Jennifer Egan: The Candy House (2022) | featured image

Dare You Enter Jennifer Egan’s Mind Palace ‘The Candy House’?

Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is an EDM concert, a prestige drama, a mind palace – and a warning.

The Candy House
Jennifer Egan
April 2022

In Jennifer Egan’s brilliant 2022 novel The Candy House, tech billionaire Bix Bouton is the founder of social media company Mandala, a far more evocative and symbolic name than, say, Facebook, although there are certainly parallels. Its next breakthrough technology is called the Mandala Consciousness Cube and Own Your Unconscious, which allows users to upload their minds for exploration to an external hard drive built for human, rather than computer, memory. But the Cubes turn out to be shareable in a form called the Collective Consciousness, so that, when merged, they form a new kind of network of shareable, explorable, and exploitable linked memories.

The Candy House is also a network of shareable, explorable, and exploitable linked memories. Yet as good as the summary sounds, its plot isn’t its point at all. Its story is. I’ll explain.

“Plot” has become synonymous with story, sure, and there is plenty of plot—or, really, plots, plural: about new technologies. A man trying to rebuild his life; another taking his apart. A woman trying to understand her father; another trying to find hers. Movie stars and rock stars making comebacks; linguists and sociologists making surprising impacts on the culture.

To think of plot alone, though, in a novel as richly constructed as The Candy House is reductive, a mere math metaphor, points on a line to represent relationships between A and B. How one gets from A—life’s inspiring formative events—to B—life’s subsequent outcomes—is at the sweet center of The Candy House, as well as its predecessor, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). And, like A Visit from the Goon Squad, Candy House’s storytelling method is nonlinear, and so resists points on a line, i.e., plot. Egan’s novel operates in four dimensions, moving in space, form, view, and time, chapter by chapter. In that sense, it mirrors the workings of both human memory and the mind.

Just because the story inThe Candy House is not chronological does not mean it is not logical. It is, in many ways, ruled by logic, as meticulously arranged and enticing as the title’s fairy-tale image, including breadcrumb trails so the reader can find ways back. So rather than plot, here’s a different kind of math: the novel’s complex geometry, its elegant architecture. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan has written, was a kind of formal experiment. “My guiding rules,” she said, “were only these: 1) Each chapter had to be about a different person. 2) Each chapter had to have a different mood and tone and approach. 3) Each chapter had to stand completely on its own.”

In the same discussion, Egan also came to think of A Visit from the Goon Squad—which is structured, but not necessarily plotted, in two parts, two sides, A and B—as a “concept album. By which I mean the great storytelling albums I grew up with in the 1970s: The Who’s Tommy, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. A concept album is a story told in parts that sound completely different from each other (that’s the fun of an album, right?), yet also work together.”

A Visit from the Goon Squad opens with a chapter about Sasha, in what seems a conventional story of a woman, in her 30s, in New York’s East Village, in therapy. But its familiarity is a feint—the second chapter changes time and point of view to Bennie, mentioned previously as Sasha’s former record exec boss. A pattern emerges: a character is introduced in passing, almost beneath the reader’s notice, and will become the focus of a subsequent chapter, while the previously primary character becomes secondary. Yet throughout, patterns and motifs emerge; characters move, change, and develop. (A mandala, is, after all, a configuration of symbols, often representing a journey.)  

The novel-as-concept album is more evocative than thinking of the chapters as simply interconnected short stories, fitting Goon Squad’s theme as well, about the late stage of the analog music business. But much of the pleasure of that novel—and now, across and on to The Candy House—lies in making and mapping those connections, those social and neural networks, across time and perspective.

Candy House isn’t a sequel, exactly, or a sophomore album, even if its sections—”Build”, “Break”, “Drop”, and, near the end, “Build” again—are the EDM equivalent of the concept album’s A and B sides, techno-swapped with the implication of potentially never-ending loops. Looser in its self-imposed strictures, willing to reframe some approaches and perspectives to better serve its characters, and playful and self-aware in its titles, the chapters keep one track of Egan’s narrative turntable that is still spinning as the next one begins. It still spins as she passes the microphone from one character to the next, story to story, with some long tosses rather than close handoffs, and at least one chapter that’s an absolute mic drop.

Switching media analogies, The Candy House is a kind of A Visit from the Goon Squad Season 2 of a prestige drama. In the decade since A Visit from the Goon Squad was published, audiences have binged-watched and marveled at the number of characters and complexities across multiple seasons of The Sopranos, Lost, Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, network fare like This Is Us, and many more. The former experimentation of A Visit from the Goon Squad has become almost de rigueur visual storytelling today.

Or, if not an album, or a rave, or a series, The Candy House presents rooms in a mind palace, where one memory’s door leads to more doors leads to more doors, while some doors lead to other mind palaces entirely. The Mandala Cube is not the only way to connect minds.

Sasha became a kind of center to A Visit from the Goon Squad, the character who seemed the touchstone for the others, and to whom we would return later, and then, earlier, in her life. The Candy House’s opening chapter similarly introduces us to Bix—or, for some readers, reintroduces, as he was mentioned in A Visit from the Goon Squad—once again in the East Village, where this story began and then left off. Bix wants nothing less than to revolutionize our relationships with our own minds, and he has the theory and technology to make it happen.

Own Your Unconscious is still science fiction, but The Candy House is not. While it seems like I’m getting into the plot, only a few chapters are really about Own Your Unconscious, even as Bix’s big idea looms over subsequent events. Like Don DeLillo in his most recent two novels—The Silence (2020) and Zero K (2016), ostensibly about the sudden shutdown of all technology and cryogenics, respectively—Egan pitches a high concept and then, to her credit, refuses to see it through.

