Beware the Candy House

I am the hero of my life.

You are the hero of your life.

The guy who serves you a bacon-egg-and cheese at your local deli is the hero of his life.

And you are the most minor of characters in his narrative. 

And he is the most minor of characters in your narrative. 

We all know this, but it is too much to think about. Every human is a bottomless abyss of motivation, goals, conflict, and character. 

That’s why you shouldn’t use social media. 

Too much information.

This is why traditional narrative structure is popular. We spend time with one main character; we learn about their hopes, desires, thoughts, and goals. We accompany them on a journey. There are minor characters that orbit the main character but they don’t hijack the plot. They stay in their place, as sidekicks, mentors, villains, and lackeys.

Jennifer Egan knows this. Like me, she’s a genius. But she’s willing to subvert the very medium that she has mastered.

Beware the genius of Jennifer Egan.

Egan heroically destroys the very structure that she knows her audience desires. And I heroically read her work, despite knowing that she will destroy the form that I tend to rely on and enjoy. It’s a wild paradox, and I’m glad to be a part of it.

I should probably discuss credentials.

Jennifer Egan is a certified genius because she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book A Visit From the Goon Squad. It’s probably one of the great works of art of the 21st century.

I have been certified GENIUS! (several times) by the New York Times Spelling Bee game. 

Anyway, Egan recently wrote a “sequel” to Goon Squad, called The Candy House. You should probably read A Visit from the Goon Squad before you read The Candy House, but you don’t have to. A summary would suffice. I’ll summarize a bit here, but you might want to poke around online for a more detailed synopsis.

Like Billy Pilgrim, the characters in Goon Squad have become unstuck in time, and like the Vonnegut novel, there are elements of post-modernism and sci-fi interwoven through the loosely connected (both in form and plot) tales of the rock band The Flaming Dildos and their associates. The book covers over forty years– from the late 1970s into the near future– and it covers this time span in a myriad of forms: first person, second person, a magazine article written in the style of David Foster Wallace, a story told by a twelve-year-old girl in PowerPoint slides. 

Though the plot is sometimes difficult to follow, the theme is apparent and powerful: time is a goon and it’s coming for all of us.

The ever-changing styles and tempos of the music world are representative of this. The people in the 1920s thought James P. Johnson’s “The Charleston” would reign supreme forever. But popular music inevitably succumbs to time. And so do we. Our inevitable decay will be shocking and painful but maybe the wisdom we gain will make it all worth it.

Literary critic James Poniewozik describes Goon Squad as a “concept album.”

I dig this metaphor.

The stories are various “tracks” and they loosely orbit around music producers Lou Kline and Bennie Salazar. But the styles and tempos are various, vaguely related to each other, created by the same band, but often as different as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.”

Poniewozik then explains that the sequel, The Candy House, “passes the microphone to a number of peripheral Goon Squad characters . . . but given its subject matter, it might be better to describe it as a social network, the literary version of the collaborative novel written by your friends and friends of friends on Facebook or Instagram, each link opening on a new protagonist. It is a spectacular palace built out of rabbit holes.”

So once again, Egan operates in a weird format, even weirder than Goon Squad, perhaps– though Goon Squad is more ostensibly various. 

John Barth, writer of meta-fiction and purveyor other literary weirdness, fleshes out this idea that every character is is a “rabbit hole” in his novel The End of the Road.  Barth’s protagonist, Jake Horner, is so overwhelmed by the idea that every person he encounters is the protagonist of their own particular story that he suffers from “cosmopsis– an invented mental disorder that LITERALLY causes his paralysis from an inability to choose from the myriad of choices available. 

The disease reminds me of Esther Greenwood’s vision in The Bell Jar

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Luckily, Esther does not experience literal paralysis. She’s hungry and she just needs a sandwich.  

John Barth’s Jake Horner is worse off. He goes to an African-American doctor who specializes in this fictitious disease, at the Remobilization Farm. The doctor prescribes “mythotherapy” to abolish his overactive ego.

The doctor explains:

“In life,” he said, “there are no essentially major or minor characters. To that extent, all fiction and biography, and most historiography, are a lie. Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story. Hamlet could be told from Polonius’s point of view and called The Tragedy of Polonius, Lord Chamberlain of Denmark. He didn’t think he was a minor character in anything, I daresay.

Or suppose you’re an usher in a wedding. From the groom’s viewpoint, he’s the major character; the others play supporting parts, even the bride. From your viewpoint, though, the wedding is a minor episode in the very interesting history of your life, and the bride and groom both are minor figures.”

