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Review

Mandala and surrender: technologies of memory in Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House

Jennifer Egan’s new novel, The Candy House, asks powerful questions about the nature of memory, experience, belonging and art. A ‘sibling novel’ to her 2011 A Visit From The Goon Squad, which elegises the music industry in the last days before digitisation, The Candy House is also an elegy. This time, of the future: an era where the reduction of affinities, relationships and memories poses a dilemma to people who want to truly feel free. The novel presents the possibility of digitising one’s memory so it can be searched, shared, and rendered into a collective consciousness, and asks the question—how much of our experience should we render into tech hegemonies in the name of connection? And once we accept the promise of this revolution, how aware are that we are like Hansel and Gretel, making ourselves a meal for a candy house?

The novel begins with Bix Bouton, a dreadlocked tech utopian who in Goon Squad was captivated by the possibilities of the internet for enhancing human connection. As Candy House opens, he is walking through Columbia late at night, wistfully mourning his earlier optimism and waiting for his next big idea. Within academia, we discover, eluding tech hegemonies is still fashionable: the scholars write notes by hand, consult their watches for time, and look up references in books. Bix Bouton recalls the formative influence of the Encyclopedia Britannica, later to be boxed up and given away on the curb outside his parents’ house. A romanticisation of the search for knowledge from a bygone era, this kind of set piece haunts The Candy House like the dream of a common language. What if there were a form of social networking that allowed us access not to how we choose to present the world, but how the world was at the time we experienced it?

This epiphany morphs into a preoccupation with authenticity, the chimera that presented itself through indie music in Goon Squad, before coalescing in an app of Bouxton’s design called Own Your Own Unconscious—a sort of collective memory drive which centralises past experiences into a database allows an individual to download their own memories, to curate and review them. This high-concept metaphor is productive in a work of literary fiction precisely because the selective evocation of memory is so integral to what writers present as fiction. Just as writing is low philosophy, memory is, in a way, low identity: we create ourselves from the way we anthologise, edit, and erase the past.

A novel like The Candy House raises particularly interesting dilemmas for the way we study memory. Marianne Hirsch, a historian of postmemory, points out that memory is often transmitted through affinities: my trauma may be the trauma of my grandmother in her Eastern European shtetl, it is not necessarily the trauma of the man across the road who shampoos her poodle. Because of this, Hirsch argues, we often feel we’ve experienced events that come down to us in the collective unconsciousness, whether from coverage of 9/11 or the stories told by older relatives. ‘Postmemory’ describes the feeling of having lived through the experiences of our loved ones. If we could transmit these memories through machine hardware, instead of through relationships, it would fundamentally alter how we construct identity, history, and our futures.

Egan has a novelist’s scale in exploring these issues, which is to say a human scale. Her novel is not only a social story, of its characters and their lives, but also a social network of its own. In this collection of interlinked short stories, each story is related to the next by the relation of a character in the story you are reading to their relationship to a character in the one before.

Often the relationship is elusive or indirect. This is illustrated for instance by the relationship between Bouton and a man who reacts violently to the artifice of television, a throwback to cultural outrages of a bygone era. But the fact that these connections exist in The Candy House draw attention to the way in which we create identity in networks from whatever is at hand. In the novel, this is mediated by the ‘affinity charm’—a device that can take an event on a human scale like a relationship between two people and express it as an algorithm. In ‘The Affinity Charm’, a character is revealed to have cultural characteristics that lead her to be perceived as a ‘Universal Ally,’ yet is unable to reconcile her recognition with her intuition of who she is talking to. In ‘Rhyme Scheme’, a man obsessively uses algorithms to work out how he will get a date with the woman who will become his wife—an illustration of the way technology imposes a patina of the game theory of human relations onto our lives. In ‘i, Protagonist’ a writer reduces all possible stories down to equations while pondering what Own Your Own Unconscious will mean for the future of fiction. In these stories, the creator of the Affinity Charm remains a kind of presiding spirit over a textual artefact that is also an anthropological artefact: a relic of the way fictional myths describe the real.

