Should You Read The Candy House by Jennifer Egan?

“‘I have this craving,’ Bix said as he stood beside the bed stretching out his shoulders and spine, a nightly ritual before lying down. ‘Just to talk.’

“Lizzie met his eyes over the dark curls of Gregory, their youngest, who was suckling at her breast. ‘Listening,’ she murmured.”

– Opening of The Candy House

Like its predecessor A Visit from the Goon Squad (review here), The Candy House has the feel of a series of interconnected stories surrounding a large cast of characters. Starting with Bix Bouton, who appeared briefly in Goon Squad as an old friend of Sasha’s, this book centers loosely around his company and its use of sci-fi technology for the uploading and sharing of memories. A number of other characters make reappearances as well, notably Miranda (Mindy) Kline, who was previously shown on safari with Lou and now turns out to have done the very research that Bix draws upon for the work of his company. As in Goon Squad, a variety of perspectives and styles are used to tell stories focused around the characters, each chapter focusing on a different one.

Unlike Goon Squad, however, this book has a hopeful feel to it. Many chapters have happy endings or at least show their characters experiencing moments of happiness, and there are even redemption arcs. Whereas the first book left me feeling that this world and all the people in it were messed up and all that could be hoped for was continuing to endure in spite of it, this book seemed to extend the possibility that everything is going to be ok anyway.

In some cases, this seemed to flow quite naturally, but I must say that in others it seemed to stretch the bounds of my belief. There was one character in particular whose awful character traits seemed muted, but only around specific other characters who first appear in this book. There is an explanation for this, which involves him going out of his way to hide things from these characters, but it seemed a little hand-wavey to me. In fact, I wondered if it might be something of a retcon, just as some of the sci-fi elements that appeared at the end of Goon Squad seem to have been retconned in light of what has happened in the real world in the intervening years since that first book was published (2010).

In another case, I felt like I was supposed to be happy about the way things wrapped up for a particular character where I felt there was some moral ambiguity, at the very least, in terms of how that ending was gained. Looking back at the previous example mentioned, I think that’s part of what’s bothering me there as well, that a character who did some truly execrable things now doesn’t seem to be quite so deplorable. While I certainly appreciate the adjustments to the tone of the novel as a whole, I wish it had been handled slightly differently.

Or maybe I was supposed to be feeling these sorts of reservations, and I’m missing some larger artistic point. I suppose that’s entirely possible. It does seem like the sort of book that’s attempting to encourage you to consider things for yourself rather than driving home a point. If you’re looking for a book that openly condemns a piece of hypothetical technology, you’d be better off reading something like M. T. Anderson’s Feed. This one seems to take the stance that the memory technology depicted would be an overall negative for society, but it does so very quietly, to the extent that I don’t feel entirely certain of it. Certainly it didn’t present a strong enough case to convince me personally that it couldn’t be hypothetically regulated and/or reappropriated into a net positive for society rather than a societal evil.

Of course, I think that also gets into the fact that the technology itself is neither explained nor explored in as much detail as I would have liked as a sci-fi fan with a particular interest in computers. The technology is certainly present, and a number of characters are shown making use of it and/or rejecting it, but I had questions that I never got the answers to, and I didn’t feel that I have enough information about the capabilities and effects of the technology to spend time in deep consideration of it or of any real world parallel.

In the end, this isn’t a sci-fi book written in a literary style. It’s a literary novel with a science fiction flavor. And that’s perfectly ok if you’re reading it for the excellent writing style (incredibly smooth and jaw-droppingly varied) or for stories about characters (there’s an impressively varied cast as well, each person feeling like a unique individual) or simply for the enjoyment of seeing how so many characters and so many storylines weave together to form a whole (given that they weave together with Goon Squad also, this is particularly intricate—I could go on and on about how they all connect and quite enjoy my time spent doing so).

For my part, I’m glad I read Candy House after Goon Squad if for no other reason than it did succeed in brightening my mood. I’ll also admit that I still don’t know how Egan did such an amazing job of keeping me feverishly reading sentence after sentence and paragraph after paragraph and page after page without the high-stakes drama I typically associate with such an experience. I stand in envy of her prose, and I can only hope that I absorbed some intuitive knowledge of the craft through the act of reading it.

If you enjoyed A Visit from the Goon Squad, I definitely recommend this one, since it’s so similar that you’re practically bound to enjoy one if you enjoyed the other. As an added bonus, you’ll be able to discover what happens to so many of the characters you’ll recognize. If you’re interested in reading it for the writing quality or the style, I dare you to pick it up at a bookstore or library or look it up on Amazon to take a peek at the first few pages and see if you’re hooked. Don’t expect Asimov levels of sci-fi, but appreciate it for what it is.

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