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With The Candy House, Pulitzer winner Jennifer Egan makes her case for the novel

The ambitious, kaleidoscopic follow-up to A Visit From the Goon Squad sticks the landing.

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The cover of the novel The Candy House by Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit From the Goon Squad Jennifer Egan.
The Candy House by Jennifer Egan.
Scribner

Time is a goon, marauding and thieving and vicious. But the 12 years that have gone by since Jennifer Egan published her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad have treated that book with kindness. Playful, ambitious, and formally inventive, Goon Squad stands as a model for what the contemporary novel could be and often isn’t: a book that sets out to express something new, and builds itself a wholly new form with which to do so.

Now Egan has released what she’s calling “a sibling novel” to A Visit From the Goon Squad titled The Candy House, which borrows its sprawling structure and a number of its characters from its predecessor. But where reading Goon Squad felt like watching a circus acrobat pull off a flip you’ve never seen before, The Candy House has a subtler joy. Reading this book is like watching Simone Biles execute a trick that she’s crafted and polished and honed to perfection. You already know she can do it, so now the pleasure is in watching the details. Every little nuance works.

The structural innovation Egan made with A Visit From the Goon Squad and repeats here with The Candy House is deceptively simple. It’s the novel as daisy chain: Each chapter picks up the point of view of a supporting character from a previous chapter, taking us from the mind of a strung-out record producer to his recovering addict daughter to her annoying D&D-playing sober companion. We hopscotch across time, meeting the same characters again and again, refracted through the lenses of dozens of different points of view. In 2010, Goon Squad dazzled readers with its famous PowerPoint chapter; in Candy House, Egan’s great format twist comes with a chapter told as a field guide for spies.

Technically speaking, The Candy House stands on its own, and if you read it without ever cracking the cover on Goon Squad, it will all make sense. If you approach it that way, however, you will most likely find the climax, which sees multiple Goon Squad characters briefly falling back into their old configurations, landing a little flat. The Candy House depends for its emotional oomph not just on your having read Goon Squad, but on your memories of Goon Squad being crisp and clear — which makes sense, because while Goon Squad was about time, Candy House is about memories.

It’s also about technology, that “candy house” that keeps enticing us to give up little pieces of ourselves to anonymous companies. And it’s about novels themselves, what we get out of them, and — you feel for Egan here — how incredibly intimidating they are to write.

The Candy House begins with Bix, who we last met in Goon Squad as a brilliant Black grad student in the early ’90s, evangelizing to his classmates about the oncoming wonders of the web. Now it’s 2010, and Bix runs a social media empire. He’s become a cultural icon, a Steve Jobs-like figure as famed for his style predilections (zoot suit, leather hat) as for his technological work.

But Bix has developed a fear. Like a novelist staring down the follow-up to the book that made him famous, Bix has become afraid that he won’t be able to make something else as good as his social media network was. He built his name on a purloined academic theory about mapping the connections and relationships between human beings. How can he pull off the same trick twice?

Bix finds his way forward with another scholarly concept. Upon hearing that academics have developed a way to “externalize” animal consciousness, Bix develops a device that allows users to upload the entire contents of their memories and share them in the searchable cloud-based format that comes to be called the Collective Consciousness.

The worldbuilding possibilities here are heady, but Egan gestures at them rather than getting too into the weeds. In a few brisk sentences, we learn that the Collective Consciousness, Facebook-like, comes to be useful for both reuniting with old friends and for law enforcement. There’s a half-submerged subplot about “eluders” — people who keep their lives off the internet, who eventually come to be considered dangerous renegades — but mostly, Egan is interested in the human-scale consequences of searchable, uploadable memories.

One woman revisits a much-cherished childhood trip through her father’s eyes, only to recoil away from his dismissive reactions to her. A “counter” working for a data harvesting company flinches squeamishly away from his professional obligation to look at other people’s memories. A citizen spy develops a paranoid belief that the government is looking at her memories even when she never uploaded them to the Collective Consciousness.

There’s a certain professional envy at work here, a kind of territorial protectiveness. We live in an era of unprecedented access to other people’s minds, to the daily detritus of human beings’ thoughts. Does this access — Egan asks, through the metaphor of the Collective Consciousness — actually make us better at understanding one another? Or are we better off with the novel, that old, old technology for empathy?

It probably won’t shock you that this novel comes down hard for novels as the winning option. But it’s hard to begrudge Egan’s decision to hand herself a win. Like A Visit From the Goon Squad before it, sweeping, kaleidoscopic Candy House more than makes its case.