Lauren Bufferd

More than 10 years ago, Jennifer Egan published A Visit From the Goon Squad, her groundbreaking novel of 13 interrelated stories in which she pushed style and theme to the limits of fiction’s boundaries. Not quite a sequel but connected to that earlier novel by several of the same characters, The Candy House remains true to Egan’s curiosity about technology and her commitment to experimenting with unusual narrative structures. 

Goon Squad never felt like a book I exactly finished,” Egan says with an easy laugh, speaking via Zoom. It’s a sunny January morning, and she sits in a comfortable chair beside a window that overlooks her wintry Brooklyn street. “The question was not whether I would keep writing about those people—because I always knew I would—but could I find a way to make a book viable on its own terms and not just an echo?”

Read our starred review of ‘The Candy House’ by Jennifer Egan.

One of the characters who returns in (and in a way, bookends) The Candy House is Bix Bouton, Sasha’s college classmate in Goon Squad who now takes center stage as a hugely innovative and wildly successful media magnate. Bix’s social media company, Mandala, developed the technological innovations Own Your Unconscious, which allows users to store their memories on a cubelike device, and Collective Consciousness, which allows the sharing of those memories to a database, where they can be accessed by anyone.

“Bix has a tiny role in Goon Squad, but I knew when I wrote [his] chapter that he would go on to invent something that would change social media,” says the author. “I also knew that Mindy, who was on safari in Goon Squad, would become a famous sociologist, and oddly, I knew that Susan, the wife of Ted Hollander, would have a relationship with one of her son’s friends.” 

The challenge, Egan explains, was determining how to fold these inevitable plot points into the narrative styles she most wanted to use. “I was waiting for those to coalesce and feel alive, which is the only way I can seem to get to writing anything successfully. It’s trial and error. I’m like a windup toy. I bump and I turn and bump and turn again, and I keep going until I find a pathway.”

“Fiction comes the closest to giving us a sense of the play of another human mind, the intimacy of another consciousness. That is the secret weapon of fiction.”

It is impossible to read The Candy House and not marvel at Egan’s skill, from the range of techniques and shifting points of view used throughout the novel’s 14 chapters, to the skillful incorporation of to-the-minute tweets and emails. Surely Egan had a wall of Post-its to keep the characters straight. “Well, I am a Post-its maniac,” she concedes good-naturedly, “but seriously, I think there is something that has to flow in a book like Candy House, where there’s a back and forth between finding material that feels alive and some of these approaches that I wanted to try.”

The technologies in The Candy House came to the author “inductively,” not as inventions to intentionally explore in a novel. “We are so used to being able to find someone on social media, and yet there are so many people that we don’t have quite enough points of reference to find, and that sort of unknowability makes them more tantalizing,” she says. “What would be the vehicle for finding them? How could I make that even possible? Suppose there was a machine that could do that?”

Bix’s consciousness-sharing product certainly doesn’t seem a far cry from our present reality, in which people eagerly offer their DNA to be evaluated and uploaded to genealogical databases. At the heart of The Candy House is the seduction of life online; even as we acknowledge the risk of sharing personal details, we’re lured in by the sense of knowledge offered by ingesting other people’s information. We run toward the danger, eager to gobble up all we can before the witch comes out and spoils it for us.

The Candy House

“I am almost always curiosity- and desire-driven, and that underlies a lot of what I end up imagining,” Egan says. “Usually, if there is technology I invent, even as I know that there would be grave disadvantages, there’s something attractive to me.” One example of this double-edged sword is found in the chapter titled “What the Forest Remembers,” in which Charlie accesses her dying father’s memories of a life-changing trip to a redwood forest, but the viewing comes with devastating knowledge about the dissolution of her parents’ marriage and the roots of her own awkward relationship with her father.

As to be expected, Bix’s inventions spur the rise of an opposition. “Eluders” choose to exercise their right to be forgotten, and a company called Mondrian allows them to erase their digital footprints or, more disturbingly, create false avatars to conceal their true locations and identities. Bix’s son Greg, a would-be novelist who makes his living selling weed, is an eluder, and so is Lily, the daughter of Goon Squad’s morally compromised publicist Dolly. Lily is also a former spy whose brain has been infiltrated by a “weevil” that tracks and reports her every thought.

