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Literature: Hits and Mythos

by Paul Wilner

Jennifer Egan’s latest is a smart, funny take on technology.

Photo courtesy of Pieter M. Van Hattem.

“Nothing is free!” Jennifer Egan warns in The Candy House, the long-awaited sequel to her Pulitzer Prize–winning 2011 novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad. “Only children expect otherwise, even as myths and fairy tales warn us: Rumpelstiltskin, King Midas, Hansel and Gretel. Never trust a candy house!”

Indeed. The high-flying, innovative Goon Squad, a series of interconnected stories, detailed the intersecting lives of record company executive Bennie Salazar; his assistant, Sasha; and a complicated group of characters. The Candy House takes on the adventures of Bix Bouton, an African American techie who played a minor role in the earlier book. This time out, he heads Mandala, a tech empire with a planetary reach into people’s private lives that would put Google, Amazon or Meta to shame. It’s a cautionary tale, but an often playful one.

“I’m not interested in judging things,” Egan says by phone from her Brooklyn home. “If I want to report facts and give an opinion, I would do that in a nonfiction realm. Fiction is more about asking questions than answering them. When I get a whiff of didacticism, I lose interest.”

The author has come a long way from her Bay Area youth, though she remains fond of the City. “There’s something about a place that you’ve known since childhood that always feels like it’s connected to the past,” she says. “I prefer returning as a visitor. I feel like I’ll always have access to that world imaginatively, because I remember it so well, but I feel more alive in New York. … I think it has something to do with moving away from the geography of my past.” When she was 7, Egan moved from Chicago to San Francisco, where her mother, Kay Kimpton Walker, ran an art gallery in town and her stepfather, Sandy Walker, is a noted architect.

“Fiction is more about asking questions than answering them.” — Jennifer Egan

Egan says, “I went to Katherine [Delmar] Burke School when I was a younger kid, then Lowell High,” where she warmly remembers legendary English teacher Flossie Lewis. She initially thought she’d be an archaeologist until she took a year off to go on a dig, only to quickly discover it wasn’t for her.

Growing up in the heady aftermath of the ’60s, she worked at a Haight Street cafe during her senior year of high school, much like the protagonist of her debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which dealt with a teenage girl’s search for the cause of her hippie sister’s mysterious death.

Although she followed up Goon Squad in 2017 with the historical novel Manhattan Beach, she couldn’t quit the earlier book.

The Candy House
Jennifer Egan’s new novel is a sequel to A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award, both for fiction.

“Bix made a brief appearance [in Goon Squad]. He was a guy in the early ’90s, who was on his computer, talking about this amazing thing that was going to happen,” she says. “Everyone knew someone like that. I thought, ‘Oh, I bet he’s going on to be a tech icon.’”

Egan, though far from a tech geek — she still writes the first draft of her novels in longhand — has some personal knowledge of that world. She dated Apple cofounder Steve Jobs when she was a University of Pennsylvania undergraduate, although she quickly points out that, unlike Bix, he’d made his mark and was already famous by the time they met.

But she’s less interested in the latest apps than how to incorporate their impact on storytelling. Goon Squad famously included a chapter told entirely in PowerPoint. This time out, she includes a series of hilarious emails between a publicist and her assistant, who’s trying to rope her boss into a far-fetched movie deal involving a dictator trying to rebuild his reputation by staging a photo op with a B-list movie actress.

“It makes sense to lean into the almost inexhaustible possibilities of the form — that’s our best shot at keeping it relevant,” she says. “It’s also just fun. The minute I encounter any genre, I’m thinking, ‘How can I use it?’ And I’ve got more ideas up my sleeve.”

Any plans to return to fiction about her home turf? “I’m actually dabbling in a detective story set in San Francisco in the ’50s,” Egan responds. “So far, it’s not clear if it will have legs, but it’s fun to think of [the City] when it was smaller, before the tech boom.”

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