‘The Candy House’ weds brilliant narration with beautiful prose
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel expertly spins a cohesive story out of many different threads
Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is a sequel of sorts to her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2010 novel, A Visit From the Good Squad. While the two books are linked by both storytelling style and inclusion of several common characters, Candy House operates exceptionally well as a standalone novel. I read Goon Squad some years back, but have very little memory of it. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything in Candy House.
Egan is a masterful writer and Candy House is a tremendous book. You’ll find plenty of glowing reviews floating around the internet should you care to look, but I want to take a few paragraphs to highlight what I see as its greatest strengths. Egan excels at thoughtfully musing about both present and future, her characters are all deeply interesting, and there are several truly beautiful examples of prose in this book (particularly near the end).
A Note on Structure
This book is written in different, self-contained chapters that each are about a different character. Many are told from a traditional, third-person narration, but there are also some told from shared perspectives, as logs of emails, in second-person, or something else equally distinct. The protagonist of each chapter is linked to the others in some way that usually becomes apparent about halfway through, which I found to be a clever way to link the broader story together and help readers make key connections.
Present and Future
Candy House has chapters set in the past, present, and future. But there’s a heavy emphasis on the future, especially as far as technology, surveillance, and social media go. The first chapter is about a tech executive searching for (and discovering) a new idea, which later chapters reveal to be a way to store, upload, and share one’s conscious and subconscious memories. Given the ever-growing state of today’s tech and social media companies in our real-world, present moment, it’s a timely and interesting narrative.
Other chapters tease this idea out even further. In one, for example, employees at a tech company search for online impersonators. While today that might bring to mind something like Twitter bots, in Candy House the impersonators have been hired by the people they’re pretending to be so that the original subjects can live out their lives in anonymity or disappear entirely. It’s a form of rebelling against the tech oligarchy.
Characters and Narration
Each chapter in Candy House had me hooked. This actually wasn’t my experience with Goon Squad, though now I’m not sure if that says more about myself or the books. Additionally, the narrative styles often shift between chapters, giving a distinct voice or color to each protagonist.
One particularly memorable chapter later in the book is told entirely through a trove of emails. It involves several characters from previous chapters, and binds together several narrative threads in a way that I found incredibly satisfying to read. Shortly before, readers will also find a chapter told entirely in second person, through the form of advice. These chapters are difficult to describe without giving too much away, so I’ll end this section by saying that there’s a tremendous amount of narrative and character diversity here.
What truly made me invested in Candy House is how much the different narrative threads all connected together. Each of the stories was interesting on its own, but I’m certain that the broader narrative (touching on the themes mentioned above) is what really kept me coming back to this book. There’s a sense of cohesion that is vital to this novel’s success.
I wanted to make this section one of excerpts of my favorite passages, but I realized that including all of those here might spoil significant parts of the novel. So, I’ll just include one section, from near the end. Egan writes:
It’s 1991, and a lot of things that are about to happen haven’t happened yet. The screens that everyone will hold twenty years form now haven’t been invented, and their bulky, sluggish predecessors have yet to break the surface of ordinary life. No one in this crowd has her seen a portable phone, which gives to this moment the quality of a pause. All these parents gathered in the fading light, and not a single face underlie by a bluish glow! They’re all here, in one place, their attention burning…
In 2022, it’s hard not to be disillusioned by the ubiquity of cell phones or the enormity of the tech giants that dominate the American social, economic, and cultural atmosphere. Egan gives voice to those feelings, while also imagining a future where the forces of tech have gone even further. Her writing is powerful.
- I just started replaying The Last of Us Part II, which is timely given the announcement of a remaster. I wrote some thoughts on Part II here
- Another excellent book from this year is Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, which is similar to Candy House in that it’s beautifully written and includes some timely passages about modern life, but different in many other ways. I really liked it!
- I’m enjoying Obi-Wan Kenobi on Disney+ and I’m sure I’ll have some thoughts on it soon. The last Star Wars show was a mixed bag, but it definitely had some good moments.
The views expressed are mine alone and do not represent the views of my employer or any other person or organization.