Consciousness raising in Jennifer Egan’s ‘The Candy House’

Judith Zeng
Shonagh Rae for The Boston Globe

Jennifer Egan’s new reserve, “The Sweet Dwelling,” which she’s termed a “sibling novel” to her Pulitzer Prize-successful “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” is a dizzying and stunning operate that must close up on numerous Most effective of the Yr lists. Even a lot more structurally experimental than its predecessor, the novel unfolds from a slew of perspectives and in a vast array of kinds as it ruminates on the attract and perils of engineering and social media, bids for intimacy and threats to privateness, the fragility of identity, and the craving for authenticity in a entire world of pretenders and simulacra.

“The Candy House” begins in 2010 from the viewpoint of Bix Bouton, who was an NYU classmate of “Goon Squad” character Sasha. At the time “the only Black Ph.D. student in NYU’s engineering lab,” Bix has turn into an immensely wealthy tech expert who’s developed a social media enterprise named Mandala. Disconnected from his wife and young children, fearful that he could under no circumstances have another excellent plan, Bix is sensation nostalgic for the early ‘90s when the Online was new and he was in the “thrall of his Eyesight, which burned with hypnotic clarity.” Then, he “could come to feel the vibrations of an invisible web of connection forcing its way as a result of the common world like cracks in a windshield.”

Now disillusioned and disaffected, Bix has turn into so well known that he has to go incognito — posing as a graduate student — in order to show up at a Columbia University discussion team about a lecture by anthropologist Miranda Kline, whose book, “Patterns of Affinity,” had been critical to him as he created Mandala. There he hears persons lament that “Kline is far better acknowledged for having experienced her get the job done co-opted by social media providers than for the perform by itself,” fulfills a sociology graduate scholar named Rebecca Amari, and starts to ponder a new invention.

The book’s following area is narrated by Amari, who is finding out Alfred Hollander, the son of the discussion group’s host, and his “intolerance of fakery” as part of her exploration for her dissertation, “Authenticity as problematized by electronic encounter.” Alfred’s brother, Miles, is a person of the narrators of the third segment, alongside with his cousin, Drew, who is married to Sasha, a conceptual artist. And so on and so on. Just about every segment is connected to the previous a single via a character’s relative or good friend.

Galvanized by references to “externalizing” memory in the discussion group, haunted by the tragic loss of life of a pal, Bix develops the sci-fi-sounding app “Own Your Unconscious,” which allows persons to “externalize” their “consciousness to a Mandala cube.” Its “ancillary aspect,” Collective Consciousness, includes “uploading all or aspect of your externalized memory to an on the internet ‘collective,’ which offers you “proportionate accessibility to the nameless thoughts and memories of anyone, living or lifeless, who had completed the exact.”

Several of the novel’s people flock to this technological marvel, in lookup of misplaced time, point of view on their very own lives, being familiar with of or forgiveness for their elusive, mysterious, flawed parents. But other people — “eluding separatists bent upon hoarding their recollections and keeping their secrets” — fiercely resist technology’s encroachments, look for “genuine human responses,” and pursue authenticity in extreme, dangerous, or socially unacceptable ways. Some of these resistors use “proxies” to stand in for them as they vanish, escape, or fall out. Some arrange a countermovement termed Mondrian. Bix’s own son, Gregory, is a single of the most passionate “eluders,” in part because he thinks that “Own Your Unconscious posed an existential danger to fiction.”

Dependancy and mental health issues, infidelity and divorce, position playing games and job participating in in “real existence,” what can be quantified and what exceeds categorization — these matters and themes resonate through all the sections but are refracted as a result of different prisms. There are third-person sections, initially-individual narratives, and just one section instructed totally in information sort (a stylistic option reminiscent of the Power Issue chapter from “Goon Squad”). There is present tense narration and earlier tense narration, kid narrators and older individuals hunting back again on their youthful adventures or follies. Some sections are established in the pre-World wide web occasions, other people in the 2030s we bounce back and forth in time all over.

If this appears puzzling, it is “The Candy House” necessitates exquisite attentiveness and comprehensive energy from its visitors. But the function and the financial investment shell out off richly, as every single pressure and thread and character reverberates in a variety of amplifying echo-wave with all the others, and the overarching tapestry emerges as ever extra intricate and brilliantly conceived. Enacting the book’s dominant metaphor, Egan is presenting a model of Collective Consciousness: the mixing and extension of selfhood across shared expertise and identity. One particular of the book’s most fascinating implications, considerably less patent but pervasive, is how this alternative product of notion does and doesn’t undermine conventional notions of literary consciousness. Is Egan, in de-structuring her novel in this kaleidoscopic, hyper-contemporary mode, rendering, as Gregory may lament, her personal fiction untenable? What could these types of a query even mean when the fiction referred to as “The Sweet Property is so plainly” — and so perfectly — built?

The novel’s title is a reference to the witch’s house that Hansel and Gretel experience as they wander in the woods. As we abide by the pebbles and crumbs Egan so cannily lays out, visitors may possibly come to feel at occasions as disoriented or wonderstruck as little ones producing their way by a dark forest, at others electrifyingly distinct-sighted, ecstatically sure of the novel’s wisdom, capacious philosophical vary, truth of the matter and magnificence. Billed with “a potency of thoughts simmering,” “The Sweet House” is a marvel of a novel that testifies to the surpassing ability of fiction to “roam with complete flexibility by means of the human collective.”

The Sweet Dwelling

By Jennifer Egan

Scribner, 352 pages, $28

Priscilla Gilman is a previous professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College or university and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Little one: A Memoir of Unpredicted Pleasure.”

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