Writers have screwed around with this concept, making a minor character from one narrative the protagonist in another. John Gardner did Beowulf from the monster’s point of view. Maryse Conde did The Crucible from Tituba’s point of view. And Tom Stoppard pushes this to the absurdist extreme with his comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. He tells the story of Hamlet from the POV of a pair of dimwits so dopey and featureless that they are essentially interchangeable.

KING CLAUDIUS: Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.

But this is postmodern madness. There’s a reason Hamlet is the most-performed play in the history of the theater. We want to spend time with him. We don’t necessarily want to spend an entire play with two brainless lackeys. Shakespeare realized that we don’t even want to spend too much time with the most successful, driven and accomplished character in Hamlet, Fortinbras.

Why not? 

Fortinbras is an epic dude and a capable leader– he wants revenge for his father’s death at the hands of Old King Hamlet and so he organizes  “a list of lawless resolutes” in the “skirts of Norway” and leads this ragtag army of desperadoes to victory over Denmark.

This is stuff legends are made of. 

He does his dead father proud. 

But we’re more interested in Hamlet’s melodramatic lunatic skulking in the confines of Elsinore than the epic deeds of some Norwegian overachiever.

The brilliance of Hamlet, the brilliance of Catcher in the Rye, the brilliance of Huckleberry Finn, the brilliance of The Brothers Karamazov, the brilliance of the Harry Potter series is that we spend the most time, the best time, with the most interesting characters, with people that will teach us something profound and significant about the human condition. That’s classic narrative structure. Plots are a dime a dozen, but create a character that becomes three-dimensional, create a sequence of words that become a human being . . . that’s how you become a part of the canon.

The genius of Jennifer Egan in The Candy House is that she writes a novel that refutes the narrative style that we desire, but she pulls it off. And she knows she’s doing this. It’s apparent. She is showing us that we should NOT dip into everyone’s consciousness. Yet she does. 

There is a technological element to this new narrative structure. Bix Bouton, the visionary tech legend, has created Own Your Unconscious. This is a way to upload your memories into a shared cloud, so that others can experience events from various points of view. You can remember everyone you’ve ever met. You can see every circumstance in your life from multiple perspectives. You can see other lives from multiple perspectives. And it turns out to be disappointing. Overwhelming. Too much information. Over-sharing.

But Egan keeps the technology in the background, so the book does not become a Black Mirror episode. Instead it’s a kaleidoscope of characters loosely associated with music producers Bennie Salazar and Lou Kline and tech giant Bix Bouton. And there is a technological connection between music sharing and Own Your Unconscious, between sharing everything.

It starts with file sharing, sharing music. Napster and Limewire.

Lou Kline’s daughters, Lana and Melora, witness their father’s mental and physical decline because of the end of the traditional music business model. This implosion of the industry literally gives Lou Kline a stroke. It’s his version of “cosmopsis.”

The girls, who are so close that they narrate in the second person plural, explain the title of the book. The metaphor of The Candy House begins with music sharing and then stretches far beyond this initial technology.

“We contemplated a nationwide billboard campaign to remind people of that eternal law, Nothing is free! Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house! It was only a matter of time before someone made them pay for what they thought they were getting for free. Why could nobody see this?”

I understand this. I remember the change between buying albums from bands that you loved and supported, to using Napster and Limewire to “share” music. Suddenly, everything was available. And we live in that age now, with Spotify and Apple Music. But when everything is available, nothing has value.

I loved going into someone’s dorm room and judging them by the CDs they had chosen to bring to college. Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Beastie Boys “Paul’s Boutique.” Cool.

Hooty and the Blowfish, Rusted Root, and Dave Matthews Band. Not so much.

That’s gone. Everyone has everything everywhere all at once.

Charlene Kline, another of Lou Kline’s daughters, goes on an Own Your Unconscious journey to see a particular trip her father took when she was young.In the early ‘60s, Lou Kline went out into the woods of northern California to smoke pot and witness the counterculture. This is when he started to retreat from his family. This is when he started to get involved with musicians and music production. She views this trip through many perspectives, realizes she was not a central part of her father’s life, and is ultimately disappointed. It’s too much information.

This is her takeaway:

“But 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? How to keep from drowning in it?

Not every story needs to be told.”

I am reminded of this great moment in the first season of The White Lotus. How much should we reveal to others? How many layers of the onion?

This becomes especially thorny in an ensemble type show, like Parks and Rec or The Office or The White Lotus.

Do we want to spend an entire episode with Tanya? I think not.

How many layers should we reveal?

Bix Bouton, the creator of Own Your Unconscious, is always carrying around a worn copy of James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness novel Ulysses. It’s a tough read. A dense exploration of the consciousness of Leopold and Molly Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. 700 pages detailing one day in Dublin. For most readers, it’s too demanding.

The Candy House is far more fun. You don’t always spend enough time with your favorite characters but Egan is a master of dipping and bopping around from brain to brain. 