“Each new iteration of technology seems to bring about a kind of analogous unfolding of discoveries,” Egan says. “For example, there are huge advantages to the ease of DNA analysis, and yet once you’ve had your DNA analyzed, it’s part of a worldwide database. It’s no different [in the novel]. With every discovery, there’s a reaction to that discovery. In The Candy House, it’s the two organizations Mandala and Mondrian—one that offers access, the other the ability to disappear. As the technology unfolds, it becomes a dialectic between the lure of access with all that it brings, including the loss of privacy, and the counter to that is the will to vanish, a real-life wish to be unavailable.”

Egan is quick to point out that something already exists in our world that offers access to people’s inner thoughts in a manner similar to Mandala’s technology: fiction. “I realized as I was writing that this machine, which I created, can do what fiction already does,” she says. “The fun, voyeuristic nature of fiction lets us peek into people’s minds. I love the idea that, in a way, I was reifying the kind of advantages of fiction as a Silicon Valley device.” 

In the chapter “Eureka Gold,” Greg makes this connection as well, as he realizes that writing a novel is an act of shared consciousness. This idea connects him to his father’s greatest creation. “I feel it’s what fiction can do that nothing else can do,” Egan says, “and it’s why it has remained relevant to the degree that it has. Nothing else suggests an inner life quite that way. Fiction comes the closest to giving us a sense of the play of another human mind, the intimacy of another consciousness. That is the secret weapon of fiction.”

“Fiction is about confronting and honoring the mystery at the heart of human experience, so I would never give the book a tidy ending.”

By the novel’s end, despite the myriad storylines and characters, The Candy House all comes together—though, fittingly, not without a few enticing threads left dangling.

“My job is to bind what I have in such a way that it really metabolizes into one creature,” Egan says, “but I’d never want to totally wrap things up. Fiction is about confronting and honoring the mystery at the heart of human experience, so I would never give the book a tidy ending. In the end, to me, the enormity of what I am trying to evoke is that using language to capture human experience and human consciousness is magic. More magic than any machine.”

And will we see these characters again? Will Greg become a novelist? Will Charlie find peace? What happens to Lily and the weevil in her brain?

“I’ve got things I know and things I haven’t done yet,” Egan admits with a smile. “I’m already concocting!”

Photo of Jennifer Egan by Pieter M. Van Hattem.

In her curiosity-driven novel The Candy House, Jennifer Egan returns to the unfinished business of her Pulitzer Prize winner, A Visit From the Goon Squad.

In The Candy House, Jennifer Egan revisits some of the characters from her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A Visit From the Good Squad. But The Candy House is less a sequel than a continuation of themes, offering a bold imagining of the lures and drawbacks of technology through a lively assortment of narrative styles.  

Bix Bouton, a minor character in Goon Squad, emerges in The Candy House as a staggeringly brilliant tech guru whose casual interest in animal consciousness leads to the creation of his social media company, Mandala. Bix’s groundbreaking product, Own Your Unconscious, allows users to externalize their consciousness to a cubelike device. Taking the concept a step further, his invention Collective Consciousness offers the option of uploading memories to an online database, where they can be shared. This hugely seductive innovation inspires a backlash movement, in which “eluders” wipe their digital footprints or even hide behind false avatars. 

From Bix’s life-altering inventions, the novel spirals outward in subsequent chapters, tracking families and friends over decades, digging deeply into the emotional and psychological effects of their private memories being made public. The novel even takes a dystopian turn through the story of Lily, a former spy whose brain has been infiltrated by a government-implanted “weevil.” But for the most part, Egan keeps the novel moving through relatable territory, as universal access to personal memories proves, unsurprisingly, to be as disruptive as it is tantalizing.  

Egan’s bold appropriation of narrative styles, like the use of first-person plural and chapters written in tweets and text messages, gives the novel a glittering, kaleidoscopic quality. But Egan’s empathetic interest in human behavior is what drives The Candy House, making it more than just a literary experiment. As Bix’s son Greg points out, you don’t need access to Collective Consciousness to fully experience another person’s memories, thoughts and perceptions; fiction can do the same thing.

A startling novel written by an author at the top of her game, The Candy House never loses sight of fiction’s superpowers.

Read our interview with Jennifer Egan on ‘The Candy House.’

Jennifer Egan’s empathetic interest in human behavior is what drives The Candy House, making her companion novel to A Visit From the Goon Squad more than just a literary experiment!.

