Upon reading the words “a novel” on the cover of Jennifer Egan’s latest book “The Candy House,” one wonders whether this is true. When “novel” seems nearly synonymous with “story,” can this semi-plotless book be considered a story? When does a story stop being a story?
The book’s opening pages take us to an alternate 2010 as seen through the eyes of Bix Bouton, who invented a technology that allows people to store their memories and upload them to a “collective consciousness.” Once fleeting and forgettable, experiences can now be permanent. Reviewing another person’s memories allows access to pertinent information in court cases or satisfies personal desires to see an interaction from another perspective. Life is shared and stored.
After being with Bouton for several pages, during which he is followed home by a young woman named Rebecca, we leave his perspective for that of Rebecca’s son, now a grown man. The book never repeats a perspective; instead, it is broken into sections between tangentially-related characters with no real unifying plotline, spanning decades into the past and future. The connections are not always clear when we switch. We spend time with a young girl for many pages before realizing her mother is the author of a book that inspired Bouton in his invention. The transition from one perspective to the next is less a continuation and merging of a single thread than a brief touch between disparate stories — each complete, if not fully detailed in the book, without the other. What unites these stories is this idea of a “collective consciousness,” which the book itself creates.
In literary fiction especially, a straightforward plot — if there is any plot at all — is not a requirement. Many books in this genre choose to focus more closely on characters’ psyches and relationships. Joy Williams’s “The Quick and the Dead” comes to mind, lollygagging in its desert setting, showing us the depths of various characters without much actually happening. Sally Rooney’s “Normal People,” too, concerns itself with a relationship more than an exterior plot. But “The Candy House” doesn’t fit into the “character study” category, jumping as it does between such a large cast of characters. If anything, the book studies an entire society — a set of characters which, had Egan wished to continue writing, almost certainly could have included everyone in this fictional world who had and would ever exist.
A comparable work might be Richard Linklater’s 1990 film “Slacker,” in which we follow characters until they pass by or interact with someone else, at which point the camera holds on to this new subject and lets the original character walk out of the frame, never to be seen again. But where the switch between characters in “Slacker” is due to chance physical proximity, in “The Candy House,” the switch from one perspective to the next feels more pointed. The relationship between adjacent characters, even if small, is of utmost importance. They need never have met each other, but they have in some way influenced each other’s lives.
Despite the success of some works that reject linear storytelling in favor of mulling over a question, making a point or being experimental for their own sake, readers tend to like a story. When we get 100 pages into a book and realize we still aren’t sure what the point is or where it’s going, we tend to become uneasy. How, then, does “The Candy House” get away with having so many different characters and barely any plot? A part of the answer is Egan’s prose, which is endlessly descriptive and captivating. “You will be lodged too far inside the action to wriggle free,” says one character midway through the book. She is describing her dissociation technique as a spy, but the feeling is similar to what the reader feels when inside each vignette.
The characters tend to feel complete and quickly identifiable as well, and they are impressively different from each other. They think differently. An analyst, Lincoln, relates everything to probability and numbers, even when detailing a love story. Lulu, the aforementioned spy who has a weevil implanted in her brain to record her thoughts, narrates in the second person, as if instructing a future woman in her situation. Their eccentricities and senses of humor differ, as do their opinions of Bouton’s invention. Despite knowing each character for only a short time, we care about them, and by the end of each story, they feel human — fully-formed lives that stay with us as we meet the next character.
However, what truly coheres the novel into something that builds and evolves — basically, what makes it a story — is that, despite the development of each character only going so far as their individual sections, a singular idea is solidifying inside of the web of people, strengthening continually throughout the book and waiting to become clear to us. The collective consciousness, we realize, is not just an invention within the story but is the nature of the book itself. As we see different people interact with the collective and revisit their and others’ memories, we feel it there, at the heart of the book, and each character adds something to it.
Near the end of the book, Bouton’s son, Gregory, now an adult, lies in a snowdrift and stares up at the snow flying down around him. In a moment of epiphany, he sees the snowflakes as “a galaxy of human lives hurtling toward his curiosity. From a distance they faded into uniformity, but they were moving, each propelled by a singular force that was inexhaustible. The collective.” This is much the same feeling the reader has upon finishing the book — those lives, rather than snowflakes, are the characters in whose stories they have been briefly submerged.
Being able to see the connectedness of humanity without needing to actually view everyone’s memories or store one’s own — basically, without technology — is what gives this moment so much power for Gregory. The manufactured “collective” exists as a way of making the reader see that such a thing already exists, and it doesn’t need to be manufactured — it is enough for our connections and memories to exist in other people’s minds without needing every detail to be preserved.
Midway through the book, Roxy, a woman in her mid-50s in treatment for opioid abuse, uploads her memories to the collective and immediately feels their value vanish. She recalls a single memory as she uploads them, which she had been hoping to see again, but having remembered it herself, she no longer feels the need to relive her past more vividly. Instead, it is the present, currently unfolding without being stored anywhere — alive, unpredictable and temporary — that matters. This conflict is at the heart of the book: the pull between wanting control over every part of ourselves and the desire to live fully in the present. We can’t possess all of time at once, but if we could, the memories that comprise it might no longer matter. Returning to the “what makes a story” question, memory’s ephemerality is what allows us to construct our own ideas of ourselves — the stories of our lives that would fall apart should everything be remembered equally. This comes up again at the end, when Egan writes that “knowing everything is too much like knowing nothing; without a story, it’s all just information.” She is aware that writing a story from the perspectives of every person possible, justified only by their often-minute connections, while perhaps effective in making a point, would render the story meaningless. It would be difficult to call that a story at all.
We as readers see enough perspectives to get the point — the feeling of vastness and interconnectedness — that when Gregory himself feels this, the feeling is perhaps even more powerful to the reader than to him. But it is Egan’s restraint in keeping the book a story, at least to a degree, that balances the novel and allows it to retain its impact.
There is a sense of completion that the characters experience at the end, even though we see the ending from the perspective of only one of them. But the other half of the ending, the story and the “character development,” should we call it that, belongs to the reader themself. As the characters go through smaller arcs, the true stakes lie in the reader figuring out the purpose of this unusual narrative. At the end of the book, it is the reader who possesses all of the stories. Holding this collection of fictitious people in their minds makes them wonder whether there is some distant connection between themselves and one of the characters within these pages. It seems that, on some level, this collective consciousness is something the reader has become involved in as well. A connection feels almost unavoidable.
Daily Arts Writer Erin Evans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.