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Review: An electrifying companion to Pulitzer Prize-winning 'Goon Squad'

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Midway into Jennifer Egan’s “The Candy House” you may find yourself moaning, “Why don’t novels come with an index?” A “sibling novel” — per Egan — to her Pulitzer Prize-winning “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” this book takes a similar form, with a considerable cast of intricately connected characters shifting through different configurations in interlocking stories set in the recent past and not-so-distant future and told in a dizzying variety of ways.

Some “Goon Squad” characters reappear here, but perhaps more to the point is the appearance in passing of someone from Egan’s 2001 novel, “Look at Me.” To the point, because that startlingly prescient novel anticipated the conundrum of digital reality, with a model selling her reinvented self online to viewers craving “authenticity” — and the question of authenticity is central to “The Candy House,” which speculates further down the digital line, to a time when people can “externalize” and save and share their experience and memories.

When we meet Bix Bouton, he’s already a “tech demigod on a first-name basis with the world,” having started a social media company called Mandala, based on (some say stolen from) an anthropologist’s “formulas for predicting human inclinations,” laid out in her book “Patterns of Affinity.” His next big idea is Own Your Unconscious — that externalizing of memory that can then be uploaded to the Collective Unconscious.

Going forward in the book and backward in time, we see the anthropologist’s daughters encountering the notion of music sharing via Napster. “Once the Internet was inside your computer rifling through your music, what else might it decide to look at?” one of them asks, unbelieving. “Nobody would be dumb enough to do this.” And so the world, and the families in the book, split between those who embrace the technology, epitomized by the senior empiricist and metrics expert, Lincoln, who narrates his own love story in the touchingly funny form of data analysis; and those who eschew it, like the people at Mondrian, whose business is helping “eluders” of the Collective Unconscious.

At issue is how people frame their experience, whether it can be quantified or shared. As Charlie puts it, after dredging one of her father’s stories out of the Collective Unconscious: “My problem is the same one had by everyone who gathers information: What to do with it? How to sort and shape and use it?”

“The Candy House” answers in myriad ways: Lincoln’s and Charlie’s; the game of Dungeons & Dragons, with a player, whose character is a spy, later narrating her actual spy story as “field instructions”; an extended exchange of messages that tells a story even as it cleverly reveals the history behind it.

Each has its own language, its own tropes and terms, which Egan somehow manages to use and skewer at the same time, while maintaining the mystery that makes each person unique and worth knowing.

As she puts it, near the exquisitely moving conclusion of “The Candy House,” “Knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.”


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