There’s a saying you might have heard: Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. Fortunately, two authors—one veteran, the other new to fiction—have ignored this warning and written novels about classical music, and we readers are luckier for it. 

The Great Passion by James Runcie, author of the acclaimed Grantchester Mysteries, is a beautiful coming-of-age novel set in 18th-century Germany. In 1726, 13-year-old Stefan Silbermann is mourning the death of his mother. His father makes arrangements for Stefan to attend a music school in Leipzig, an especially useful education for a boy whose family’s business is building and repairing church organs. At school, lonely Stefan is tormented by the other students, finding solace only in singing and in the presence of the demanding but empathic choir director, Johann Sebastian Bach. 

Stefan’s heavenly singing voice and sensitivity endear him to Bach, who enlists Stefan as a soloist in many of his cantatas. But Stefan remains deeply unhappy, and when he runs away from the dorms, Bach invites him to live at the Bach family home. There, Stefan basks in the warmth of domestic life, assisting Bach’s children with chores and working as a copyist for the great composer. 

When another tragedy strikes, this time in Bach’s family, Stefan is a firsthand witness to the way grief can be a catalyst for musical genius, watching and then performing in the work that will become one of Bach’s most celebrated compositions, “The Passion According to St Matthew.” Stefan’s exposure to Bach’s creativity, family and devotion to God is the restorative balm that the young man needs in order to move forward with his life.   

On the other end of the spectrum is Brendan Slocumb’s debut novel, The Violin Conspiracy, a fast-paced thriller about a young Black violinist and his search for a priceless instrument, set against the backdrop of systemic racism within the world of contemporary classical music.

Ray McMillian has a dream of becoming a concert violinist, and nothing will stand in his way: not his unsupportive mother and uncles, his disinterested teachers or the industry’s inherent racial bias. When Ray’s beloved grandmother gifts him with her grandfather’s violin, it brings him a step closer to his dream, and when the instrument is revealed to be an extremely rare and valuable Stradivarius, his star really begins to rise. 

Ray is on the verge of attending the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow when the prized instrument is stolen and held for ransom. Suspects range from members of Ray’s own family, eager to claim the insurance money, to his musical rivals in Europe. Even the descendants of the family who once enslaved Ray’s great-great-grandfather are claiming the instrument belongs to them. As Ray travels the globe, not sure whom he can trust, music remains the only constant in his life, supporting him no matter the situation. 

Despite their differences in literary styles, locations and eras, these novels are connected by more than just their musical themes. Resilience is a powerful presence in both stories, whether in the face of personal pain and grief or against the constant pressures of embedded prejudices. Music is the conduit through which two young men learn to overcome loss and fight against insurmountable odds, offering not only a reason to live but also a way to thrive.

Classical music is a powerful force in new novels from James Runcie and Brendan Slocumb, inspiring their heroes and illuminating the way forward.

In 1952, a young Somali sailor named Mahmood Mattan was arrested for the murder of a Jewish shopkeeper in Cardiff, Wales, a crime he did not commit but nonetheless was convicted of and hanged for. This true story is the inspiration behind Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful Booker Prize short-listed novel, The Fortune Men, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.

In the 1950s, the Tiger Bay area of Cardiff is a multiracial, multilingual community of Somalis, Arabs, Jews, West Indians and West Africans. It’s also the home of Mattan, his Welsh wife and their three sons. When Violet Volacki is stabbed in her shop, her sister, Diana, thinks she sees a Somali at the door. A gambler and petty thief, Mattan tries to ignore the tidal wave of suspicion flowing from the police, his landlord, even the men at his mosque. But he grossly underestimates the racism of the local community, which wants to punish not only him but also his wife for marrying an African immigrant. Mattan’s protestations of innocence and his belief in the British justice system are no match for the prosecution’s fabricated testimonies and false witness statements.

Mohamed brilliantly re-creates Tiger Bay’s bustling world of racetracks, milk bars and rooming houses, filled with diverse characters who range from the bigoted detectives to the sheikh from the local mosque. Part of the novel is told by Diana, whose family immigrated to England to escape antisemitic violence in Russia and who never names Mattan as the man she saw, despite pressure from police. The Fortune Men is a reminder of a particularly egregious example of injustice and prejudice, but by including Diana’s point of view, Mohamed suggests that Mattan’s experience is not an isolated incident but one that was and is repeated wherever systemic racism exists.

