INTERVIEW

Jennifer Egan: ‘Dialogue is impossible if no one will let the other person speak’

As ‘The Candy House’ – the sequel to her hit 2010 novel ‘A Visit from the Goon Squad’ – is published, the author tells Suze Olbrich how the book was written in a ‘half-dream’ state, and talks existential dread, autocracy and fighting book bans

Thursday 28 April 2022 07:20
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Jennifer Egan understands the escapism a good novel can offer. But equally she values fiction as a place to explore our darkest hours. “There’s so much dread and worry in our make-up,” explains the literary star over video call from her home in New York. “This sense we’re going to be smote from above is part of the human experience. I tend to think that, if we can figure out how to make the f***ing planet stop heating, we’ll be OK!” A pause. “At the same time, maybe our dread comes from the deep knowledge that we won’t stop until we’ve destroyed ourselves. So much for optimism, right!?”

Egan’s pitch-black humour permeates her fiction, and peppers conversation. Elegantly attired, she’s lively and erudite. A gracious listener, too. She cares vehemently about the climate crisis, social justice, the future of democracy, and those suffering under the turbulent whims of capitalism. Once talk turns to her novel-writing process, she’s an open book.

The seminal A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010), a technically audacious adventure playground of a music biz novel, won Egan legions of fans and a Pulitzer. Her next bestseller, 2017’s Manhattan Beach, proved she’s as adept at riveting historical fiction as crafting a masterful and affecting novella-in-tweets, as she did with Black Box, which featured in a 2012 issue of The New Yorker. This month, her sixth novel, Goon Squad sibling, The Candy House, is published.

Billed as an exhilarating depiction of our quest for authenticity, meaning and privacy, The Candy House is jump-started by a ghoulish premise. Bix Bouton, an early Nineties computer whizz whom we re-meet as a paradigm-shifting, social media empire founder, delivers software that enables users to download their consciousness onto a “Cube”. Then it gets creepier. Want free access to the thoughts and memories of every other Cube-owner on Earth? Upload yours to the “Collective Consciousness” – go wild.

Egan firmly believes that technology itself, even if used to predatory ends, is essentially neutral. “A lot of [tech] is utopian [at] conception,” says the 59-year-old. “With many inventions, there’s an immediate desire for gratification, which they fulfil, followed by a series of consequences we don’t foresee. Look at the combustion engine – talk about an invention turning out to be unbelievably problematic.”

The Candy House’s dynamic narrative unfurls via the interlaced experiences of a revolving crew of characters, each wrestling with their own demons and desires in an increasingly narcissistic society. Given Egan’s knack for the prophetic – Goon Squad, for example, predicted that toddlers would someday become influencers – and our continued failure to curb the surveillance economy, you could be forgiven for hesitating to dive in. Big mistake. For despite its disquieting central plot, the novel is both poignant and entertaining. As was Egan’s intention. “For all of my apparently highfalutin ideas, [crafting a novel comes down to]: Where are you excited? Where are you bored? Where is it alive?” she says. “And what makes it alive is readers caring about what the people in it do. If we don’t have that, all of this other stuff is worth nothing.”

Egan is lauded for versatility beyond her fiction writing. Take her award-winning features for The New York Times, through which she’s sensitively covered plights such as endemic homelessness, self-harm and body dysmorphia in teenagers, and the misdiagnosis of children’s mental disorders. She’s also been quoted as ever seeking the biggest next challenge. So, why revisit a previous hit’s characters? “The nature of Goon Squad is so open-ended,” she says. “It was like, ‘I can do anything with these people – there’s no direction I can’t go in.’ I’m fascinated by how people’s lives unfold.”

Drafting by hand helps Egan harness her intuition while sculpting fictional lives. Liminal spaces aid flow, too. “There was one book, where I was in the shower a lot,” she says. “With the water pouring down, I could let my mind go free. With The Candy House, it’s been when I first wake up, that half-dream state. I’ll lie there and think, ‘OK, I’m going to work.’ And I just let the ideas float to the surface.” Once writing, a “weird kind of self-erasure” descends, “where my inclinations and weaknesses vanish. I’m not there! It’s not about me! And that sentence encapsulates the joy and transcendence, for me, of writing fiction. It’s such a thrill.”

Debate has already begun online as to whether The Candy House is dystopian or utopian. “If it’s not worth debating – it’s not worth doing,” she states. “I find [the notion of it being] dystopian hilarious, because if this is dystopian, baby, take a look at my other work!” Every last piece of this “other work” – her investigative reporting – has enriched her comprehension of human experience in all its majesty and desperation. And Egan’s novels are populated by painstakingly wrought characters, not least when it comes to those wracked by dependencies. “Research has helped immeasurably,” she reveals. “It’s not [solely] about facts, more about texture – getting deep enough to feel the world I’m trying to write about.”

If it’s not worth debating – it’s not worth doing

Jennifer Egan

As well as the US’s opioid struggle, another societal issue disturbing her is the denigration of press freedom. As president of PEN America from 2018 to 2020, Egan oversaw a legal challenge against the Trump administration and their brazenly illegal “attempts to muzzle any media” who portrayed their leader unfavourably. The organisation has been defending free speech internationally for a century, yet it was unsettling to take action on home turf. “We’ve always focused on autocracies and their abuses,” she says. “It’s a little eerie and insidious to find some of these practices infiltrating American life. But it’s no surprise, we elected an autocrat in 2016.”

Add to that the disturbing avalanche of book-banning under way in the US. In the past nine months’ alone, 1,145 books, many featuring non-white, non-heteronormative experiences, have been removed from school libraries and classrooms. Egan is adamant this moment demands we “insist upon the value of speech and argument. There’s a readiness to immediately react by silencing the other party… dialogue is impossible if no one will let the other person speak.” The answer, Egan says, is “fighting it in every possible way. Calling it out. Social media campaigns. Making careful arguments for why this is not helpful. These are problems you have to hit from every side.”

Fundamentally, it’s fiction that prevents Egan’s descent into an angst-riven pit. “It is such a tonic, and a reminder that this moment is not especially unique. There’s been a lot of change and technological revolution, and human beings have fumbled through with our big sparkling brains,” she says. “I’m really a believer in the power of literature to serve as a distilling mechanism of the dream life of the culture that makes it. Nothing can compare in terms of the value it leaves us with.”

‘The Candy House’, published by Scribner, is out now

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