Book review: Jennifer Egan plumbs social media for The Candy House

The Candy House is the sequel to Jennifer Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad. PHOTOS: PIETER VAN HATTEM, CORSAIR

The Candy House

By Jennifer Egan
Fiction/Corsair/Paperback/337 pages/$29.95/Buy here/Borrow here
4 out of 5

In the early days of the Internet, an anthropologist called Miranda Kline publishes a slender monograph containing algorithms drawn from her study of a secluded Brazilian tribe.

Titled Patterns Of Affinity, it contains algorithms that predict trust and influence. These are appropriated by social media companies, who use them to conquer the world.

American author Egan, last seen plumbing the past for her excellent historical novel Manhattan Beach (2017, buy here), has now returned to an exciting and uneasy future.

Here, memories can be digitally uploaded to a collective consciousness and accessed by others. Some people, whether for work or as a life choice, have devices called weevils implanted in their brains, which record their every thought.

The Candy House is the sequel to Egan's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From The Goon Squad (2010, buy here, borrow here).

It is similarly non-linear and experimental. Goon Squad famously had a chapter formatted as a PowerPoint presentation and The Candy House continues to play with form.

Lulu The Spy, 2032 is an espionage thriller written in the form of an instruction manual; while See Below traces, via multiple e-mail exchanges, an engaging saga of reconnection and reconciliation.

Both books share several related characters. A chameleonic writer, Egan slips convincingly into different voices - a teenage girl obsessing over her place on the friendship food chain; an autistic tech employee who analyses his love for a colleague through data; a man who seeks to provoke authentic human reactions by screaming in public.

The narrative dances in and out of the perspectives of various tangentially connected characters, an experience akin to scrolling through social media posts and navigating abruptly into another person's life via a tag.

What Egan is creating here is a network novel, driven not by the progression of a plot, but by the links among its characters.

She is also fascinated by matters of privacy and surveillance. Often alluded to is the schism between the uploaded faithful and the eluders, who opt out of online existence and go to great lengths to erase their digital footprint.

The title refers to the witch's trap in the fairy tale Hansel And Gretel. "Never trust a candy house," warn the daughters of a record producer brought low by streaming services. "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?"

One consequence of the novel's unusual structure is that few of the stories achieve significant depth - Lulu The Spy, 2032 is a startling exception - and nearly none reach a resolution. Several in the middle seem to go nowhere.

Issues such as race are glanced at, then abandoned.

Bix Bouton, the African-American inventor of fictional app Mandala, envisions in the 1990s that the metaphysical sphere of the Internet will deliver black people from real-world racism. It is a utopian vision laced with irony, given what one knows of today's toxic online spaces, but this is never really explored.

Yet, is this not how discourse often exists in the depthless digital world? Egan is cognisant of the way social media has reshaped the essence of story, reducing it to a series of brief snapshots that vanish after a day.

Her riposte is to render these impossibly vast networks through the machine of fiction, though she handles her big ideas with a light touch. She has a knack for making things look effortless - like taking candy from a baby.

If you like this, read: No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood (Bloomsbury, 2021, $26.95, buy here, borrow here), a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel which mimics "the infinite scroll" of a social media feed. A woman famous for her viral online posts has her real life upended when her sister's baby is born severely ill.

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