Jennifer Egan on Digital Technology and Creative Consciousness
The Author of The Candy House Talks to Jane Ciabattari
Jennifer Egan’s 2010 novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the National Book Critics Circle award and the Pulitzer Prize, was a meditation on time, fame, and music; I called it punk Proust for the Internet era in my interview with Egan at the time. (Flashback here.) Her new novel, The Candy House, is as formally innovative and profound as its predecessor—a multi-character prism through which to consider how digital innovations influence our daily lives, how we relate to those we love and those don’t, and who has the rights to our thoughts and dreams. I’d watched Egan in action on multiple stages at the June 2010 Book Expo America and met with her at an Upper West Side café near a Pilates studio where we both were regulars for an in-depth conversation when Goon Squad launched. This time, our exchange was virtual, not IRL.
Jane Ciabattari: How have you managed during this tumultuous time? Working on this new novel, sustaining relationships with your family, your circle of writing friends in Brooklyn and elsewhere?
Jennifer Egan: I guess the same way everyone has—by trying to solve whatever problem was directly in front of me! Certain things helped: meeting weekly with my writing group (to whom I’ve dedicated The Candy House) for the first year of the pandemic. Working outdoors through the whole first pandemic winter, swaddled in electric blankets in our tiny Brooklyn backyard no matter how cold it was—and seeing the most incredible array of birds. Buying an elliptical machine and working out daily for the first time since I had kids. Zoom drinks dates and long phone calls with family and friends. Lots and lots of reading, both of physical books and audiobooks, especially 18th and 19th-century novels.
JC: Was the manuscript for The Candy House in the works when A Visit from the Goon Squad was published in 2010? What process brought it to a 2022 publication?
JE: Well, “in the works” is probably going too far, but I was already imagining beyond Goon Squad by fall 2010, when I began working on the novella that is now the chapter called “Lulu the Spy, 2032.” The chief driver of Goon Squad was always my own curiosity, which I followed in any and every direction, hoping it would lead to good fiction (often it did not!). It would have been strange if my curiosity about those people and their lives had simply shut off. In a way it was just like real life: when I meet someone I haven’t seen in a while, I’m dying to know what’s happened to everyone we know in common. It’s fascinating to hear about people’s outcomes, even strangers! I had those same questions about the friends and family of Goon Squad characters—and I had inklings about their pasts and futures that I wanted to share. When a book ends, I don’t like to be left with more information than my readers have.My methodology, such as it is, has amounted to following my curiosity and hoping for the best.
JC: The Candy House spins out from Goon Squad, inserting many of the same characters, at different points in time. I’m curious about the process by which you decided which characters to amplify, which to let recede into bit parts?
JE: To some degree this was not in my control, unfortunately. There are still characters I’d like to examine more closely but haven’t been able to approach with enough success to create compelling fiction. My methodology, such as it is, has amounted to following my curiosity and hoping for the best. As to whom I was most curious about, I think two things dictated that: one was a sense of knowing things about certain people that that I wanted readers to know—for example, that Bix Bouton, who makes a very brief appearance in Goon Squad, would go on to invent social media. I was eager to revisit Bix after he’s become a tech icon. Another thing that piqued my curiosity was a sense that certain characters were quite opaque, which made me want to burst inside their inner lives and experience the world from their perspective. That was true of Lulu, a minor character in Goon Squad, and also of Miles, Ames and Alfred: three people we never even meet in Goon Squad, but just hear their names.
JC: How did you keep this from being a sequel or a prequel?
JE: Partly by extending the timeline backward as well as forward; The Candy House takes us to our earliest point in time, all the way back to 1965. Also, I didn’t re-read Goon Squad myself until The Candy House was almost done, as a way of not getting overly dependent on that book. I waited a little too long, it turned out, because I’d made a bunch of biographical and factual errors that in a few cases were tricky to fix!
JC: In an email, producer Bennie Salazar (a returnee from Goon Squad) writes, “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…” Where does your title The Candy House come from? What does it mean?
JE: Ideally a title operates as a kind of prism, so it stays interesting from an array of angles. There’s a lot about fairy tales in The Candy House, and I like that most people’s immediate reference for a “candy house” is the Grimm Hansel and Gretel story. But I think the reason that story has stayed with us all these years—two centuries, now—is a sense of archetypal recognition. An alluring vision contains a hidden threat; this describes a lot of human technological progress, even though it can take a while to perceive the threat. Think about the car, and what devastation the combustion engine turns out to have caused us!
But we didn’t know for many decades.
At the same time, I like to work against any interpretation I present. So although “never trust a candy house” exists in the world of The Candy House as a warning truism (much like “Time is a goon” does in Goon Squad), in the quote you include, Bennie is using the phrase in a much more benign and hopeful sense—the candy house as instrument of good.
JC: Like Goon Squad, The Candy House re-envisions or evolves the novel form, offering stories told via Twitter, email, texts. The episodes shift effortless through place and time. How did you do that? Following an outline? Trial and error?
