Jennifer Egan The Candy House
We’re inclined to think that time is the ultimate people-mover, carrying us smoothly, relentlessly ever forward. But our experience is quite different. The present feels ever motionless, the past is a mess, much of which we’d prefer to forget, and edited unconsciously if remembered, while the future is elusive, one moment a promise, the next, a threat. Putting together a story to describe ourselves, we consider the whole shebang a smorgasbord, grabbing what we’re able to remember favorably, considered by the mood of the moment, assembled for an audience we both hope for and fear. We’re all novelists, writing with actions in time instead of words on paper.
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad perfectly captured our fractured experience of time. In the intervening years, much has changed, but that novel still feels real; the characters and experiences live on in The Candy House, where once again past, present and future mingle most happily. This time around, Bix Bouton, an internet nerd on the sidelines in the first book, takes center stage as the creator of a technology that allows users to download their consciousnesses (read: stories) to what we now call “the cloud.” Even though no such tech exists (or is even on the horizon), Egan manages to make it feel both real and happening now. The tech is presented not as menacing or particularly beneficial, which grounds the premise. It’s just another thing we have to deal with.
And so it goes, evading satire, sidestepping dystopia, tap-dancing around life’s rich pageant with a low-key joy and a light-hearted realism that makes these mixed up stories about mixed-up people who follow, rather than lead their lives, a total blast to read. Egan has the literary skill to blow you away and the street-smarts to let the reader lend a hand by making all the atemporal ties between characters who are unknowingly unstuck in time. She’s happy to hint at the grim implications of her invented pasts and futures, but her real interest is in connecting the dots between coping and hoping. Each of the characters has to conquer problems both self-induced and presented by time; problems from the past, present and future. For all the relentless horror the world offers us, human creativity has a rejoinder that at least gets us by until tomorrow. Even if we must pretend to smile, at least we don’t feel so bad about how it all turned out. The Candy House may think the future, the past and the present are all traps, but by any name you care to summon, they still taste sweet.
It’s a new world in which I spoke with Jennifer Egan, a future neither of us might have [wanted to] imagine. Here’s a link to a conversation from our past for your future. Or if you prefer the present, it’s right in front of you.