar, who’s working for another tech company called SweetSpot Networks. He was an English major in college, but now his job is the “algebraization” of narrative — reducing the stock elements (”stockblocks”) in movies and TV shows to mathematical formulas so they can readily be assembled into new entertainments.
Egan, of course, does her own experimentation with story forms. One stream-of-consciousness chapter from Molly, a childhood friend of Chris, recounts the agonies and ecstasies of a day in the life of a tween navigating the ruthless social hierarchy of a country club.
One of the girls she shares that day with is Lulu, who appeared in Goon Squad as an irresistibly charming kid. In a breathlessly tense chapter in The Candy House, she’s an adult, a spy on a perilous mission, which is narrated in second person as a series of directives, because her body has been equipped with gadgets that will, among other things, record her thoughts: “Never look for hidden cameras. The fact that you’re looking will give you away.”
In the aftermath of surviving that experience, Lulu goes looking for her real father, whom she believes to be a famous but reclusive movie star — a chapter narrated largely (and hilariously) in emails among two actors, their various assistants and Lulu’s mother, Dolly Peale, who in Goon Squad was a publicist whose assignment to put on a party for an African dictator went so spectacularly wrong that she has changed her name and become a gourmet grocer.
And those are just some of the story lines and characters Egan continues from Goon Squad. Sasha, the kleptomaniac of that book, is now a wildly successful artist. There’s the young man who hates fakeness so much he screams randomly in public just to evoke genuine responses from people; his golden-boy older brother who becomes a lawyer, then a drug addict, then a state senator (which may or may not be a redemption); the suburban mom who gets into a standoff with her neighbor over a fence line that leads to them standing all night, silent, by the fence.
Twelve years later, The Candy House brings less of the fizzy excitement of the experimentation in Goon Squad. But it’s just as rich in indelible characters, its plot as full of humor and heartbreak and insight about our brave new world, its prose just as beautifully crafted. Egan’s subtle attention to the distinctive voices of her many characters is remarkable.
The candy house of the title, a notion borrowed from fairy tales, alludes to many things that make us think we’re getting happiness for free: Own Your Unconscious, drug addiction, success, love.
Bennie Salazar says of a reunion recording by boomer musicians, “Tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is merely the portal, the candy house, if you will, through which we hope to lure in a new generation and bewitch them.”
It might not be free, but The Candy House is a bewitching read.
The Candy House
By Jennifer Egan
Scribner, 352 pages, $28