‘The Candy House’: Jennifer Egan on our need to be seen

American writer Jennifer Egan’s fascination with human reactions to technology sits at the heart of her novel “The Candy House.”

Told in a dizzying array of narratives and styles, “The Candy House” is an exploration of our interconnectedness, but also our desire for real connection.

Why We Wrote This

How much does technology alter human behavior? It’s a question that invites a deeper debate on the nature of connection and communication.

The book delves into the dangers of mass surveillance, the performative pressures of social media, and the consequences for “eluders” – those who go to great lengths to reject this brave new world.

But lest you think “The Candy House” is in the same dystopian realm as Aldous Huxley’s 1932 classic, Ms. Egan is here to set you straight. This is not a dystopian novel and was never intended to be.

“Dystopia is kind of uninteresting to me,” she says in an interview. “I feel weary of a post-apocalyptic landscape in which everything has gone wrong… [This book] is such an environment of humor and even hilarity and absurdity, and one in which it’s pretty optimistic.”

But that’s not to say she isn’t perplexed by our current relationship with tech. In fact, it was a driving force when she wrote this book. “I ask the question again and again whether we are being changed internally by technology,” she says.

I first met author Jennifer Egan in late September at the Festival America, a Paris book fair celebrating some 70 North American authors. Hundreds of literary fans milled around the mazelike configuration of tables, stacked books, and writers at the hall du livrein hopes of making a brief but meaningful connection with their favorite authors.

Ms. Egan was seated calmly amid the flurry, a lighthouse in the storm, and asked if we could speak later, over Zoom, so that she could “stay present” for the people who had shown up to see her.

It was apropos, given that her latest book, “The Candy House,” delves into our deep need for connection, but also, authenticity, as we are increasingly overwhelmed by technology’s slow but steady takeover.

Why We Wrote This

How much does technology alter human behavior? It’s a question that invites a deeper debate on the nature of connection and communication.

It is also fitting, then, that the first thing that happens when she and I speak again is that my Wi-Fi cuts out. As I sit devising the few choice phrases I’d like to say to my internet company, Ms. Egan doesn’t mince words about our relationship to tech: “We can’t go back.”

In “The Candy House” – a sibling novel to her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “A Visit from the Goon Squad” – the reader follows some 14 characters’ twists and turns as they navigate a world dominated by Own Your Unconscious, a technology created by Bix Bouton – a demigod à la Mark Zuckerberg – that uploads users’ memories onto a cube, so they are then available to others.

“The Candy House,” by Jennifer Egan, Scribner, 352 pp.

Told in a dizzying array of narratives and styles – from first person plural to epistolary to an instruction manual for spies – each chapter of “The Candy House” is an exploration of our interconnectedness, but also our desire for real connection.

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