Cover Image: The Candy House

The Candy House

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<i>"We're all in our fifties--do people even ask what we're 'doing' anymore? Hasn't that already been decided?"</i>

I came to this book both with weary trepidation and high expectations. I loved "A Visit from the Goon Squad" when I read it in 2011, though I haven't reread it since and I wonder how it will hold up 10 years later. Before reading this, I reread the Wikipedia summary of Goon Squad, which I recommend as ESSENTIAL. There are a LOT of references to Goon Squad in this (duh, it's a sequel) and if you don't have a refresher of who the characters are and what happened you're really going to be up the creek. I would not recommend reading this if you haven't read Goon Squad at all; I think you'd be too confused.

Was the book successful for me? Well, yes--I read it through to the end and I enjoyed it (some chapters more than others). There arguably aren't any stand-alone chapters/stories in this that are as strong as the stories in Goon Squad, stories like "Found Objects," "Ask Me if I Care," "Safari," or "Out of Body" (my personal favourite). There <i>is</i> one story here that originally appeared on Twitter as "Black Box"--remember that? When Twitter fiction used to be a thing? TikTok fiction/book deals, it's a-coming...

I often felt while reading this that I was reading a lot of SUMMARY and INFORMATION. This is quite ironic since one of the main points of the book is to argue in favour of storytelling, over information. And yet we get a lot of summary/information dumps throughout. I think with so many characters and so much going on, it was quite simply a tool the book had to rely on quite often. I thought a lot about Emily St John Mendel's <i>Station Eleven</i> and <i>The Glass Hotel</i>, which also use huge casts of characters but is more reliant on scenes and storytelling. I feel like Mendel has replaced Egan in my affections, in terms of an author using large casts of characters to great emotional effect.

The book did occasionally feel a bit 2010 Joshua Ferris/Wells Tower/George Saunders to me, as in "I am being v. self-consciously clever and pushing the boundary with the form that is fiction". Mainly in the Twitter story and the email story (sorry, I know I sound dismissive when I call it that). But I like that Egan is trying to push herself and see what she can do as a writer. I did feel fundamentally confused during the Twitter story about what the mission was - who Lulu was working for, and what her mission was. I also don't think the opening is that impressive at all--I think it should have opened with the chapter about the guy randomly screaming in public places. Much more memorable! 

Overall, though, I do recommend this to Goon Squad fans. I think it's good that Jennifer Egan wrote this--she clearly felt compelled to return to these characters and their lives. What I found so moving about <i>Goon Squad</i> was its sense of scale, the feeling of all these lives going on at once. It's a feeling I did occasionally get when reading this - like when we returned to Sasha and her desert art, or when the memory of holding a boy's hand on a warm dock reoccurs at an unexpected moment. I also found it surprising and refreshing how many of the stories had happy endings--emphasising characters' abilities to forgive and and get along. A very refreshing message to read! 

Thanks to Netgalley and the publishers for the ARC and the chance to review this.

<i>"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?"</i>
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Jennifer Egan writes beautifully, her sentences are tough, original, occasionally funny, often insightful and her characterisations are pithy and evocative. 
In this novel she picks up from earlier ideas and looks at the scattering of society and families through social media and data collection. Like Richard Powers in his recent book ‘Bewilderment. she invents a ‘box’ which can harvest and store memories for future generations to mine. 
Each section takes on a different character facing different disparate issues. As in the ‘Good Squad’ Egan uses different ways of writing to fit the alternative narratives. For this reader however, the sums of the parts, while dazzling, became deeply confusing: had we met x before; was she the one with the Y; was Z related to B?
By the end I was frantically flipping backwards to try and understand the forwards. This may be a huge negative reflection on my own powers of concentration but I longed to have one or two main characters and storylines to carry me through the narrative.
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Rebecca spoke up a little shyly. “This whole experience has helped me finalise my dissertation topic,” she said. Authenticity as problematized by digital experience. So thank you all.

