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'The Candy House' is a brilliant portrait of intersecting lives


I drew a character map while reading Jennifer Egan's The Candy House, just for the pleasure of charting the swooping, kaleidoscopic intersections of parents and children (and cousins and tennis partners and drug dealers) of a central set of people first introduced in her 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Mapping people in relation to each other is one of the central activities of characters in these novels — anthropologists, publicists, anxious high schoolers, or employees of social media companies all seem to be asking, What makes people matter to each other? And can you predict or control it, either for love or for profit?

A Visit from the Goon Squad first introduced Mindy, a beautiful 23-year-old anthropology student on safari with the much older record executive Lou Kline and some of his family and hangers-on. In her narration of the safari, she breaks down the group's reactions to her presence with deadpan, diagnostic precision: The "Structural Hatred" of an older woman "who wears high-collared shirts to conceal the already thready sinews of her neck" for an older man's younger girlfriend; or the "Structural Affection," of that man's young son, who "hasn't yet learned to separate his father's loves and desires from his own."

In The Candy House, Mindy has become Miranda Kline, a reclusive, brilliant anthropologist who after years living among a remote tribe in Brazil developed algorithms predicting "patterns of affinity," that is, "what made people like and trust one another."

To the dismay of Miranda (MK to her tech bro disciples), these algorithms have been weaponized by social media companies — especially Mandala, a company led by Bix Boulton, a minor Goon Squad character, reborn as the mononymous social media mogul "Bix." His biggest innovation is a product called "Own Your Unconscious," which allows you to externalize your mind and revisit your past whenever you want.

But it is one of the "ancillary features" of "Own Your Unconscious" that has upended society in The Candy House. The "Collective Consciousness" works like this: "By uploading all or part of your externalized memory to an online 'collective,' you gained proportionate access to the anonymous thoughts and memories of everyone in the world, living or dead, who had done the same."

(Sidenote: These fictional products raise obvious and enormous questions about truth and subjectivity in memory, not to mention the brain itself — would watching your past be like a movie? Does your brain retain all the details of everything you've ever seen? Do different people remember the past differently, and if so, which versions are "true"? Hilariously, Egan bypasses these questions entirely and unapologetically.)

These two linked technologies are both inconceivably invasive and basically familiar — our phones are in certain ways already our externalized consciousnesses (philosophers talk about "extended mind theory" — that our cognitive processes increasingly happen externally as well as internally), and the Collective is a kind of exponential internet. The phrase "the candy house" (as in Hansel and Gretel) refers to the (also deeply familiar) Faustian bargain of convenience and connection for loss of privacy.

Egan makes the appeal of the Collective Conscious extravagantly obvious: In addition to the clear benefits (victims of child abuse being able to identify their abusers, missing people easily located), there is eternal appeal of entering someone else's consciousness, a longing threading through human culture from the myth of Tiraseus to the terrible teen movie Freaky Friday to the project of fiction itself.

Mandala's inventions feel especially poignant in Egan's fictional worlds, which are so densely populated by addicts and alcoholics. These are people who don't own their pasts, in either the sense of literally remembering them, or in the sense of feeling any agency in the events of their lives. So often her characters are unable to understand or accept what happened, those crucial, ill-understood moments when everything went awry. Far from being cartoonishly evil, an obvious wrong, "Own Your Unconscious" has deep instinctive appeal. This is characteristic of Egan, who isn't interested in moral problems with obvious answers.

In The Candy House, there is a persistent, lovely countermelody to the corporate project of mapping human experience and using it to predict what people will think and buy. The novel is full of people engaged in a kind of sweeter and more plaintive human algebra. I haven't recently read a gentler or funnier description of longing than in one chapter here in which a "senior empiricist and metrics expert" named Lincoln tries to determine what will make his crush, "M", fall in love with him.

Lincoln (also a Goon Squad character) has already analyzed the roots of M's charm (including "four primary freckles on her nose and approximately twenty-four secondary freckles"), and evaluated the competition (of which "fully half possess at least one possibly-to-likely-disqualifying personal trait"). But what remains elusive is "x: the unknown value required to secure M's love." Maybe x is a stuffed hippo, or a music box, or "some really long tulips that are actually made of silk." He begins accumulating items.

Lincoln's is perhaps the most literal attempt to predict and control patterns of behavior, but so many characters are engaged in it in one form or another, like Molly, a lonely teenager at a country club trying to identify the elusive quality of cool, which she lacks: "...if you're nice to everyone, then why should people near you feel special and why should people NOT near you WANT to be near you, and why should anyone assume that the Times they are having without you are worse than the Times they would be having with you?"

Another character is working to "algebraize" storytelling, identifying and separating stock elements of a story so that, presumably, they can be assembled without human help: "stockblocks" include "Funny Best Friend Gets Serious to Talk Sense into Protagonist," "Blurred Faces Lean Over Protagonist, Gradually Sharpening," "Makeover Montage Followed by Gaping Reaction Shots," etc.

It's parody, of course, but Egan doesn't discount the power of stockblocks either. Her last chapter is a sepia-tinted description of a young boy's unlikely game-winning homerun, seemingly assembled of the most stock of stock elements (bases loaded, homerun from underdog, crowd goes wild, proud father claps shoulder). This is an author endlessly capable of experimentation (Egan shocked readers in 2010 with a chapter written as a PowerPoint presentation, quaint as it might sound now). But ending on something so straightforwardly conventional — so formulaic — feels not like a copout but rather like a winking flex, a master pianist infusing unexpected feeling into Chopsticks. It is moving, somehow, both despite and because of its familiarity.

Besides, while chopping stories up into tiny moveable parts sounds like something out of a tech dystopia, folklorists have been doing it for centuries. (In the "Aarne and Thompson Type Index" classification of folk tale elements, the first iteration of which was published in 1910, the Hansel and Gretel formula is "ATU Tale Type 327A"). We tell the same stories again and again; the beauty lies in the details.

It calls to mind something Lincoln, the "senior empiricist and metrics expert" notes, in defense of his attempts to organize the world into comprehensible categories and patterns. Quantifiability, he thinks, "doesn't make human life any less remarkable, or even (this is counterintuitive, I know) less mysterious — any more than identifying the rhyme scheme in a poem devalues the poem itself."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Annalisa Quinn is a contributing writer, reporter, and literary critic for NPR. She created NPR's Book News column and covers literature and culture for NPR.