Book Review:
Character speaks for his author

The Candy House

Jennifer Egan, 2022

How might a great novelist feel after publishing her best work, widely regarded as a masterpiece and the winner of prestigious awards? Would she be brimming with confidence or full of foreboding like Bix, the famous social media entrepreneur in The Candy House who at age 40 realizes that “he had no vision beyond the one he’d nearly exhausted.” Based on an interview of Jennifer Egan I heard soon after her novel, Manhattan Beach, was published, I believe Bix is speaking for Jennifer Egan: “The absence of a new vision destabilized his sense of everything he’d done …” In The Candy House Bix goes on to create “Own Your Unconscious” out of which develops “Collective Consciousness,” in which humans gain access to the minds of others who have downloaded their memories (including their feelings about what they remember) into Collective Consciousness. Bix is not played out at 40; rather, he achieves through neuroscientific technology what Egan aspires to through her novelistic imagination: access to the sweet delights of the consciousness of others, i.e., the ability to overcome the limits seemingly inherent in the privacy of the minds of separate beings.

 

However, there is a difference spelled out in The Candy House between how Collective Consciousness based on technology is used, i.e., to solve mysteries, resolve disputes, control evil impulses, etc.  and the enjoyment fiction affords of access to the consciousness of others. Instrumental awareness and appreciative awareness are fundamentally different. Who reads novels or watches movies for instrumental reasons? 

 

Like Bix, “a visit from the goon squad” did not exhaust Egan’s fertile imagination. She was just getting started. The Candy House is a Lulu of a novel, with the same energy, surgical intelligence, and delight as a visit from the goon squad, but more reflective about consciousness and more self- reflective. The Candy House has the appearance of a satire of the internet taken to an absurd (but logical) extreme. This is deliberate misdirection.  The Candy House is a self- interrogation: why is immersion in the consciousness of others a candy house for some like Egan while it is nauseating to others, e.g., Roxy, a heroin addict in The Candy House who cannot tolerate more a few seconds of immersion in her father’s consciousness? Does the imaginative capacity of great fiction writers and playwrights to inhabit the minds of a wide range of very different characters come with a cost, or is the creative imagination like access to unlimited sweets, with no costs to well-being?

 

Egan is also interested in consciousness itself but is too skillful to engage in turgid reflections. She expresses her ideas about consciousness in first person or third person stories about a wide range of characters, many of whom were major or minor characters in a visit from the goon squad and in how characters communicate with others in some chapters. Her reflections on consciousness, like her thoughts about fate, ruin, transformation, (i.e., rebirth in one lifetime) have a light glancing touch, never intrusive or off-putting, and spoken through the internal dialogue of her characters.

 

The two books and their characters

The Candy House and a visit from the goon squad cover about a sixty -year period (early 1970s- early 2030s) in the lives of an interconnected cast of characters, music producers, musicians, movie stars and their spouses, lovers, victims, children, publicists, and friends. For the most part, a visit from the goon squad contains stories of the early decades while The Candy House is about the later years, though The Candy House has a wonderful chapter about 13-year-old Molly, Noreen’s daughter, at the local country club, a day in the life contemporaneous with many events in a visit from the goon squad. The novels do not follow a strict chronology, and neither do the ruminations of the characters who remember some past events vividly, and others hardly at all. In these two novels memories are in flux, reshaped throughout the life course. Collective consciousness contains the memory banks of characters at a point in time, i.e., at the time they were downloaded, rather than being an accurate record of events as they actually occurred.

 

Many of the characters in The Candy House are major or minor characters in a visit from the goon squad or are mentioned in the earlier book:

 

  • Bix Bouton, social entrepreneur

  • Sasha, Bennie Salazar’s assistant, a compulsive thief in the first novel, a creative sculptor in The Candy House

  • Rob, Sasha’s special friend, who drowns in New York City’s East River

  • Drew, Sasha’s boyfriend, later her husband, a physician

  • Ted Hollander, art historian and his first wife, Susan, and their three sons, Alfred, Ames and Miles

  • Bennie Salazar, music producer and his wife, then ex-wife, Stephanie and their son, Chris

  • Noreen, Molly’s mother, the Salazar’s reclusive neighbor

  • Jules Jones, a journalist, Stephanie’s brother, released from prison after serving time for attempted rape of Kitty Jackson, a young movie star. In The Candy House Kitty Jackson is an aging movie star who agrees to do a documentary of her past PR relationship with a genocidal African dictator.