I am a long-term fan of Jennifer Egan’s novels. I’ve read them all at least once, although in most cases, as will become apparent shortly, that was quite a long time ago. As with many other people, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” has been my favourite and that is the one I have read most often, a fact that became true when I re-read it immediately prior to reading The Candy House because I was aware this new book was a sequel.

I have to be honest and admit I approached The Candy House with a mixture of excitement and nervousness, both feelings generated mainly by the fact that it is a sequel to Goon Squad. Goon Squad is one of my favourite books and this was confirmed when I re-read it just before reading this. So, I was excited about the prospect of a new book to follow it. However, one of the main reasons I have always liked Egan’s books is the way she continually challenges herself to do new things. And to me it felt that “writing a sequel” and “doing new things” might not fit well together.

So, simultaneously excited and nervous, I put down “A Visit from the Goon Squad” and picked up “The Candy House”…

This is a book that explores the artificiality of life in the world of social media and the internet (see opening quote). As with Goon Squad, there is little point in trying to summarise a plot because there isn’t one - as before, it’s a collection of connected short stories that explore the lives of a group of people. In some ways, it feels like a direct follow on from Goon Squad. Different stories again use different techniques and different voices. Stories often pick up a very minor character from an earlier story and make them a major character their own story. One chapter is a re-worked version of “Black Box” a novel in tweets that Egan published in 2012 initially in The New Yorker’s twitter feed but then in book form. If I had remembered Black Box better from 9 years ago when I read it (fat chance of that!), I would have expected it to be here because even though its protagonist is not named there is an explicit reference to a character in Goon Squad who is also a character in stories in The Candy House. The ideas about artificiality are linked to memory and the sharing of memory and this is handled via a kind of science-fiction plot line running through the book which didn’t really work for me although it is necessary to support the ideas the book is exploring.

And that kind of summarises my initial feelings as I worked through the book. It felt to me like a set of ideas looking for a story which, in turn, made the stories feel forced to me. A friend read this book just a few days ahead of me and we exchanged a few WhatsApp messages while I was reading. He pointed out that maybe the artificial nature of the story-telling was deliberate given the subject matter is also about artificial lives. It’s a strong argument but I am not entirely convinced. The book also introduces early on the idea of proxies whereby individuals choose to disengage from the connected web and a proxy steps in to maintain their online presence. I suggested to my friend that my reaction to the first part of the book was that Jennifer Egan had absconded and that the novel had been written by a proxy that hadn’t quite got it right. (PS my friend also pointed out a quote he thought would make my review and I am working hard to prove him wrong!).

But gradually the book began to win me round. I struggled with the sci-fi elements through the whole book (they seem to hinge on the idea that absolutely everything filters down to our long-term memory and I don’t think that’s true although I am willing to be proved wrong), but the other elements around our digital lives and around our authenticity started to draw me in. Plus, of course, this time round you don’t just have one book containing multiple connections, you have a new book that connects within itself but also back to Goon Squad in multiple ways (as an aside, I would definitely advise a re-read of Goon Squad prior to reading this, partly because you need Goon Squad to be fresh in you mind for this one and partly because, well, Goon Squad is just so good!).

Rating this one is difficult for me. For the first third-half of the book I was feeling quite disappointed and thinking I would have to go for 2-3 stars. But I got drawn in and ended up feeling much more positive about it. I probably finished in a 4 star place, but I have to recognise the struggle of that first portion of the book. I’ll probably record it here as 4 stars because you can’t do 3.5 and I did feel positive about the book by the end of it.
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I'll admit, I went into reading The Candy House with a lot of scepticism. A Visit from the Goon Squad is one of the best books I've read - and so unique- that I worried Jennifer Egan would end up making its legacy by writing a sequel. I needn't have worried. The Candy House is brilliant: an easy five-star rating and a very worthy successor.

Where Goon Squad is about music - the art and the scene and the ways both good and bad that they intertwine through the lives of a broad cast of characters - The Candy House takes on technology and the dangers our reliance on it. It's difficult to give any kind of meaningful sense of plot as plot isn't the point in this book and we again travel through time and through the eyes of many characters (many of whom we met in Goon Squad), but there’s a lot to reflect on within their experiences.

