Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad is rightly considered one of the key novels of the post-millennium period. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it touched the zeitgeist of the time, particularly in terms of discussion about how the internet, and digital technology in general, was changing our relationship to the culture that shaped us, with a particular focus on the music industry.
Egan is still concerned with that here and the candy house of the title is a Hansel and Gretel-esque reference to the price that must be paid for the shift from physical cultural content to a more easily accessible (and stealable) digital form. But times have moved on and Egan’s focus has moved on from digital downloads to the continually encroaching effect of social media upon our lives.
Not that this should in any way be considered a dry thesis on technology and social change. And, truth be told, Egan is at her weakest when trying to play the futurologist. Goon Squad’s content delivery tech for pre-verbal babies was no more convincing than Candy House’s admittedly chilling social media tech in which you can upload your actual consciousness. But then, Egan’s intention is not so much prophecy as satire, so this is perhaps a slightly churlish objection.
As with Goon Squad before it, Candy House succeeds is in both its humour and in its treatment of character. Many of these characters will be familiar, having appeared in Goon Squad and most, if not all, are welcome. In a recent interview, Egan expressed a fear that she might end up writing fanfic for her own creations and there are times when that fear might seem not unjustified. But that is down to her choices as much as anything. We spend rather a lot of time with music producer Lou Klein, a character I was rather over by the end of Goon Squad. And while I was glad to spend more time with Lulu and Jules Jones, part of me wished that more focus had been put on characters who were either new or who had had very little attention focused on them in the first book (techpreneur Bix Bouton springing immediately to mind).
And this is more than a (fanboi) quibble about not receiving more content about my favourite characters; there’s a structural concern as well. The book follows the same format as its predecessor – a series of inter-connected short stories – but with an underlying structure that there was a cohesive whole that served the themes of the book. The sense of that feels weaker here, with some of the stories being there less to serve the unity of the novel and more as mere vignettes in themselves.
But while it may not have the strength and impact of its predecessor, this is still a terrific book that is at turns funny, moving and sometimes even terrifying (especially if you’re a social mediaphobe). The characters are as engaging as ever and its underlying sense of the current state of the world feels largely spot on.