  • Dolly Peale, a publicist and her daughter Lulu, a self- possessed emotionally secure, resourceful child and adolescent in a visitfrom the goon squad who becomes a spy in The Candy House.

  • Bosco, an obese over the hill guitarist in a visit from the goon squad who resurrects his career with a Suicide tour.

  • Scotty Hausmann, Bennie Salazar’s adolescent friend, a washed-up social recluse who (like Bosco) resurrects his career with a famous concert after almost throwing in the towel at the critical moment before he is rescued by the supremely confident Lulu.

  • Lou Kline – music producer, sexual predator, father of 6 children by three wives: Roxy, Charlie (later Charlene), Kiki, Rolph, Lana and Melora, daughters of Miranda Kline, anthropologist

  • Miranda Kline, Mindy in a visit from the goon squad, author of Patterns of Affinity, the inspiration for “Own Your Unconscious;” seeks anonymity

  • Jocelyn Li, Lou Kline’s adolescent girlfriend and victim

 

It’s possible that I’ve missed a character or two who appear in both novels, but this list suggests a couple of themes. A visit from the goon squad, which seemingly is about the ravages of time (Bosco to Jules: “Times a goon, right?”) and about the many avenues to self-harm and self-destruction, ends with a resurrection, Scotty Hausmann’s career, and sets in motion another rebirth, Bosco’s career, which is confirmed in The Candy House, a novel with multiple transformations in the lives of characters that embody a full reversal in life course. These transformations include:

  • Sasha, (whose name contains ash, as in “rise from”) controlled by her kleptomaniac compulsions in young adulthood, finds a life of artistic freedom in middle age.

  • Drew, Sasha’s husband, who as a young adult lures Rob into the East River where he drowns, in middle age saves Miles from jumping out of a hot air balloon.

  • Self- destructive Miles survives addiction, a near fatal car crash and a suicide attempt from a hot air balloon, to become a State Senator.

  • Roxy, a heroin addict in her 50’s,loses interest in her personal story, which is devotion to heroin as complete as a devout monk’s search for God or enlightenment, and joins Dungeons and Dragons games to reimagine herself.

  • Lulu, a dominant child among her peers, becomes a spy and seeks self-abnegation (see below) in service to the “Glorious Collective.”

  • Miranda Kline divorces her husband, Lou Kline, and after writing a world changing book, seeks anonymity, one of the main virtues in The Candy House.

  • Lana and Melora Kline, emotionally distant from their father as children, take over his company.

  • Chris Salazar, a blessed child and adult, suddenly becomes sick of his sheltered life and ends up holding a suitcase full of dangerous chemicals in an alley populated by drug addicts.

 

Not all the transformations are good, and some end in suicide, for example Lou Kline’s favorite child, Rolph, kills himself in his late 20’s. Some characters, for example Dolly Peale, a famous publicist, destroy their career with one monumental misjudgment. Dolly falls into moral degradation by working for the murderous dictator of a foreign nation, and then is so disgusted with herself that she flees to upper New York state, avoiding all publicity.

 

In a visit from the goon squad, one of the characters comments: “there were so many ways to go wrong.” Many of these ways involve self- harm and/ or self- destruction: compulsions, addiction, betrayal, infidelity, sexual predation, moral degradation, obesity, fantasies of violence or making a career of assassination (Ames), reckless behavior leading to death (Rob), suicide(there are several referred to in these novels), bizarre conceptual schemes, cruelty. Less obviously, several main characters are in the music business or movies; they are used to and crave adulation, which may degrade into notoriety, followed by Celebrity Hell, oblivion.

 

The characters whom Egan admires have a different goal summarized by several of Lulu’s aphorisms; on p. 210:

 

  • “In the new heroism, the goal is to throw off the scourge of self- involvement.”

  • “In the new heroism, the goal is to renounce the modern fixation with being seen and recognized.”

  • In the new heroism, the goal is to dig beneath your shiny persona.”

  • “You’ll be surprised by what lies underneath: a rich deep crawl space of possibility.”

  • “Some liken this discovery to a dream in which a familiar home acquires new wings.”

  • The power of individual magnetism is nothing against the power of combined selfless effort.”

  • The need for personal glory is like a cigarette addiction: a habit that feels life sustaining even as it kills you.”

