Jennifer Egan Leads a Tour of Her Latest Fractured Fairytale

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Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

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In the song “Fashion,” David Bowie once warned, “We are the Goon Squad and we’re coming to town.” Beep beep, indeed. Now—following her own Bowiesque tendency toward technological and societal speculation—Jennifer Egan’s Pulitzer-winning Goon Squad has returned, this time via a sequel entitled The Candy House: a postmodern fairy tale that breadcrumbs readers through questions about the implications of digital technology, the illusion or authenticity of fate, and the nature of consciousness.

Egan spoke with me recently about The Candy House, and I opened our talk with the observation that the book’s predecessor—A Visit from the Goon Squad—is likely the only Pulitzer-recognized novel to include a mention of the foundational noise-punk band Flipper.

“A friend of mine actually dated their bassist when I was in high school, so I saw a lot of Flipper shows,” said Egan, who grew up in or around the San Francisco punk scene of the late 1970s. “I was not in the middle of anything. I was always a kind of adjacent observer—but I was able to observe some really cool stuff.”

She stood suddenly and moved off-camera.

“The cat is yelling,” she said. “I have to let her in. She’s becoming a Zoom addict and cannot bear to be left out of any Zoom conversation.”

It’s fitting that our talk took place via Zoom, for as she explained about The Candy House (which she began writing years before Zoom was created, let alone became a virtual necessity), “I had decided I wanted it to be full of portals. I wanted to have that sort of Dungeons and Dragons feeling of moving between worlds. I thought about the book Prince Caspian; this conceit that people jump into pools and they go into a different world depending on which pool they're in.”

Jennifer Egan's Advice to Writers

A major factor in Goon Squad, technology plays an even more central role in The Candy House. In the former, a relatively minor character named Bix Bouton invented social media. In the sequel, Bouton is promoted into the narrative spotlight and creates a piece of tech called Own Your Unconscious, which allows people to view one another’s memories in a firsthand, experiential manner. In Egan’s imagined universe (which doesn’t feel far from ours), Bouton’s efforts have given rise to the “Self-Surveillance Era” in which there are those who share and seek anything and everything about everybody, “eluders” who aim to retain the outdated concept of privacy, and civilian-agents of the government who have recording devices implanted directly into their bodies to support missions aimed at furthering a somewhat exaggerated post-9/11 conception of national security.

Here in our only-slightly less severe version of the Self-Surveillance Era, Own Your Unconscious seems like a frightfully logical next step. We have little privacy left to sell anyway.

Going into The Candy House, Egan knew that she wanted Bix to invent something radically beyond social media. The result was sharing—or invasion—to the max.

“What that invention would be was suggested to me by the narrative itself,” she explained via Zoom, “and it was really driven by what I wanted to do fictionally, not what I wanted to do technologically. I started thinking about the idea of crossing from one reality to another. In a way it followed naturally and kind of happened in the writing itself—that the machine is the thing that lets people go from one world to another. In other words, it lets them do the thing we can never do except by reading, which is enter into another consciousness from the inside.”

While tech is fundamental to the Goon Squad/Candy House narrative, Egan’s use of it is more due to situation than fascination.

“I’m not a technologically oriented person at all. I'm a late adopter. I didn't get an iPhone ’til almost 2012. So I’m not enamored of tech or interested in it, per se. What I’m interested in is how it affects people’s lives, especially their internal lives.”

To Egan, technology is the titular “candy house” that is as alluring as it is dangerous—something straight out of Grimm. She explained that while the title for Goon Squad had come to her years before writing the book, she had trouble deciding what to call the sequel, eventually finding a title in the text itself: Never trust a candy house.

“It connects to the world of myths and fairy tales,” she explained. “It’s so suggestive of human nature in our relationship to so many things, and certainly technology, whether it be the car or the app. We always think about what we can get before we think about what we’re giving up, especially if what we’re giving up is more subtle than the purchase price. In the case of the car, it’s taken us decades to realize what we’re giving up. I only wish we had known back when the combustion engine was invented. Talk about inventions with unintended consequences! Nothing digital can come close to comparing to the consequences we’re dealing with in terms of the combustion engine. Anyway, when I think of the candy house, I use it in the book in two ways. One is as a warning, and then the other is an inducement. I'm hoping this book will be a candy house. I want to bring people in and whatever it takes I’ll do. I guess The Candy House is just the enticement in the hope of relevance.”

I mentioned how in Hansel and Gretel, the candy house enticement didn’t work out so well for the witch.

“It’s just a really rich and exciting idea somehow to me,” she shrugged. “I also love candy.”

In the past, Egan stated that with each successive writing project she hopes to face a new challenge. What challenge, then, did she encounter in returning to the world of Goon Squad?