One moment you’re in Molly Cooke’s paranoid middle school brain, contemplating her new friend Lulu Kisarian’s kindness:

“I’m nothing short of amazed by her kindness, this is not something you see in my world, kindness and coolness do not go together in girls, being cool means you leave people out, that is the actual definition of the word because if you’re nice to everyone, then why should people near you feel special and why should people NOT near you WANT to be near you, and why should anyone assume that the Times they are having without you are worse than the Times they would be having with you?”

The next chapter you’ve been thrust into the future, and Lulu Kisarian is a citizen spy. This section is written as a second-person spy-craft manual. It’s right out of the TV show The Americans.

“Your lack of espionage training is what makes your record clean and neutral.”

“You are an ordinary person undertaking an extraordinary task.”

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

“If your limbs are sore and your forehead is scraped and raw, don’t dwell on why.”

“Remind yourself that you are receiving no payment in currency or kind, for this or any act you have engaged in.”

“These acts are a form of sacrifice.”

But though The Candy House is a tour-de-force of voices and perspectives, Egan constantly reminds us that this is not sustainable. It’s too much information, too much sharing.

This email exchange between Bennie Salazar and his ex-wife explains it all.

Stephanie to Bennie

What was the one rule I made when you first lured me into bed? AND it was in our marriage vows?

Bennie to Stephanie

I know: no making each other listen to our dreams.

This vow is another reminder that there is such a thing as too much sharing. There is such a thing as knowing too much about someone else’s brain.

My wife was angry with me yesterday morning because since she’s had COVID, she’s remembering her dreams. In this one, we were on vacation with the typical dreamcast of unrelated people– a couple of my work colleagues and a couple of her work colleagues . . . people who would never be in the same room, let alone on vacation together– and we all betrayed her. She was mad about this, especially mad that I betrayed her– because she didn’t rip the pajamas? what the fuck?– but I pointed out to her that it wasn’t me . . . it was some version of me that she produced in her head.

Really, I should have been mad at her because her mental portrayal of me had betrayed her. Her mental model of me should be more loyal!

It’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind stuff.

Egan ends the novel with a nod to classic narrative structure. She centers on Ames, the forgotten middle brother of the Hollander family and a moment when he is definitively the hero of his particular story– a little league game when he is nine and finally hits the ball. She fights the urge to pan across every significant moment in his life, including his aging, his decline and his demise and she gets back to the story at hand.

“But knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing: without a story it’s all just information. So let us return to the story we began: Ames rounding the bases to a roar of jubilation that approaches the meteorological. People charge onto the field as he crossed home plate: a throng of ecstatic parents and teammates and siblings mobbing him in a way that would be frightening if not for their merry faces.”

This reminds me of another John Barth story, “Lost in the Funhouse.” It is a strange meta-story where Barth points out the underpinnings of fiction and highlights storytelling techniques in order to break the fourth wall and destroy the traditional narrative structure. He’s revealing the wizard behind the curtain as he tells the story. Here’s a typical passage:

“Description of physical appearance and mannerisms is one of several standard methods of characterization used by writers of fiction. It is also important to “keep the senses operating”; when a detail from one of the five senses, say “visual” is “crossed” with a detail from another, say auditory, the reader’s imagination is oriented to the scene, perhaps unconsciously.”

The story ends with Ambrose– an awkward teenager who is having something of a sexual awakening– entering a boardwalk funhouse with another teenage girl, Magda. There is some stumbling in the dark, but Ambrose misses his chance to be intimate with her. Soon enough, he is separated from her and any chance for romance is shattered. She wanders away, giggling with Ambrose’s older brother Peter.

Ambrose imagines manipulating a giant intricate funhouse, being the wizard behind the curtain and controlling all the narratives. 

“He envisions a truly astonishing funhouse, incredibly complex yet utterly controlled from a great central switchboard like the console of a pipe organ. Nobody had enough imagination. He could design such a place himself, wiring and all, and he’s only thirteen years old. He would be its operator: panel lights would show what was up in every cranny of its cunning of its multifarious vastness; a switch flick would ease this fellow’s way, complicate that’s, to balance things out.”

Jennifer Egan’s Candy House is just such a funhouse, and Egan operates all the controls masterfully. She designs the place, wiring and all . . . but Egan also realizes her novel is a cloying temptation, a sugary feast that we will leave unsatisfied. She has only scratched the surface. She knows that we will finish the book and have the same desire that Ambrose has in the last paragraph of the Barth story:

“He wishes he had never entered the funhouse. But he has. Then he wishes he were dead. But he’s not. Therefore he will construct funhouses for others and be their secret operator– though he would rather be among the lovers for whom funhouses are designed.”

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