In the real-world case, after decades of campaigning by his family and the wider Somali community, Mattan was exonerated. His name was cleared almost 50 years after his death, and the wrongful conviction and execution was the first miscarriage of justice ever rectified by the British courts. But these events happened decades after the action in Mohamed’s novel. She instead focuses on Mattan’s childhood in Hargeisa, his globetrotting years with the merchant navy and his final weeks in a Welsh jail, where a renewal of faith leads to a new assessment of life. Mohamed’s command of both Mattan’s place in the historical record and the intimate details of his life makes for a remarkable novel.

A true story inspired Nadifa Mohamed’s masterful novel, a powerful evocation of one man’s life and a harrowing tale of racial injustice.

Juhea Kim’s accomplished first novel, Beasts of a Little Land, opens in 1917, deep in the frozen Korean wilderness, where a penniless hunter saves a young Japanese military officer from a vicious tiger. The act sets in motion a story that spans half a century and explores the peninsula’s complex history of Japanese occupation, multiple wars and South Korea’s anti-communism purges of the early 1960s.

The novel artfully follows the life of Jade, a girl from an impoverished family who goes to work as a servant for a courtesan, Madame Silver. There she meets two other young women: quietly beautiful Luna and brash, outspoken Lotus. The three eventually come to Seoul, where they study the art of pleasing men at one of the city’s most celebrated and cosmopolitan houses.

Jade’s wit and intelligence take her to the very peak of high society and even into the Korean film industry, while Luna and Lotus struggle through careers marred by sexual assault and drug use. As the three women strive for independence, they are continually disappointed by the men closest to them, including loyal gang leader JungHo, who befriends Jade when they are children, and ambitious rickshaw driver HanChol, who becomes Jade’s lover but refuses to marry her. Jade and Lotus spurn the lavish attentions of wealthy but superficial SungSoo, and at the same time, SungSoo’s school friend MyungBo tries to involve Jade and JungHo in his revolutionary plans for Korean independence from Japan.

One of Kim’s core strengths is casting 20th-century Korea’s civic and social history as vital while never losing sight of her characters’ emotions. As the paths of her characters twist and cross, albeit with far too many coincidences, and their fortunes rise and fall, she keeps the weight of the personal and political in perfect balance. Beasts of a Little Land is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.

Juhea Kim’s debut novel is epic in range but intimate in emotional depth, sure to appeal to readers of historical fiction who prize a well-wrought character.

Jung Yun’s second novel is a riveting story of a Korean American woman claiming a country that has done its best to reject her.

After decades as a model, Elinor Hanson went back to school and reinvented herself as a journalist. Barely supporting herself with freelance work, she is surprised when one of her graduate school professors offers her a plum assignment: covering North Dakota’s oil boom for a prominent magazine. Elinor, who grew up on a U.S. Air Force base in North Dakota, is curious about the changes this new gold rush has created, so she agrees to travel home.

Elinor barely recognizes the state she left behind. Its small towns burst with new arrivals seeking opportunities, and fracking has all but destroyed the land. But the anxiety expressed by longtime residents is dishearteningly familiar to Elinor, and her encounters with sexism and racism quickly bring back the trauma of life on the air base. Elinor is the daughter of an American airman and a Korean woman who met overseas, and on the base, other wives withheld their friendship from Elinor’s mother, while other husbands were all too willing to flirt.

As Elinor grapples with the difficult assignment, she is drawn into an unsolved missing persons case: a white woman who disappeared while jogging eight years ago. But that story doesn’t allow her to forge fresh investigative paths or distract from the rage she realizes has been simmering since her teens. In fact, the longer Elinor stays in North Dakota, the angrier she becomes, and a meeting with her sister only exacerbates the flood of bad memories. When some of her former classmates reach out about a harassment suit against her professor, she begins to question his motivations in passing on the assignment in the first place.

O Beautiful moves swiftly, with all the force of a finely honed thriller. As Elinor reckons with her past and the ways people have treated her, her mother and her sisters, she begins to examine the anger and love she feels for both her family and country. Open-ended and openhearted, O Beautiful may provide Elinor with more questions than answers, but it also instills in her a newfound determination to claim America as her own

Open-ended and open-hearted, O Beautiful instills a newfound determination in its Korean American heroine to claim America as her own.

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