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Revisiting the goon squad

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – Even in an era of boundless hype, Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House has a legitimate claim on the title of Most Anticipated Book of the Year.

This is, after all, a sequel to A Visit From the Goon Squad Egan’s astonishing demonstration of literary bravado that swung through 2010, grabbing a Pulitzer Prize, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The Washington Post named Goon Squad one of the best books of 2010, and, later, other publications called it one of the greatest novels of the decade.

Egan’s creativity was so magnificent that commentators focused not on the storyline of Goon Squad but its multifarious forms, her confident array of perspectives – first, second and third – ranging through time and around the world, crescendoing with a 70-page PowerPoint presentation! It was a novel of such peacocking swagger that only its knockout triumph saved it from looking obnoxious.

Well, here we are more than a decade later, and even if you were a fan – as I was – the intervening years are likely to have beaten those characters from your memory. As someone in that earlier novel observed, “Time’s a goon,” and unfortunately, Egan is in no mood to help out, which means you’re likely to be as baffled as dazzled by The Candy House.

The music that ran through Goon Squad and gave the novel its melody is far harder to hear in these new chapters. Also, 12 years later, readers are less likely to be awed by literary experimentation. A chapter of tweets earns no love now. A second-person narrator? You shouldn’t have.

But if The Candy House is less uniformly successful than A Visit From the Goon Squad, it still contains terrific parts. The opening story reintroduces us to Bix Bouton, now a tech mogul whose social media company has made him very rich.

Exploiting the discoveries of an anthropologist name Miranda Kline, Bix monetised “algorithms that explained trust and influence” to build a “luminous sphere of interconnection”. Now, in his early 40s, despite his fame and vast wealth, Bix worries that he has “no vision beyond the one he’d nearly exhausted”.

It’s a fear that gives him “a haunted, hunted feeling” as he struggles to divine “what should happen next”.

We eventually learn that Bix went on to invent a program with the ironic name Own Your Unconscious, which completely reshaped human culture. Egan explains: “By uploading all or part of your externalised 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.” It’s a clever parody of the Faustian bargain we’ve made with social media, relinquishing our privacy for access to the comments, likes and images of others. The Candy House ties this sci-fi brain technology back to Napster, that revolutionary – largely illegal – peer-to-peer file-sharing platform that let people share their song files and their most intimate musical tastes with everyone.

“Who,” Egan asks, “could resist gaining access to the Collective Consciousness for the small price of making our own anonymously searchable?” In the world she imagines, most people sit down for a painless mind-dump on their 21st birthday, “never fully reckoning, in our excitement over our revelatory new freedom, with what we surrendered by sharing the entirety of our perceptions to the Internet”. It’s the candy house from Grimms’ fairy tales: the sweet, free bounty that comes with a horrible, unforeseen cost.

That’s the last time we see much of Bix, which is a shame, because he’s a singularly fascinating character. Making him a Black man was an interesting element of Goon Squad, but it’s one that Egan seems uninterested in pursuing.

What, after all, might America be like if our all-pervasive social media were shaped by the dreams of an African American? Much of The Candy House takes place in a future influenced by Bix’s revolution, but the novel rarely contends with the implications of that premise for Bix’s life, the tech industry or the world shaped by it. Instead, Bix’s skin colour remains about as relevant as his hair colour.

Partly, this is simply a matter of the book’s structure, which insists on constantly fracturing and abandoning its forms, themes and characters. But as other chapters leap to other lives, we see people who do resist the Web’s mind-absorbing candy.

Alfred Hollander, for instance, is so desperate for authenticity that he randomly screams just to discombobulate passing strangers for a moment. There’s also a whole cadre of “eluders”.

They’re “separatists bent upon hoarding their memories and keeping their secrets.” And radicals who can afford it hire fiction writers to impersonate them on the Web so that they can live outside this sphere of supposedly benevolent surveillance.

Miranda Kline, the anthropologist whose research on affinity and trust laid the foundations for Bix’s social media revolution, may be one of those mysterious radicals. In a chapter narrated in the plural first person, one of Kline’s daughters explains, “The omniscience of the Collective Consciousness is what the eluders want to escape so desperately that they’re willing to leave their identities behind. Some liken eluders to trapped animals gnawing off their own legs as the price of freedom.”

While Goon Squad gave readers the celebrated PowerPoint chapter, The Candy House offers a spy thriller conveyed in aphorisms tweeted in the second person. A decade ago, Egan actually posted this whole thing on Twitter, and then she published it in the New Yorker.

The chapter contains such observations as, “The fact that you feel like you’re dying doesn’t mean that you will die,” which reassured me during some particularly frustrating sections of this book.

Somewhat more effective is a chapter constructed from a great thicket of nested email conversations. But here again Egan presumes a lot on her readers’ ability to know what she’s talking about. It would have taken so little additional information to make this more inviting that I can’t help feeling the author was overindulged by her editor.

The chapters that work best embrace their radical forms more gently – or even mock them. One of the best is about Chris, the adult son of Bennie Salazar, the music producer who served as the axle of Goon Squad. Now an adult, Chris works at a shadowy software company trying to translate every element of every story into a mathematical formula.

Through a series of awkward encounters, Chris falls into a cerebral comedy of absurdity in which he realises that he has shifted from being the Protagonist to being an Enabling Sidekick: Toward the end of The Candy House, we come back to Bix’s 28-year-old son, who rejected his father’s work and wealth. He’s a struggling fiction writer who knows that we don’t need some new development of social media to access each other’s minds.

We already have these ancient things called books that allow us to feel “the collective without any machinery at all”.

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