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The spoils of shared memory – ‘The Candy House’

April 20, 2022
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Great fiction is born not just of the story itself, but the manner in which the story is told. It sounds simple, but from simplicity springs truth.

Narratives that are built around a central conceit while spinning out multiple perspectives, for instance – tricky business. When done well, they can result in absolutely mesmerizing literature. When done poorly, well … we’ve all seen what happens when the spinning plates begin to tumble from their poles.

Jennifer Egan’s new novel “The Candy House” (Scribner, $28) very much occupies the former space, a hypnotic decades-spanning tale reflecting the juxtaposed light-and-dark possibilities looming in our very near future. There is no crashing literary dishware here. Instead, we get a sweeping epic rooted in the potential (and potential ramifications) that comes with the logical endstages of our societal tendency toward the sharing of experience and memory.

All of it, by the way, conveyed through a series of interconnected stylistically diverse vignettes that run the gamut – some are more traditional narrative constructions, while others veer into the abstract and/or absurd. We have email exchanges and second-person instructions, stories of tech billionaires and music producers and unsettled housewives, with the overarching tale playing out over multiple generations and venturing from our more-or-less present into an all-to-plausible future.

Attempting to condense the plot of “The Candy House” into a short synopsis is a fool’s errand; this narrative is too wide-ranging and thrillingly weird to lend itself to such an exercise. However, the central conceit from which our story spins out is this: a brilliant man named Bix Bouton and his company, the aptly-named Mandala, creates the next step in social media, the ability to upload and externalize our memories. From there, we get something known as “Own Your Unconscious,” which allows every single one of your memories to be easily and instantly accessed … and lets you share those same memories to a collective, which in turn grants you access to all the memories of anyone else who has engaged with the collective.

From that central event, “The Candy House” spirals rapidly outward in what feels like barely-controlled chaos. We bear witness as the consequences spread, through secondary, tertiary and quaternary connections. So many people – families and friends and more – impacted by what is discovered in the shadows of memory shared by the masses … and perhaps even more deeply impacted by those memories that have not been shared.

Ultimately, this is not a book reliant on plot – though the story Egan has crafted is plenty compelling, make no mistake – but rather about the in-the-moment reading experience. As we are pulled through the varying perspectives, with the connections – some overt, others subtle – playing out contextually, we’re steadily eased into the rich depths of the world that has been built for us. We come to exist in this place, a place that is different from where we are, but not so different that we’re unable to conceive of the path from here to there.

The moral and ethical ramifications of technology-as-connective-tissue are all over this book; even as we see the many benefits that come with the logical endgame of social media “sharing,” we’re also confronted with the potential downsides that – in theory – far outweigh any of the positives that might be derived from such a world. Striking the balance between respect for and distrust of technology is difficult – we need it, even if we don’t want to need it – but Egan does it with seeming effortlessness, even as she continually asks tough questions.

In this crazy-quilt patchwork, we’re left to live within the parameters of the experiences of the extensive dramatis personae. There’s something truly remarkable about it all; while one might have moved across immense distances in both time and space in the matter of just a few chapters, the line connecting the book’s beginning and end remains unbroken.

The comparison has been made to electronic dance music; indeed, there’s a build-break-drop delineation specifically at work here. It makes sense – there’s a pulsating rhythm at the heart of this novel, an enigmatic thumping that raises the heartrate and sends endorphins shooting through the synapses. There’s no disputing the musical influences at work here, both structurally and stylistically.

Egan is unafraid to challenge the reader, trusting that we will be willing and able to go along for the ride. There’s something deeply satisfying about that trust; it allows us to fully invest ourselves in the experience. It’s rare to feel like you’re operating in tandem with a writer, but Egan seems to be inviting us to collaborate – in “The Candy House,” the writing and the reading go hand in hand in a way we don’t often experience.

It's rare to realize in the moment that you’re reading a book that you’ll never forget. But that’s what it was like, working my way through “The Candy House.” The combination of story and storytelling is something that feels both foreign and familiar, an evolution of sorts. Egan doesn’t make it easy on the reader, but that’s by design – and it is undeniably worth the effort.

Last modified on Wednesday, 20 April 2022 07:03

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