JE: The latter!! I do use outlines, but all they can do is help me make promising work better; they can’t make something unworkable work. I tend to have a number of running wish lists in my mind and on my phone: structural devices I’d like to try; atmospheres I’d like to explore; ideas that seem of interest; characters I’m curious about. Then it’s a matter of waiting until a cluster of those impulses coalesces around a time and place, which is always my entry portal into fiction. When I have a time and a place, I write a first draft by hand and then type it up and, if it feels alive, begin revising it. But very often I don’t even get to the typing point, because I know that what I’ve written is inert. So it’s a matter of waiting until I somehow stumble into an approach that feels alive on the page. It can be a long wait!
JC: You bookend The Candy House with chapters revolving around Bix Bouton from Goon Squad. Bix is so wealthy as the founder of Mandala that his board has a security requirement that he never walk New York’s sidewalks alone. His use of anthropologist Miranda Kline’s algorithms to “predict trust and influence” in social media has made him a fortune. Similar research on uploading an animal’s perceptions using brain sensors leads to his Own Your Unconscious technology, which allows users to access the memories of others if they’re willing to share their own. Which leads to a counter movement of people called “eluders.” Is Bix a central character because he was the Internet visionary who saw far beyond what his wife Lizzie and her friends imagined the Internet to be in 1992—that “life as they knew it would soon shatter and be swept away, at which point everyone would rise together into a new metaphysical sphere?” How were you able to keep up with the dramatic shifts in tech research during the years you worked on this novel—and predict what comes next?
JE: Bix himself is no more central than the other characters, really—there’s only one chapter from his point of view (to some readers’ disappointment!). I did start writing about him very early, back in 2012. From the beginning I had a sense that something Bix would go on to invent—his next big idea after social media, which I credit him with inventing—would end up being important in The Candy House. What Bix’s new device would be, exactly, fell into place pretty late. It was driven more by things I wanted to do narratively (use stream of consciousness; create a feeling of moving among worlds and genres; make people able to witness each other’s thoughts; employ an invasively omniscient narrator) than by any tech knowledge of my own. I’m an incompetent late adopter without any real tech awareness beyond what anyone can read in the news.
JC: Lulu from your chapter “Lulu the Spy, 2032” is a child in Goon Squad. This chapter about a grown-up Lulu acting as a spy originated as a sci-fi story that set Twitter aflame in 2012, attracting spam, evolving into a story on The New Yorker’s Twitter feed and then in the magazine in June 2012. Did that experience reinforce or parallel your sense that communication on social media could be a two-edged sword? In The Candy House, you have a follow-up to her story, a chapter called “See Below,” narrated via texts, which interweaves many of the characters in the novel. When did you write that? Was it in your plan at the beginning? Was it more difficult than that Twitter story?
JE: Ah this is a great question. First, I didn’t worry too much about the reception of “Black Box” on Twitter, because that was always an experiment. The god I was serving—am always serving—is a literary god, and the short structural units of “Black Box” were integral to the story with or without the Twitter delivery. But the problem of how to house “Black Box” in a larger work was very tough to solve. I began by trying to write a story about Lulu’s return to civilian life in those same short structural units—the conceit being that she can’t stop narrating her life in the form of lessons learned, a sort of post-traumatic aftereffect. But oddly, though 140-character structural units had felt freeing and fun while I was writing “Black Box,” returning to them felt like wearing a straightjacket! About a hundred pages in, I gave up. Then I tried to write the story of Lulu’s spying aftermath in the form of session notes from a therapist she sees in her distress—but again, it went nowhere. In the end, I left aside the project of re-approaching Lulu for a long time, always knowing that, unless I could find a way to do it, I couldn’t use “Black Box” in my new book.
Meanwhile, I knew that I wanted to write an epistolary chapter. Very gradually, those two desires—to re-visit Lulu post-mission and to write a chapter in the form of e-communications, merged. And as soon as I started writing that, other characters swarmed into the narrative and I began to have that sense of flexibility and possibility and humor that is a sign that I’m on the right track.
JC: You make a variety of comparisons between fiction writing/the creative consciousness and the tech and internet inventions like Own Your Consciousness. Specifically, Bix’s Anti-Vision, his state of mind when he is awaiting the next breakthrough vision, as opposed to his son Gregory’s intimate personal vision as a budding fiction writer, sensing “human lives past and present, around him, inside him… The collective. He was feeling the collective without any machinery at all. And its stories, infinite and particular, would be his to tell.” Does this express your own sense of what fiction writing is?
JE: 100%. At a certain point, it felt essential to kick away the machinery and call attention to the real consciousness-exploration-device, which is the novel itself. To end the book without doing that would have felt coy and cagey and weirdly withholding.
JC: What are you working on now? Will you return to these characters?
JE: I hope to, but it will likely take a long time if it works out at all. I’m in the mood for a change, as I always am when I finish a book. I’m ready to go back to historical fiction and genre fiction—work that appears simpler to write on the surface, but for me is actually harder to pull off. Fragmentation lets you get away with a lot, and I have to keep myself honest!