Indeed, The Candy House could have been a dystopian novel, much like an episode of Black Mirror, about the consequences of linking memories. It could have been a sci-fi warning: some people work for Mandala as “counters”, keeping track of uploaded lives, while others become “eluders”, Luddites who refuse to open their minds to a corporation. Or, for that matter, Candy House could have been a utopian novel, accounted for, then dispensed with, in a single sentence, where Own Your Unconscious “turned up all kinds of repressed brutalities, and thousands of abusers have been convicted based on the evidence of their victims’ externalized memories, viewed as film in courtrooms.”

Instead, we get something better — not concepts, or lessons, but people, places, and things. Bix’s framework for his invention comes from a text of anthropology— something Egan excels in—called Patterns of Affinity, which offers a key to human social interaction. Yet his motivation doesn’t even stem from wanting connection, but from loss: like Sasha, he has never recovered from a primal trauma in A Visit from the Goon Squad, a friend who drowned, possibly deliberately, despite the attempts to save him.

Egan’s engagement with technology strikes me as another feint anyway. (She still handwrites her first drafts.) In keeping with the fairy-tale image of the title and Bix’s traumatic motivation, Bix’s/Egan’s Own Your Unconscious is more literarily indebted to Sigmund Freud than to Facebook, her Collective Consciousness a clear nod to Carl Jung. The unconscious is, by definition, outside of our awareness, unless probed, and even then, it must be done with care. Only the capitalist acquisition mindset would dare to imagine owning the unconscious, let alone selling it. It is all of our desires and fears, which often turn out to be the same.

In keeping with Silicon Valley’s hubris, Egan deftly renames Jung’s Collective Unconscious (my emphasis) as its precise opposite. Technology, the novel implies, is not the way into the candy house of the unconscious, and it is certainly not the means to collectively externalize memory, to share dreams or nightmares. Instead, the novel posits, stories are. Bix’s son, Gregory, a child at the beginning, grows up to eschew his father’s technology to be an old-fashioned story writer.   

Beyond technology, even beyond people, Egan seems plainly in awe of the idea, the power, of stories themselves. She seems to see story—the long narrative arcs of our lives—as different from plot—the things that happen to happen. In this way, along with evoking Freud and Jung, as well as Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes, The Candy House ­seems in keeping with the school of literary criticism known as Russian Formalism. The Russian Formalists saw story as crucially different from plot, in order to understand not just what stories say, or what they are about, but how stories work.

How stories work is one of The Candy House’s preoccupations as well. In one chapter, “i, the Protagonist”, Chris Salazar (son of A Visit from the Goon Squad’s Bennie) works to create “algebraizations” of every scenario imaginable, much like Vladimir Propp’s 1928 book Morphology of the Folktale attempted to classify all the systematic characterizations and workings of folk- and fairy tales. But in Egan’s twist, Chris, like Bix, like all the people trying to turn interactions into equations, barely seems to understand human motives at all. What they understand is merely temptation.

And so the phrase “the candy house” turns up twice. The first time, it is, predictably, a warning, of treats that conceal threats. It portends the end of the record business, done in by file sharing, as is, subsequently and relatedly, personal privacy. In a rare example of a story narrated almost entirely in the first-person plural (“we”), the daughters of record producer Lou Kline (also from A Visit from the Goon Squad) understand what really becomes the product once the music is given away: “We contemplated a nationwide billboard campaign to remind people of the eternal law, Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairly takes warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free.” Hansel and Gretel enter the candy house for sweets, only to risk being eaten themselves. It is a warning against sharing our music, and later, ourselves.  

But the second time, Bennie, even later in life but still enlivened by rock ‘n’ roll, is attempting to plan a concert much like the one that concludes A Visit from the Goon Squad. Here, though, he says that “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.” The witch in Hansel and Gretel may be a monster. But to be bewitched—by music, by art, by story, even by candy? That’s what makes us human. After all, Hansel and Gretel were abandoned in the forest, starving. They didn’t need much enticement. In the end, after their capture, they wind up escaping the candy house by tricking the witch into climbing into the oven herself. They even find her treasure. It all works out pretty well for them.  

How, then, does The Candy House end? A Visit from the Goon Squad wraps up in the future, on the hopeful image that someone’s story is always beginning, even as the novel is concluding. The Candy House ends reminiscing about the past—tongue-in-cheek nostalgia?—way back in 1991, before the candy houses of cell phones, social networks, and Own Your Unconscious were built. After over 300 pages—in different voices, different forms—Egan, for a moment, drops all pretense: “Only Gregory Bouton’s machine [Bix’s son, the writer]—this one, fiction—lets us roam with absolute freedom through the human collective. But knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”

And so, the narrator concludes with a memory of his childhood, winning the big baseball game. Comedian George Carlin may have humorously contrasted baseball with football by crying that, unlike football’s “sudden death”, the object in baseball “is to go home!”—the wish of a mere child. But after what Hansel and Gretel went through—after what The Candy House’s characters have been through as well—going home, winning a trophy, and the possibilities of what comes after it are luxurious, even if they can’t help but be diminished by memory and retrospect.

One of the lessons of the nonlinear novel is that there can be only one first time. And so, when I closed the book, I felt that familiar pang of sadness that the experience, the joy, of reading this novel for the first time, was over. But Egan has opened up the potential for a new genre: not a series, or a set of sequels—there’s certainly no shortage of those. But rather, a set of novels that, like A Visit from the Goon Squad and Candy House, create a series of characters and stories that both fill gaps and create them, rabbit holes filled with Easter eggs, so that the records and narrative mic-passing can go on for as long as Egan wants to keep them spinning and singing. Not Russian Formalism, but maybe Russian dolls. I’m certainly looking forward to the possibility of a Season 3. I’m not at all full.