Ever a novelist in the tradition of deconstruction, Egan takes the implications of a collective memory database and maps them into two very clear dialectics: collaboration versus exile and freedom versus surveillance. These dialectics clearly explain how, when the real is unmediated by the relationships that are important to us, it takes on a dimension that is not just impersonal but also in opposition to the way an anthropologist might observe how cultures develop.

The philosopher of memory Paul Ricouer describes how we can interpret meaningful events as texts and ‘read’ memories in one of two ways, either as a sequence of facts, which he calls an explanation, or as a performative process of interpretation. But, the novel asks, when memory is externalised into a piece of hardware, what happens to the process of interpretation we use to sustain it, and the cultural practices, artworks and relationships that enable it to flourish?

According to the economic historian and organisational psychologist Shoshana Zuboff, we have already begun this process of surrender. Zuboff details, beautifully and with creative detail, the way search engines ‘render’ our most intimate inquiries into ‘behavioural surplus’ to be converted into ads, therefore profit. It is appropriate then, that the fictional social networking company developed by Bouton is called Mandala—literally a meditation object, used here as a lure for a process of soul-searching that ends in profit for a privileged few.

Fiction is the process of rendering human experience into art and Egan is as aware of this in Goon Squad, where her characters try to turn the authentic into music, as she is in Candy House when she writes of a screaming man whose screaming allows him to access his own authenticity in a world where authenticity is for sale. Just as feelings of isolation are one part of the ineffable human experience, the artworks of the formerly kleptomaniacal Sasha—the beloved assistant to a fading rock legend in A Visit From The Goon Squad—are another of the beautiful surpluses of experience, rendered, with care, into art. Perhaps art, like some experiences, are understood best from the height of a hot air balloon. But when that distance becomes the distance between a human process and a machine running an equation, do we lose something important in trading an interpretation of experience for an explanation, or worse, a rendition?

The Candy House is pleasingly agnostic on precisely this question, in a very imaginative and organic way. Part of the way in which the novel is organised like a social network is the way its stories have ‘personalities’ rather than plots, and thematise rather than narrating. This makes for a range of interesting surprises, but also means we lose the clarity of distinctions between protagonist and antagonist, victim and perpetrator.

This matches a shift in how social psychology has prompted us to understand identity and history. The postcolonial historian Michael Rothberg discusses in The Implicated Subject how a century defined by the victimhood of particular groups needs new concepts for groups of victims relating to each other. Aren’t technological relationships also relationships of possession and dispossession, rendering, surrendering, and not always knowing as we lose it what is being lost?

Sometimes what’s lost is the intimacy with the unmediated self. At one stage, Lulu sends information by uploading it in a data port between her toes. At another stage the technological experience of backing up her consciousness to the collective memory is narrated, as she decides whether or not to abort her mission through suicide. The twin story, ‘See Below’ unpacks these dilemmas in the chatty, casual language of person to person text message, a comedy of errors complete with misdirection and surprise guests. It is here that Egan’s implicated subjects negotiate their surrender into personhood, tears are rendered into laughter and a new frontier of justice is manifested into its destiny as the cite of compromises to come.

Jennifer Egan’s The Candy House is a smart book, and an entertaining book, but it is also a prescient book, sympathetic in its preservation of the cultural practice of play, and reassuring in its human scale. Ultimately, these stories are not applications, equations, or theories. They are dramedies, sometimes parables. They evoke what it is to live now, at a time when new dilemmas concerning the line between experience and capital are just dawning, and when the definition of what it is to be dispossessed is acquiring a new, sometimes metaphysical, dimension.

Egan’s choice of name for her social media company, Mandala, is an apposite one. Carl Jung introduced the mandala into modern psychoanalysis to prompt a process of reflection, a moment of reinvention at an inflection point of great significance. Arguably, we are at such an inflection point now. Faced with the growing alienation of technology, when the choices are only to render or surrender, how do we move with ownership, empowerment, integrity and rights, in a sphere that invents itself faster than laws can contain it, and by dispossessing from the already dispossessed? This is a question that requires an imaginative answer, and there is no better place to start than that unique social network, the novel.

 

Image: IBM research, phase change memory cell

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Vanessa Francesca is a writer who has worked in independent theatre.

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