“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.”
I really wanted to love The Candy House, Jennifer Egan’s follow-up to her highly innovative, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. Both books adopt the same structure of loosely connected stories spanning several decades in time and across many disparate points of view.
In A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan overcomes the intrinsic challenges of this narrative structure to build a coherent theme around the nature of time. Despite the lack of focus throughout much of the book, A Visit from the Goon Squad pulls everything together in its most creative (and polarizing) chapter, written in the format of a PowerPoint presentation. In my opinion, Egan pulls this off beautifully. The PowerPoint chapter was surprisingly heartfelt, leaving me in tears.
Unfortunately, Egan was unable to repeat this level of success with The Candy House, a loose sequel that features some of the side characters from A Visit from the Goon Squad. The fact that this is a sequel is not important, as there is no need to read A Visit from the Goon Squad first. Egan could have written the same book with characters that are fully independent from her previous work.
The Candy House starts off strong with a chapter on Bix Bouton, a Mark Zuckerberg-type figure who has invented a new social media-type technology for storing and retrieving memories. Bix is a bit of a naïve optimist concerning his technology. He is a compelling character; however, just as I became fully invested in his story, Egan cedes the narrative voice to a large cast of side characters. The remaining chapters feature the impact of Bix’s technology on these side characters, while Bix himself is left hanging.
Despite the common themes of the sociological impact of technology and the nature of memory, there is no overarching storyline here, nothing to pull these disparate stories together into a coherent whole. Instead of a PowerPoint chapter toward the end of the book, we have one chapter written in verse and another written as a series of email conversations. Neither of these chapters works nearly as effectively as the PowerPoint chapter from A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Many of the themes have been done better elsewhere. The development of artificial intelligence and the nature of memory has been presented much more compellingly in Liz Moore’s The Unseen World, an absolutely beautiful, heartfelt novel that left a permanent mark on me.
Part of The Candy House features a group of young people playing Dungeons & Dragons and experimenting with Bix’s memory device. This same plot has already been done by Mark Lawrence in the Impossible Times trilogy, beginning with his brilliant One Word Kill. While Lawrence succeeds in building a coherent, heartfelt story, Egan only gives us a passing glimpse into this world.
Egan also stumbles when it comes to the technical details of Bix’s technology. While Liz Moore and Mark Lawrence both shine in painting realistic pictures of artificial technology and memory storage technologies, Jennifer Egan resorts to hand-waving the technical details away. She presents some pseudo-math that, I think, is meant to be profound, but instead just doesn’t make any sense. For example, within a single sentence Egan describes the shape of the memory storage device as being both a square and a cube. Please pick a dimensionality and stick with it.
All in all, I was left disappointed by The Candy House. The innovative structure of A Visit from the Goon Squad has lost its shine here, leaving The Candy House as a pile of fragments rather than a coherent whole.