 

Does Lulu speak for Egan? I think she does. Consider the characters who seek anonymity and flee the limelight: Miranda(in Christian tradition, “admirable, wonderful:”) Sasha, Bix, Noreen, Dolly as she regains her moral foundation vs. Bennie Salazar, Bosco, Kitty Jackson.

 

As I reread these novels, I became convinced that Egan has been thoughtful and witty in naming characters:

 

Characters whose names have a likely meaning:

  • Rob, whose death haunts both novels

  • Sasha

  • Bennie Salazar, speed czar

  • Drew, past tense of draw, a reference to agency

  • Lulu, peerless, tremendous

  • Miranda, admirable, wonderful

  • Miles, endures

  • Chris, blessed, blessing

 

Some names have a possible meaning which is more speculative:

  • Roxy, hard

  • Ted Hollander, hollow vessel

  • Bosco, SOB or sob, as in “to cry”

  • Scotty Hausmann, loyal mate

  • Noreen, not seen

  • Kitty Jackson, cat like action or “cutie” action
     

One name, Bix Bouton, leads me to free association, possibly nothing but my imagination: B-I-x( not) B Yu to; a possible goal for Collective Consciousness.

 

Theory of awareness

In these two novels, any moment of self- awareness is enfolded in a tapestry of memories which stretch back to early childhood, and which are stitched together with personal stories, family stories, regrets, humiliations, emotional injuries, disgrace, peak experiences (so fleeting), intense likes and dislikes of friends, peers and family members, divorces and renewal, the potential for which the “goon squad” is often unable to destroy. The stories themselves have formulaic elements which Egan parodies by reducing them to algebraic notations. Egan’s characters occasionally become sick and tired of their stories, so hurtful and limiting, and decide in an instant to utterly change their life. Nevertheless, for the most part the stories the characters tell themselves and use to give memories meaning act like spider webs, i.e., essentially flimsy but very effective prisons of the Self, which depends on fiction.

 

In The Candy House Egan is fascinated with how modes of communication affect awareness, e.g., Lulu’s aphorisms, written in an impersonal style, and the multiple emails or tweets of the chapter in which several characters reconnect after many years of separation, and quickly rediscover their talent for manipulation and self-promotion.

 

Egan has an uncanny ability to think and talk like young adolescents while giving them her novelistic insight. The following is from the chapter, “The Perimeter: After” in The Candy House.13-year-old Molly comments on the bodies of adults she observes at the country club:

 

“Stephanie Salazar and Kathy Bingham are on recliners drinking ice tea in their bikinis, they are both Bikini-wearers which is surprising in Kathy who has five children including twins, she still has a six-pack under what I would have to say is a lot of loose skin and in her position I would wear a one- piece. Stephanie Salazar on the other hand looks kind of amazing, she is deeply tanned and there is the dark octopus tattoo on her calf which you don’t see every day at the Crandale Country Club … I can see little spikes of dark hair that she hasn’t shaved in a day or two and is it strange that I’m so fascinated by people’s bodies? There are no secrets when grown-ups wear bathing suits they might as well be naked, I have seen various Dad’s testicles dangling inside their swim trunks when I’m lying face down on a towel and they walk past, they look like overgrown pink grapes and there is no way I will ever have sex with a man whose Testicles look like that, it is a deal breaker as they say, and I might not have sex anyway, the idea is horrifying.”

 

As this passage suggests, both novels are very funny without the sharp edge of cruelty, a temptation few comic novelists can resist. What is most impressive is Egan’s ability to inhabit the awareness of characters she probably detests without turning them into stereotypes and ripping them to shreds, and without making them sympathetic persons. She delights in all her characters, who for her are indeed a sweet shop. How does a novelist combine a pitiless vision of human folly and bad behavior while immensely enjoying immersion in their fictional worlds? Egan does not answer this question. How could she without drawing attention to herself, a novelistic sin? 

a visit from the goon squad suggests a hypothesis.  At the end of the chapter about Sasha and her compulsion to steal, there is the sentence: “She lay with her body tensed, claiming the couch, her spot in this room, her view of the windows and walls, the faint hum that was always there when she listened …” And on the last page of the novel:

 

“And the hum, always that hum, which maybe wasn’t an echo after all, but the sound of time passing.

thblunyt

thstRs u cant c

th hum that never gOsawy.”

 

Egan is connected to the hum of creation, an actual sound which some people can hear, and others do not hear, the inexhaustible source of creative energy and delight in creation. 

 

-- Dee Wilson

 

deewilson13@aol.com