If you like fiction that plays with form and expands your mind, you need to read The Candy House - though I’d recommend reading Goon Squad first for the full textured, connected experience.
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In Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle award winning 2011 novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad”, one of the minor characters Bix, an early adopter of email, who is “big on predicting the future” suddenly says 

"The days of losing touch are almost gone ………… Everyone we’ve lost, we’ll find. Or they’ll find us ………..I picture it like Judgement Day ….We’ll rise up out of our bodies and find each other again in Spirit form.  We’ll meet in that new place, all of us together, and first it’ll seem strange, and pretty soon it’ll seem strange that you could ever lose someone, or get lost"

This novel, due for publication in 2022, is effectively a follow up to that book exploring the world of Bix's prophecy and moving from a focus on how the music industry is changing to one looking at the wider world of social media and connected devices while still retaining the focus on the ravages of time but with a greater focus here on memory,on privacy/sharing and on the way in which storytelling is needed to give meaning to information.

It has the same style with a series of chapters, written in different voices, persons, set at different times and sometimes straying into non-conventional forms, which are effectively designed to be read stand alone (many of the chapters of the previous novel had already been published individually) but which together form an interlinking novel – with minor characters in one story playing a more central role in another.  

Here the situation is made more complex by the interaction between the two novels – with almost every major and many minor characters from “Goon Squad” reappearing here (for example Bix and Mindy may well not be characters you remember from the first novel but they are integral here not just to the novel but to the very speculative future world described by the novel).  Further much of the narrative being taken up by the next generation of the characters in the first novel – Bernie’s son Chris (who you may vaguely recall from trying his father’s gold flakes on the trip to the fading girl band) is also integral.

I would strongly recommend to read the two novels back to back for the full experience – albeit given a key theme of this novel is retrieving (or in some cases erasing) memories it would be an interesting experience to see how much this book standalone prompts memories of its predecessor.

Brief outline of each story (note many of the characters are from Goon Squad):

The Affinity Charm: Bix – now the hugely famous founder and owner of a mega social media firm Mandala (which drew on an anthropological book – “Patterns of Affinity” by Miranda Kline) is struggling with a sudden loss of an visionary ideas.  Incognito he attends a small discussion group (after a Kline lecture) at the house of Ted Hollander where he meets a young graduate student Rebecca Amari and also hears ideas about externalizing animal perceptions which starts to spark his thinking.

Case Study: No One Got Hurt – is narrated by Rebecca Amari (who is researching authenticity) and is about Ted’s son Alfred who she takes as a subject.  Alfred is the youngest son (the oldest and very conventional Miles, the overlooked middle son Ames who works in military special ops) who from an early age mounts a deliberately provocative campaign against artifice/inauthenticity which goes through stages from wearing a paper bag on his head to prolonged public screaming. 

A Journey: A Stranger Comes to Town – is narrated alternately by Miles (who becomes addicted to opioids and throws his marriage and conventional life away) and Drew (married of course to Sasha – who is Miles cousin).  By now Mandala have developed their “Own Your Unconscious” App and the idea of the Collective Consciousness – where by uploading your memory you get some access to those of others.  Miles goes to stay with Sasha (now a conceptual desert-installation artist) and Drew as part of his rehab and the two feud.

Rhyme Scheme: the story is told by Lincoln (Sasha and Drew’s son) – something of (what we would currently) call a neuro-diverse type (but in the story Lincoln sees the world as counters – of which he is one - and typicals – and is clear the counters now run the world) who works at Mandala - his job being quantification, statistical analysis, measurement etc.  At this time there is a strong movement of eluders who actively seek to leave social media often by use of proxies (accounts run by bots on their behalf) – lead by a firm Mondrian.  One of Lincoln’s roles is to find ways to hunt out proxies who otherwise ruin much of the data analysis Mandala does.   Lincoln is preoccupied with a fellow worker Madeline against a background of an investigation into an eluder mole at Mandala. 

