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The Candy House coverJennifer Egan’s The Candy House is a novel about the internet. It announces itself as part of the canon of a recent literary phenomenon called the “new internet novel,” exemplified by works like Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021), Olivia Laing’s Crudo (2018), and Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts (2021). Thousands of words have been written in defining this phenomenon: it is a representation of social media or of the fragmented subjectivity of social media users, it is the literary market’s darling “auto fiction” making new strides, it is a new mode of formal experimentation, and so on. For Egan, the new internet novel is a “sibling” to an earlier novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), whose form somewhat produced the polyphonous, informationally crammed, loosely connected threads that we can, if we try, already associate with the internet.

The Candy House, published more than a decade after A Visit from the Goon Squad, is quite similarly structured. There are thematic sections in both the novels, and while A Visit from the Goon Squad’s contents resembled an album and its B-sides, The Candy House is a riff off of the supposedly popular genre of electronic dance music, with sections titled “Build,” “Break,” “Drop,” and “Build” again. Both novels contain over a dozen interconnected stories told by characters who have analog relationships to each other, and each chapter uses a varying-perspective style. The characters we met in A Visit from the Goon Squad, like Bennie Salazar, Sasha, Drew, or Bix, are now older, judged by their children and sought out by admirers. The Candy House, again like A Visit from the Goon Squad, is mostly narrated in third person, but it also includes chapters where seemingly novel formal experiments take place. There’s the third-person narrative about a book, a chapter about breaking down character motivations into a calculus of tropes, chapters where some characters are entirely narrated by other characters; there’s even an instant-messaging exchange, which, considering the number of participants, looks like it has been collected by a data collecting company with an eye towards narrative coherence.

The drone-image (a more contemporary idiom, perhaps, for the “bird’s-eye view”) of either novel is one of disparate parts put together, emphasizing the kind of nonlinear style where a novel read back-to-front would produce something similar to the more conventional book order (as in Ali Smith’s How to Be Both [2014]), or one that can be read in any order, where the dizzying array is the primary story (such as B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates [1969], which, unsurprisingly, has already been touted as a novel for the “digital age” in 2014). But ask any literary scholar, and they will affirm that the experimental novel is as old as the novel itself; and in the course of the novel’s growth as a form, some novels tend more towards the formal experiment—in order to produce a dissociative effect in the reader—while others conclusively emphasize the coherence of narrative in whatever form. Both The Candy House and A Visit from the Goon Squad, for all their experimentation, belong resolutely to the latter category. The demands they make on the reader—to remember names and relationships between characters, to spot meta-narratives, to make sense of slightly odd forms—are ultimately resolved by the guiding hand of the authorial voice. “Why is The Candy House an internet novel?” you may ask. You will see that, for all its experiments, both subject and object, both content and form come together by the novel’s end. For Egan, The Candy House resembles the internet in the same way all literature already resembles the internet: as an amalgamation of stories.

In the following paragraphs, I want to consider the fictions of the internet novel as less of an experiment in mimetic representations of the world as is, fragmentary stories or not, and more of a coup against the revolutionary potential of science fiction. What sort of internet is present in The Candy House and what is it made to do?

*

He wanted to laugh or shout. Finish your book! Here was his father’s parting gift: a galaxy of human lives hurtling towards his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective.

This paragraph, occurring towards the end of the novel, considers the “gifts” of Bix Bouton—i.e., Own Your Consciousness, a totalizing technological paradigm that has reshaped the world. It’s something like Facebook, but only if we focus on the company’s dissemination and ignore that Facebook’s inception was an attempt to develop a platform to rate hot women in Ivy League colleges. The Candy House, however, is not an episode of Black Mirror or any of the influential novels that have tried to imagine the impacts of invasive and inescapable technological development, from the oeuvre of William Gibson to Neal Stephenson to Cory Doctorow. There is no order of the dystopic, no warning message to ponder over. Instead, the technology is simply used as a narrative device without any pretension. It produces motivation for the characters, momentum and direction for each account, and broadly, an object for each of the narratives to have responses to.