“I was very eager to use narrative approaches I hadn’t used in Goon Squad,” she explained. “The first challenge was just that it [The Candy House] has a predecessor, which felt really challenging, because what I found with Goon Squad was that each chapter became harder to write than the last because each time I was more hemmed in by preexisting facts about characters and events. So the freewheeling feeling that I like to have when I write first drafts—it was very hard to accomplish that. A related challenge was, how is this going to not just be a kind of tepid echo of Goon Squad? I would never have published it if I felt like that was happening, and that was a serious possibility. I always gave myself that out. Like, you don't have to write another book about this, I never promised it ever. No one's holding me to it. Like, who cares? So that was one thing.

“Then there was the challenge of having decided to adhere to certain things about Goon Squad to keep them related—if it is a sort of companion volume, what are the things I want to keep? And those things were the three structural choices about Goon Squad that I think are somewhat defining.

“One is that each chapter stands completely on its own. One is that each chapter is from a different point of view. And the third is just each one has to be technically distinct from the others and have a different kind of texture and vibe from the others. I could have tried something else like writing a more conventional novel about someone in that book, but that felt like it would fall into the category of tepid echo.”

Much has been said about the unique structure Egan leveraged in Goon Squad and now The Candy House. The word “postmodern” comes up a lot.

“It’s kind of an academic label, and I’m definitely a lover of academia. I have so many academics in my work, Candy House being no exception. So I have no problem with the word. I have to say that if someone says to me, Why don’t you read this postmodern novel?, my first thought is, I don’t think so. Because it doesn’t sound like it’ll be fun. I guess the vibe that I get from the word in the context of contemporary fiction is that it will be academic. It will be a lot of ideas and concepts, but not a lot of people doing things and not a lot of me dying to turn the pages. My goals as a writer are basically to entertain and move the reader. When I hear the word ‘postmodern,’ I think, Wow, it doesn’t feel like it captures my goals as a fiction writer. But that’s mostly just because of associations.

“The thing is that I really see myself as a traditionalist. When we think about postmodernism and the techniques and tricks that we associate with it, I think what it’s so easy to forget is that the early novels did all that stuff. They brought in graphic elements, and they used every literary form available to them—legal documents, interview style, certainly letters, point of view changes—so I think that we have a sort of weird idea of what is normal in fiction, and it’s easy to forget that that fiction was invented to do everything. Epic poetry had its limits. It’s a lot of fun. I love it, and in fact, one of my failed chapters for Goon Squad was an attempt at epic poetry which…woof!...was really not good. I would love to try, I’m just a terrible poet. I haven’t found a way to overcome that problem.

“The only way any approach to storytelling works, be it conventional—whatever that means—or, you know, experimental—whatever that means—the only way any of it works is if you’re telling a story that cannot be told any way other than that way.”

Upon her mention of epic poetry, I pivoted our conversation to Homer. In one chapter of The Candy House, Lulu—who first appeared as a child in Goon Squad—is now a grown-up citizen-agent engaged in a thrilling bout of espionage. The chapter is structured as a series of notes on her mission, the arrangement of which looks suspiciously like the epic poetry of Iliad or The Odyssey (at least if you squint your eyes). There’s even a direct reference to Homer, followed shortly after by the line “across the blue-black sea,” which looks a whole lot like the old blind poet’s “wine-dark sea” to me.

“You're completely right to detect the Homer,” Egan validated. “Again, I love the sense of harkening back to the earliest storytelling, and [one] reason that I like reading aloud is that I feel like it connects me to that way in which storytelling began as an oral tradition, and that in the end it should be able to meet that standard always. The epic poetry like Homer totally partakes of genre and all kinds of genre conventions around that kind of storytelling. So I loved connecting to that, and I’m glad that you noticed it.”

In the same chapter, Lulu declares, “Hindsight creates an illusion that your life has led you inevitably to the present moment. It’s easier to believe in a foregone conclusion than to accept that our lives are governed by random chance.” While this statement is antithetical to the concept of fate, to me it appears that fatalism is integral to the Goon Squad/Candy House narrative.

“I don’t believe in fate, actually,” Egan clarified. “I think as humans we love to tell stories, and we use them to give our lives meaning. Believing that fate is at work is exactly the kind of retroactive storytelling that gives our lives meaning. That’s how I see it. I don’t mean that I’m without a belief system, although I’m not sure what it is. But I think that faith itself is one of those concepts that to me feels and sounds extremely human as a meaning structure that is deeply useful to create order out of what essentially is accident.”

Here I noted that—while many if not most of the characters in her writing are riddled with neuroses to the point of being flat-out difficult for others to handle—Jennifer Egan seems to be a very easy person to talk with. So which is she? Easy going, or a bit batty?

“I would say that I am a neurotic mess, in that I’m a very anxious person. That has been with me all my life.” She went on to describe her gap year before college, during which she panic-attacked her way through Europe. “I was so shaken by that experience that I wondered all the time as I was going through the early activities as a freshman whether I would remember all of it from an institution. I could easily have been a person who didn't try many things in life because I am very anxious. But somewhere along the way I decided that if fear alone was what made me not want to do something, then I would just have to do it. That was a rule.”

Throughout Egan’s work, much of her characters’ neuroses are fueled by unresolved issues with absentee fathers.