The Mystery of our Mother – is told by Melora, the youngest of two daughters from Lou Kline’s third marriage to Mindy (which broke up after his seduction of Jocelyn) and partly tells of how Melora took over his business (as well as that of Bernie Salazar) in her attempt to refashion the music industry for the world of sharing and partly about how she patented and sold her mother’s ideas (based around work she had done on predicting human interactions in an insular community) to social media firms such as Mandala (who could use it if people were voluntarily prepared to give them huge amounts of personal data – something Melora realises the use of streaming services is the first stage of).

What the Forest Remembers – is told by Charlene (from Lou’s second marriage) and is her exploring her father’s uploaded memories of a trip he took in the 1960s where he discovered his first band.  This was the weakest chapter for me.

Bright Day – is about Roxy (from Lou’s first marriage) and a Dungeon and Dragon’s group she joins at her rehab centre – run by Chris (Bennie Salazar’s son) who now runs a firm called Mondrian and is actively against much of the work of Mandala.  D&D – role playing and the possibility to invent a persona and a character is something of a recurring theme in the novel which fits its overall themes.  Roxy tries uploading and searching her memories and those of her father.  The story also features a childhood friend of Chris – Molly – who was also friends with him with Dolly’s daughter Lulu.

The Protagonist – is Chris’s story and tells of his work for a film tech company finding ways to “algebraize” films and TV shows for stock elements. While inadvertently dragged into what seems to be a bomb attack on his employer he also becomes disillusioned with his work and that of his employer.   He also visits his grandmother – Bennie’s mother – who is obsessed with the paintings of Mondrian.

The Perimeter: After – is told by Molly when she is thirteen – Molly is the daughter of Noreen (Stephanie and Bennie’s neighbour when they first move to a posh district) and tells of the social structure in the area and her interactions with Lulu and Chris 

Lulu the Spy – this is a distinctively told story of when Lulu (now married to an NSA operative) acts as a Citizen Spy in a high danger adventure – the chapter being told in the aphoristic second person style of her espionage training and also outlining the huge degree of body implants which are part of her mission.

The Perimeter – is told by one of Molly’s siblings and tells of Noreen’s obsession with Jules (when he moves in with his sister Stephanie) and with the boundary between their houses.  To some extent this is story is a retelling of large parts of “A to B” from “Goon Squad” from Noreen’s viewpoint.

See Below – this is the longest story (perhaps a little too long), a series of emails and messages between a rather bewildering number of familiar characters including (but not limited to) Lulu, Lulu’s NSA husband, Dolly, Kitty Jackson, Jules, Ames Hollander (who now runs a business cleaning up military implants), Bosco, Arc, Bennie, Alex, Stephanie, Chris, a famous film star and a series of PR agents and PAs.  This story is a lot about nostalgia, about revisiting past connections and memories – and by bringing in what feels like the full cast of “Goon Squad” and revisiting some of its great set pieces (Dolly, Kitty and Lou’s trip to X, the legendary Scotty concert organised by Alex, Benny and Lulu) has a very obvious meta-component.

So here we are, conniving once again to bump Scotty’s reputation, along with Bosco’s and—let’s be honest—my own and that of everyone else over 60 striving for cultural relevance in a world that seems to happen in a nonexistent “place” that we can’t even find unless our kids (or grandkids!) show it to us. The only route to relevance at our age is through tongue-in cheek nostalgia, but that is not—let me be very clear— our ultimate ambition. 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.

Eureka Gold – told by Bix’s son Gregory  after the death of Bix when to everyone’s surprise it emerges Bix had met up with Miranda Kline and Chris Salazar and is donating much of his legacy to Chris’s not-for-profit Mondrian.  Gregory himself is a wannabe writer – and has a sudden realisation that fiction is the real, non-mechanical, way to explore other people’s (and a collective) consciousness.