Own Your Consciousness—the technology developed by Bix Bouton in the twilight of his career after the successes of an earlier social media platform, Mandala—functions in the novel as a repository of memories. Users upload their memories onto the platform via a memory cube, a device made by Mandala, through neurological tethers worn for just four hours. These memories can then be accessed by every other user through an ancillary feature of the interface. Most of the characters in the novel have grown into this iteration of the internet, using it to access memories of their traumas, parents (whether dead or alive), minor associates they identify with, to rail against, and even to do their research. They remain plugged in to the devices for hours on end, using varied new attachments that can bring the consciousness closer to the collective. The internet, for most of them (and as far as Egan is concerned), is a topological feature of their lives—a place. The primary setting of the novel, however, is America itself, with urban alleys and rural landscapes appearing through lush descriptions. The country’s geography is reproduced through so many perspective shifts that it cannot help but become an object of the reader’s investment. Other nations and locales exist but they remain unnamed, squarely slotted as an undistinguishable not America [1]. These other locales are a lot like the internet; they are placeholders where characters go to lose their (American) identity.

Lulu, a character returned from A Visit from the Goon Squad, brings these geographies into conversation with each other. Even before The Candy House, she was a character on the internet, part of Egan’s experiment at writing a Twitter fiction called “Black Box,” with a narrative arc spread over 140-character tweets. This short story is included in the novel (for some reason with the even more infantilizing chapter title, “Lulu the Spy, 2023”) as a series of aphoristic statements in second person, which the reader is to assume is the effect of the invasive technologies with which Lulu has been outfitted to fulfil a patriotic spying mission. For this chapter, Lulu is a set of embodied instructions such as “Giggling is sometimes better than answering” or “Always filter your observations and experience through the lens of their didactic value.” Throughout the novel thereafter, Lulu is a paranoid woman who believes that she is being surveilled from within her own body, and that her thoughts are no longer her own. The other characters around her, all of whom care about her deeply, comment upon the loss of her personhood and the increasing amounts of time she spends chatting on the internet with strangers. Similarly, Ames, another figure of the new generation and a character only mentioned once in A Visit from the Goon Squad, all but loses his ability to produce an authentic experience because of the total desensitization in the post-internet era. There’s no mistaking that Egan views the internet and its technologies as a honey trap; the novel contains the etiology presaged by the title. As Bennie Salazar, now a different man from the insecure divorcee we met in A Visit from the Goon Squad, says: “Tongue-in-cheek nostalgia is merely the portal, the candy house, if you will, through which we hope to lure in a new generation and bewitch them.” At every instance, the internet promises to be a habitable place and a community, but in the end, it only produces navel-gazing; it offers only self-aggrandizement and narrative propaganda. Egan may not have thought through what cybernetic science fiction has already pronounced: the internet may seem like a place, but in the end, it is data and it cannot be occupied.

Yet still, the desire for identity, authenticity, and community are linked to produce a determinedly American and contemporary subject in Egan’s novels. In Look at Me (2001), a literary tome along the themes of perception, audience, immortality, and fame (much like the SFF classic, The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D. G. Compton [1973]), Egan presumes to produce a narrative of the gaze. Look at Me offers varied images of the self as it is duly refracted through many mediums, rendered within specified contexts and external to it. In The Candy House, these discourses of perception are present, and further complicated through their presence as facets of memory on the internet. The collective whirrs and watches. The characters are constantly perceived and their past is available on demand, for profit, with the touch of a button. If there is authenticity it is only that of the commodified subject; if there is to be community, it is one of watchers. This reification of identity through memory, in some ways, makes A Visit from the Goon Squad almost a precursor to The Candy House; the previously penned novel (and its characters) becomes a memory of the recent one.

For all the remarked upon “prescience” of most of her novels, Egan’s timeline is ordered and linear, set consummately in the immediate now. The movement of images and narratives are not dissociative or estranging—there is not even a hint of foreshadowing—even as the technologies become terrifying: bodily invasions used in military manoeuvres, or when a shadow society of dissenters emerges to counter the impact of the tech. In the Guardian, Egan responds to a comment about the horrifying aspects of Bix’s invention: “I would never think: ‘Oh, here’s this invention, it’s terrible!’ I wouldn’t want to write about something that struck me that way. It was more of a wish fulfilment.” After all, as she later adds, Egan isn’t interested in the technology, only in “how it interacts with our relationships, and our relationships to ourselves.” The internet may be a narrative device but that does not explain why, even in terms of the form, the futuristic technology decides little in terms of style and genre: the most inventive chapter is still that of the email chain. The way Egan uses the internet, either as form or as a mediator in relationships, is in this way dated and a little reactionary. But the novel’s own self-referentiality comes to her rescue by offering up a knowing excuse: as a character in the novel admits, the whole thing is “a geezer fest.”