“I never knew my father very well,” Egan admitted. “So it is definitely unresolved. He was killed in an accident the year he turned 60—basically my age—so I never had a chance to overcome that… that lack with him. It is definitely something that pops up again and again, I think almost to a fault. I don't like repetition, and I'm very aware of that cropping up again and again.

“Another thing that crops up again is a lot of brother/sister closeness. A lot of sisters who have imperiled brothers, and that also comes very much from my life. My brother was schizophrenic. He committed suicide five years ago after a very hard life. We were extremely close. And, you know, it’s so hard to get away from some of this stuff.

“It’s interesting though, because for all of my efforts to not write about myself, I do find that these configurations return, and that is a way in which my own life has asserted itself. The people are really different, but the configurations persist. Some of these relationships just feel so alive they feel sort of hot to me. And I have to go where the heat is.”

Here we dove into some talk of schizophrenia, as I too have felt its heat having spent a number of years alongside a good friend who was burned by—and miraculously emerged from—its flame. These days it often seems that mental illness is the rule rather than the exception.

“I have a lot of mental instability in all of my work,” Egan noted. “I don’t think there’s any book that doesn’t have that. But I never use categories. Categories are very useful for certain things like diagnosis, but they're so limiting when they appear in fiction because why not just let someone be a person?

“I loved my brother. He was a very smart guy, but, you know, his mind was his enemy. But we approached it with a lot of humor. We would laugh so hard about some of the things that happened to him. I’m going to show you him because we’re having this conversation.” Her cat watched as Egan disappeared from the camera and returned with a funeral program bearing a black and white photo of a grinning young man with long, dark hair and a Bruce Campbell chin. “So here he is. He was a wonderful person, full of life and joy. But I remember when he read “Black Box” [the title given to the aforementioned Lulu-the-spy chapter when it was published in The New Yorker way back in 2012] he thought something terrible would happen to me. He thought that I was crazy to tell a story this way, that this was too far, that this was like the way he thought all the time. And he thought that some terrible retribution would come to me. And in a way I couldn't have imagined a higher compliment. I thought, I’m hearing from a man who struggles with psychosis every day that my story was psychotic. That is amazing!

“We were very similar. He heard voices all the time—so did I. And as he put it, You’re making a living off it, and look at me. Mental challenges, I think, are so much about just a tiny fluctuation along a spectrum. And so he basically thought I was crazy and doing a very good job of hiding it from the world or channeling it in ways that were working out very well for me compared to the way his challenges were working out for him.”

Around this point, I noted that regardless of all this talk of mental illness, neuroses, and death, and through all the dystopic heralding evident in The Candy House, the book is surprisingly optimistic—particularly the ending, which I think is written with the poetic precision of one who has truly mastered her craft. It leaves you with a decidedly hopeful feeling.

“I was very surprised by that,” she admitted. “I often feel like because I don't know what I'm doing as I do it and can only just try to do the best job I can to tell a story, that seems to happen somewhat without my control. The optimism really surprised me because I have not been feeling optimistic.

“I started the book in the Obama years, and I wrote maybe four chapters that were successful. I wrote more but I couldn’t use a lot of it. And then I finished it in the Trump years—and there was a really strange chasm between the two eras—and I also wrote a lot of it during the pandemic. So I felt a lot of dread, and in general was deeply aware every moment of the climate crisis. So I feel a lot of dread. But I think what I hadn't realized until I started writing the book was that the very fact that I feel so much dread made me extremely eager to write a book that did not partake too much of that dread. I felt a little bored with my own dread, honestly. I think I was looking for a way to think differently over the course of the book. I live in a state of dread a lot and it doesn't feel interesting to me. It becomes so hard to sustain the sense of dread. So I think, for whatever reason, I felt a real need—unacknowledged by me until I saw it on the page—to imagine a way forward that was optimistic.”

Somewhere I once came across the assertion that books are a perfect technology in that while the finer points of how they are produced may have evolved, for all practical purposes they are a complete concept, ideally suited for their purpose. Reading over the transcript of our discussion, I can only conclude that Jennifer Egan would agree.

“It’s so arresting, the degree to which we are each so isolated inside our own experience,” she said. “It seems to me that the thing fiction delivers that nothing else really can, and the reason it has survived this long (God knows if it will continue) is the strong and complex impression of actually being inside other people’s minds… the infinitude of our individual consciousnesses. Bix created an invention which served a literary purpose for me, the writer. The thing that lets people go from one world to another.”

And with The Candy House, Egan has created a machine that transports us into a world that may or may not be one we want to live in, but that is certainly never dull from one page to the next. Whether warning or inducement, it’s as captivating and often downright exciting as it is intellectually ambitious.

In other words, it’s a portal worth looking into. Mirror mirror on the wall, and all that fairytale jazz.

<div class="inline-image__caption"> <p>Jennifer Egan's "The Candy House"</p> </div> <div class="inline-image__credit"> The Daily Beast/Simon and Schuster </div>

Jennifer Egan's "The Candy House"

The Daily Beast/Simon and Schuster

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