Middle Son (Area of Detail) is a slightly strange ending – telling of Ames childhood, secret ops service and then his post military business – told partly from his own memories, partly from those he has found in the collective. It contains a line which sums up much of the book

"Even so, there are gaps: holes left by eluding separatists bent upon upon hoarding their memories and keeping their secrets. Only Gregory Bouton’s machine—this one, fiction—lets us roam with absolute freedom through the human collective."

Overall thoroughly recommended for “Visit from the Goon Squad” fans and for those who have not read that book – a great excuse to visit a 21St Century classic and prize winning novel and its equally enjoyable, visionary and cleverly crafted follow up.
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Everything connects – but that may not always be advisable 4.5 raised to 5

This is such a complex, layered book, a read which really demands close attention by the reader.

Egan is a magnificent storyteller, and a wonderful inhabiter of different voices, different characters, AND plays around with the form of the novel itself, in a pleasing way. The multiplicity of voices, with a story told not in a linear fashion, but darting backwards and forwards in time, twining altogether reminded me in many ways of David Mitchell (Ghostwritten DM not the TV comedian/presenter DM)

The structure and feel of this is very much like a spider’s web. All stories, connect in some fashion to every other story – its as if any sticky thread, tugged a little, will make the whole web shiver. Not to mention, alert the spider. In my reading, that spider is consciousness itself. And, just maybe, collective consciousness might not be a good thing at all

Taking a time span from 1965 to 2035, ‘The Candy House’ follows the lives of several people who intersect each other. The central ‘catalyst’ in this one may be Bix Bouton – or it may be Miranda Kline. Kline had written a sociological/anthropological monograph, which looked at how trust and influence, amongst members of a Brazilian tribe, could be expressed in algorithms. Bouton (amongst others) took these ideas, to a place beyond where social media currently is, and into where it might actually be going. He creates a company, Mandala, and the means for individuals to access their own consciousness and memory banks, with equipment that ‘reads’ the brain. The exact memory, sensation, and inhabitation of prior events can be used therapeutically, for example with treating PTSD. And their comes a further twist – if a user of ‘Own Your Unconscious’ agrees to uphold the information from their brains to Mandala, they can get access to further layers of memory by accessing the memory of anyone in their own ‘past’ to get a further layer of immersion into other viewpoints. Spooky, huh?

And (such is the voraciousness which we already show through the way social media has currently taken us away from living in this moment, now, to living through the virtual, projecting unreal personas, becoming intimate with other unknown personas) its easy to imagine this further development

And inevitably, conspiracy theorists, big governments, security and surveillance services also fine this of interest

And the other side develops ‘eluders’ (just like people who refuse to use current social media, but at several more radical points) – those who try to evade, avoid, destroy the systems from within, by subverting the algorithms. It’s ‘I am not a Number I Am A Free Man’

There are so many marvellous layers within this. This is truly a big book, with big ideas, sparkling writing, a diverse group of excellently executed voices, humour, darkness, beauty and ugliness

I loved it – with certain reservations, as at times the huge cast of characters, and the several voices involved in the story as a whole, with the extremely intricate and convoluted ‘6 degrees of separation’ made it a little difficult to find just where this story, this person’s point of view glanced and coalesced to that person’s story or point of view.

I understood why a cast of characters wasn’t provided, as some connections are best discovered retrospectively, not known ‘to begin with’, but I suspect that had I read this in a wood book, rather than digitally, some information would have been missed, lost or forgotten by me – the Kindle offered the opportunity, as each ‘new’ name appeared, to see if that person had been previously named

I also think that those who had already read ‘Goon Squad’ would get MORE, or deeper layers out of this one as some characters were also in that book

Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for my ARC. And of course to Jennifer Egan, whose brain/mind is sparkling and fearsome!
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"Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it's all just information.' 

In The Candy House, Egan shows us exactly how to turn and twirl and sift information into story. The scale of this novel – its breadth and ambition – would easily fell a lesser writer. But she takes the brilliance and confusion of the times we live in (and the times we are yet to) and weaves them into a tale of such humanity and scope – lenses both far and microscopic – it is quite simply astonishing. Highly, highly recommended.
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