The Candy House is so hemmed in—by its own reactionary impulses, by the conceit of memory, by its limited vision of the internet—that it seems to me to eschew any future that does not have a place in its own closely knit network. In this, I see Egan as producing the internet as a self-replicating dead end. Consider Bix Bouton’s technologies: Own Your Consciousness and Mandala. The latter is a network where people are classified and brought together in terms of certain predetermined personality traits called “affinities.” Mandala is particular in the way that it refuses to accept any other epistemic claims of ordering the world and at the same time, as a private tech company, subsumes all claims and sociability into itself [2]. Own Your Consciousness, picking up from this precept, continues to privilege a mind-body dualism, making memory not a movement of musculature and experience, but of narrative.

A caveat: there would be no reason to consider the ethics and impacts of this technology if I did not see Egan as treating technology as a “neutral” object while her characters simultaneously seem to struggle to make lives in its shadow. The characters in The Candy House are constantly clamouring for agency of some kind (feeling common ennui and lack of wonder) only to return to the ease of legacy [3]. A Visit from the Goon Squad’s children populate the large expanse of The Candy House, and all their time is spent yearning for a solipsistic intellectual future, or for the equally solipsistic traumas of the past. In a world whose technology denies the existence of otherness, what really can the internet connect us to, and less importantly, what fictions can it weave?

*

The Candy House is unlike other so-called internet novels that are actually all about social media—usually, Twitter. It does not set out to produce an experience of being “terminally online” (as the term goes) like Lockwood or Oyler, that alienated and abject pose we supposedly take—hunched shoulders, slack-jawed expressions, backlit screen, a perpetually regenerating exegetical account in our hands. Egan personally doesn’t use Twitter, and I have a hunch that in its place she made up a whole technocratic paradigm just to think through the phenomenon, a trick science fiction writers often keep up their sleeve but one she did not use in her earlier novels. Perhaps, and this inference is evinced by the epiphanies of the characters in The Candy House, she has indeed identified the impulses of the internet. She’s caught on to the narrative mode in which a lot of us now live our lives, a little paranoid reading, a little repetition compulsion, a therapeutic experience of telling and retelling our lives. She’s even better at sympathetically narrating the impulses of technocrats who assume they will innovate their way out of world crisis by alleviating their personal alienation. But where Oyler, Laing, or Lockwood have taken on the internet as an aesthetic project, Egan doesn’t quite know where the universality of such experience lies.

In this, The Candy House isn’t quite the trendy “internet novel,” but neither is it science fiction—unless, of course, we think science fiction is simply narrative stretched through the eye of hypothetical gadgetry—or if, more controversially, we think all novels about cybernetics are “internet novels.” They’re not. Novels such as Snow Crash (1992) or Neuromancer (1984) identified the nature of the internet not merely as a space of cultural evolution, but one determined by the extraction of capital. Even as it told stories of heists and cons and tricking the machine, the social spaces of the novels were not built from the comingling narratives of many minds, but through navigating a plethora of advertising and commerce. These were capitalism-on-steroids systems, not stories of benevolent moguls waxing poetic in their brownstone mansions or artists producing drone images. If cyberpunk and science fictional novels about the internet have to do with arresting capitalist impulses in narrative, then The Candy House has no place in that canon either.

Instead, I accept that this is an interesting exercise in literary play—it’s just horsing around when you have a backyard to run through. Egan has written a self-explanatory paean to the social potentialities of the internet in a despondent mode, releasing hope into the world that technocrat billionaires aren’t all that bad. But then again, her internet is a small network composed of neighbours and family members in/out of picket-fenced America. What else does she know?

Endnotes

[1] So much for avoiding Orientalism by avoiding mention of difference entirely. Egan manages to make every other setting, say an island nation or a country coming out of dictatorial rule, nondescript and bland. [return]

[2] All the characters in both these novels are closely related—either a familial relation, a neighbour, a childhood friend, or a muse. Vastly differing epistemic claims are unlikely to be made by people who are all quite like each other. [return]

[3] In her personal life, while Egan herself does not think she would join the “collective,” she believes that technocrats proverbially have their hearts in a good place. She tells Vogue about how a short-lived relationship with Steve Jobs influences her: “[I]t’s always very useful for me to remember that these devices often have a very utopian vision … by the time the technology reaches the consumer, it’s easy to impute a kind of malice or cynicism to the inventors.” [return]



Shinjini Dey is an editor, writer, and reviewer. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Review of Books, Analog Fact and Fiction, Decolonial Hacker and many others. She can be found on Twitter at @shinjini_dey.
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